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First lesson at Ocean College: learning about the Drama Triangle with Joseph Dillard

Joseph Dillard, 03.11.2017 (in English)

Johan’s first voyage, years ago as a teacher, was not very well organized. As a result there was a great deal of unnecessary and avoidable misunderstanding and conflict on the voyage that detracted from its quality and diminished its value.

Consequently, Johan included a coaching blog in the first weeks of our voyage to teach communication and conflict resolution skills. Teaching life skills is intended not only to increase the quality of the voyage, but provide tools students can put to good use in the years to come.

These were our goals in establishing the program and deciding what to teach. We began by sharing answers that young adults gave to the question, “What do I wish I had known when I was 16?” The object was to start students thinking about the big picture: “What do I want to get out of this trip, what do I need to learn, that will make my life smoother in years to come?”

Next, we introduced a concept from Transactional Analysis, the Drama Triangle, as a way to recognize, talk about, and stop unnecessary confusion and stress. The Drama Triangle consists of three roles, Persecutor, Victim, and Rescuer. Persecutors never see themselves as persecuting. They are punishing you “for your own good!” Victims feel justified in their powerlessness and helplessness. Rescuers aren’t helpers. The difference is that rescuers don’t ask, but merely assume that help is needed, and rescue to validate their own image of themselves as a wonderful, kind person. The problem with these three roles is that if a student plays one role, they eventually find themselves playing them all: if you feel a victim persecuted by your school work or the demands of life on board, you may attempt to rescue yourself by avoidance, blaming others, or not listening.

But such strategies only make things worse and so are actually persecutors. Another example from waking life is the alcoholic who rescues themselves from depression by drinking. They become their own persecutors when they find themselves more depressed.

The Drama Triangle is even more important because teenagers persecute themselves with thoughts like, “I’m a failure.” “I’m ugly.” “I’m stupid because I missed that answer.” “I’m not popular.” “I’m lazy.” They believe that if they persecute themselves hard enough they will work harder. It’s like beating a horse to make it go faster! When students persecute themselves they become victims of their own throughts: self-critical with lower selfconfidence. Teenagers may attempt to escape through different forms of self-rescuing: drugs, sex, internet, gaming, and other addictive avoidance strategies that only increase their selfcriticism. And so the vicious cycle of the Drama Triangle is merely intensified.

Students were given examples of the Drama Triangle and came up with examples of their own. They were asked to be on the lookout for examples on the ship, among their fellows, staff and crew, as well as in their own throughts.

Next, students were taught important communication skills that make life much easier for anyone. These include talking in terms of oneself, by using “I,” instead of “you,” to take responsibility and reduce defensiveness on the part of the other person; asking questions to show interest, gain information, and keep from prematurely making assumptions about the other person is saying; paraphrasing what the other person has said to demonstrate both respect and listening, and to avoid reactive, emotional responses when people say things that cause them to feel attacked. Students also learned to make their requests clear and succinct and to simply repeat the request if it is ignored or the subject is changed in the conversation. Students were also taught common ways people sabotage or undercut communication and what to do about them. These include interrupting, changing the subject, talking in paragraphs, or not letting the other person have a chance to talk, taking “time outs” to think and cool down when arguments get heated, taking things personally and getting defensive, and beginning a conversation by showing respect for the other person’s point of view. Obviously, these are techniques which families can use to reduce or avoid conflict as well, and our hope is that your student will return home with more skills in respectful communication than he or she had before the voyage.

Students were asked what it means to be a leader and they gave a wide variety of excellent answers: confidence, caring for the group, listening, being authoritative yet persuasive. They were also asked what characteristics they thought they needed to develop to become leaders. Everyone was taught “signal words” to not use because they create drama and conflict. These include “always,” “never,” “should,” “ought,” “blame,” “fault,” “can’t,” and “must.” They were given examples of each and encouraged to catch each other when they heard each other use these words.

In the next segment, students were taught how what they think, that is, the things that they tell themselves, determine whether they feel stressed, confused, angry, scared, or sad. They learned to identify a large number of types of thoughts and “signal words” that not only create unhelpful feelings but keep them stuck in the Drama Triangle. These include thinking only in terms of black and white, right or wrong, good or bad; jumping to conclusions about what the other person is saying; ignoring information that conflicts with their point of view; catastrophizing; personalizing; insisting that life be fair; blaming; emotional reasoning (“Because I FEEL hurt, YOU hurt my feelings.”); name calling; and needing to be right or to win (meaning the other person loses). Students also learned ways to resolve disagreements, including learning the difference between aggressive, passive and assertive communication, and learning steps for assertive problem-solving on board. Our goal is for students to first attempt to resolve disagreements among themselves; if that does not work, we encourage them to take the disagreement to a peer mediator or elected peer representative for mediation. Of course, the teaching staff is always available to provide both support and structure to provide a positive, growth experience for everyone.

Misunderstandings among students are available. We are teaching students to meet them with confidence, knowing that they have learned a set of tools with which they can demonstrate respect, listening, cooperation, and compromise.

This is a terrific group of young people and I expect great things from them as they pursue rich and meaningful lives.

Thank you, Joseph, for showing and teaching us your way of respecting each other and living peaceful together.

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