8 Way to Help Your Patients Understand & Avoid Drama

Excerpt taken from "Tired of the Drama" eBook by Alan Godwin

Unreasonable people relate by enticing others into the dramas they stage. That’s
the only way they know how to make relationships “work”. The trouble is, drama
participation makes us sick, drives us crazy, and wears us out. To avoid dramas, we
must be sure to do several things:

Understand Your Vulnerabilities


Naive Relational Expectations

Normally functioning people like to think that most people function normally— and many do. But unreasonable people don’t. Lacking the necessary reasoning abilities to problem-solve, they relate by enticing others into their obligatory drama roles. One form of enticement is to exploit the target’s naive relational expectations. 

Some of these stem from culturally embedded maxims that work just fine with normal people but not with unreasonable people. When we fail make the distinction, we become vulnerable to the exploitation.

“Give people the benefit of the doubt.”

Giving someone the benefit of the doubt is a good thing—as long as that person deserves such benefit. But a manipulator doesn’t deserve it due to his proven track record of exploitation. 

In fact, he deserves the opposite:

Don’t give him the benefit of the doubt unless he’s establishes a new and different track record. Giving it to him when he doesn’t deserve it opens a door through which he’ll step to perform his exploitative activities.

“Don’t think badly of people.” 

We’ve all heard this statement or its positive variation: 

“You should think the best of people.” It’s often the case that unreasonable people have stellar positives alongside glaring negatives and it’s that mix of conflicting traits that makes them so difficult to understand.

Staying aware of people’s negatives is not synonymous with thinking badly of them and failure to keep those negatives in view can increase a person’s vulnerability.

“Treat people like you want to be treated.”

The danger here is a one-size-fit-all application of the biblical Golden Rule concept. But even the Bible warns against manipulators, sometimes referred to as “fools” or “wolves in sheep's clothing." 

• “Try to find the good in everyone.”

Again, unreasonable people aren’t usually devoid of good qualities and if we’re looking for positive aspects, they may not be that hard to find. But we must remember not to allow the positives to cancel out their important-to-stay-aware-of negatives.

Attempting to Reason With the Unreasonable

Unreasonable people can’t be reasoned with because they are un-reason-able. Lacking reasoning abilities, they have neither the ability nor willingness to work through relational problems. Consequently, they resort to manipulation (drama) to make relationships “work”.

But here’s the thing - despite what we know about them, most normal people are prone to engage on the level of reason in hopes that they will—at long last—see the error of their ways and change. But this won’t and can’t work because they lack the very equipment needed for reasoning to succeed. Here are some common reason-based appeals often made to unreasonable people:

• “Let’s sit down together and talk this out.”

This fails because it requires humility: I could be wrong, you could be right, let’s talk.

• “I’ll let him know that I see what he’s up to.”

This fails because it requires awareness: I see where I’m wrong.

• “If I treat him well, he’ll treat me well.”

This fails because it requires responsibility: It bothers me when I’m wrong.

• “I’ll set him straight and tell him I won’t take it anymore.”

This fails because it requires empathy: It bothers me when I hurt you.

• “I’ll confront him and let him know he’s got to get help.”

This fails because it requires reliability: When I’m wrong, I’ll change.

You can see why trying to reason with an unreasonable person is an exercise in


Unreasonable people operate in a cloud of confusion. We can feel confused for
one of several reasons:

• There is often a disturbing discrepancy between the public image the unreasonable person portrays and who he actually is in private. Attributes, which may be positives in public, are the same ones that have such a negative effect privately. For instance, a master who has to be in charge may excel in commanding a military campaign but be a controlling jerk at home. 

Frustratingly, he’s lavished with praise for his accomplishments by people who think he’s wonderful. And those same people may think something’s wrong with us for not agreeing with them. How can someone be such a winner in one realm and simultaneously be such a loser in another? That’s confusing.

• We may feel confused because unreasonable people stage dramas on some occasions and not on others. And when they’re not staging dramas, they can be very pleasant to be around. For instance, a messiah may be happy and normal as long as she is receiving sufficient amounts of gratitude for her caretaking activities. So, who is she? The happy normal person or the shrew who makes us feel guilty for failing to appreciate her?

That Jekyll and Hyde split is confusing.

• He creates a smokescreen by highlighting our flaws and calling us hypocrites for criticizing him. “How dare you judge me when you’ve got your own shortcomings” is the thought. If successful, we’ll think, “Maybe I am being too hard on him. He’s right, after all, I do have problems.”

• He has mastered the art of projection. Unable or unwilling to tolerate personal wrongness, he projects his negatives onto us so that we become the possessor of them. He accuses us of the very things that are true of him. When we look at what’s being projected, believe that the negatives are true of us and have emotions about them, we’ll think, “Is it me or is it him? It must be me.” At that point, the lies have accomplished their confusing purpose.

Understand Your Antagonist

Coaches study game films to understand the opposing team’s strengths and weaknesses. Wise generals study the enemy’s assets and liabilities before sending troops into battle. For conflict with unreasonable person to have a good outcome, we must accurately assess what we’re up against.

But a word of caution is in order. We should form conclusions tentatively and hold conclusions loosely. I knew a lady once who read a book suggesting that all people belong to one of four personality groups. She routinely referred to individuals by category as when she would say, “Oh, well, what do you expect from Joe. He’s a _____. Brenda, on the other hand, is a _____. No wonder they clash.” Her discomfort with complexity led to errors of oversimplification, and her dogmatic pegging and labeling of people caused her to often misunderstand them.

Labels can be helpful but woefully inadequate when it comes to explaining the intricacies of
human behavior. That danger exists here as well.

Remember, people in react mode are at their worst.

Since all of us look and sound unreasonable when reacting, we should avoid rushing to judgment. Just as we an’t legitimately critique a movie after watching one scene, we should avoid quickly categorizing someone as unreasonable unless we’ve observed a pervasive pattern of behavior over time. “Are we observing transitory manipulative behavior or is this a persistent pattern of manipulation?” is the question we should ask ourselves. Once conclusions are formed, we should be willing to alter them should subsequent evidence suggest otherwise. Additional pattern observation in different settings can result in pleasant surprises or disappointments. Sometimes, an unreasonable turns out to be reasonable after all or the other way around. It can go either way.

Avoid Button Pushes

Unreasonable people push our buttons hoping for a reaction. We must expect attacks and learn from our mistakes.

Expect Attacks

The unreasonable person may push our buttons in predictably obvious ways or ambush us in unpredictably subtle ways, such as:

• Exploitation of Weaknesses. Sniffing them out and attacking us there.

• Projections. Taking his negatives and projecting them on to us.

• Presumptions. Presuming upon our good graces.

• Role Shifts. If the unreasonable person can’t entice us into playing the required part, he may shift roles in hopes that, when the drama ends, he’ll be back in his preferred role. Here are some different forms of role shifting:

• If the master role is preferred. A master needs us to submit. If we don’t, he may shift into the messiah role, one rescuing a person in need. He gives us something, but the gift has “strings attached.” At that point, the giver is no longer a helper but a controller, the assistance being accompanied by an obligation to submit.

• If the martyr role is preferred. Martyrs are either saved by messiahs or persecuted by masters, the roles we must play for the martyr role to succeed.

If we don’t, she may become a master and strike at us, hoping that we will strike back. If we do strike back, she can once again assume the role of a martyr who suffers at the hands of others—“I can’t believe you would treat me that way.”

• If the messiah role is preferred. A messiah is a sacrificial giver and needs us to be grateful recipients. If we aren’t, she may slip into the martyr role, saying things like, “After all I’ve done for you, this is the kind of treatment I get. Thanks a lot.” If it works, we’ll allow her to resume the messiah role just to escape the guilt trip discomfort.

Learn From Your Mistakes

Pickpockets can pick our pockets because we’re not expecting our pockets to get picked. Remember, unreasonable people are good at enticements, but reasonable people are not naturally good at resisting enticements and get easily caught off guard.

We will make mistakes and slip-ups are probably inevitable, but it’s important to learn from our mistakes and avoid repeating them. As the saying goes, “Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me.”

Beating ourselves up about it doesn’t help but safeguarding ourselves against further enticements does.
— Alan Godwin

Respond vs. React

Unreasonable people want us to react, they take “snapshots” of our reactions, and then they use those pictures to indict us. We can help clients minimize the likelihood of reacting in two ways:

Plan Your Response

Reactions are impulsive; responses are intentional. To plan responses, we need to know what role is being required of us. If our manipulator is a master, we’ll need to plan ways to avoid subservience. If the person is a messiah, we’ll need to avoid the obligatory role of gratitude. If he is a martyr, we’ll need to find ways to avoid being guilted into rescuing behaviors.

It’s usually best to refuse our roles quietly rather than confrontationally. If we say, “I know what you’re up to and I’m not going to allow you to dominate me,” that statement alone makes us drama participants. Better to refuse quietly, disallowing him the gratification of observing a reaction. If we don’t react, the manipulator will likely think his emotional remote control is broken and try to fix it by pushing the buttons harder. In the short term, he may become a worse version of himself if he thinks his strategy is failing. If we don’t remember this, we’ll find ourselves thinking, “This isn’t helping; it’s hurting.”

Actually, more vigorous button pushing on his part shows that the plan is succeeding.


Display No Reaction

This is what we need to do with unreasonable people who push our buttons, hoping desperately for a reaction that can be used against us. It’s not that we won’t have reactions but that we choose not to display them. We need to restrain externally what we feel internally. This idea has been expressed through phrases like, “Never let ‘em see you sweat” or “The best response is no response” or “Don’t feed into it.” 

Poker players learn to wear “poker faces” for this very reason. The phrase, “Kill em with kindness” applies here because displaying kindness versus agitation disallows the drama enticement. Displaying no reaction keeps us out of the drama. And that’s not being passive; it’s being powerful.

Don’t Push Buttons

Another way to resist the drama is to avoid pushing the unreasonable person’s buttons. If we follow our natural inclinations and react by pushing those buttons, we stay in the drama. The idea of not pushing buttons is expressed through statements like:

• Leave well enough alone

• Let sleeping dogs lie

• Don’t stir the pot

• Don’t poke a hornet’s nest

There are two common thoughts that occur to reasonable people arguing with unreasonable people. One is, “How can he possibly believe that nonsense? If I could just get him to understand the sensibleness of my position, we could resolve this problem.” There, we’re attempting to establish reason, but remember, he’s not interested in reason, only in rightness.

The other common thought is, “I’ll teach him a lesson and make him see the error of his ways.” There, we’re attempting to establish justice. But he won’t see those errors because he admits no wrongness. Expecting either reason or justice “pokes the hornet’s nest” and keeps us caught up in the drama.

Don’t Expect Reasonableness

The common temptation when arguing with an unreasonable person is to make our case more vigorously, hoping that he’ll eventually get it.

What we discover, however, that it no matter what we say or how well we say it, he won’t get it. He’ll not listen to, understand, or validate our position. If we react by arguing harder, we’re right back in the drama.

We lose, simply by becoming engaged in the conversational tug of war.

So, remember this rule of thumb: To solve conflict problems with reasonable people, we should talk more. To solve conflict problems with unreasonable people, we should talk less and act more.

They “win” by keeping us frustratingly embroiled in the verbal battle


Don’t Expect Justice

Attempting to establish justice puts us into the thick of the drama.

It’s very tempting to say, “I’ll teach him a lesson and he won’t do that anymore.”

The problem is that unreasonable people learn no lessons because learning lessons requires the use of muscles they’ve allowed to atrophy. Trying to get them to admit wrongness won’t work and, if we display frustration, we’ve become drama participants.

Trying to establish justice, to force an unreasonable person to acknowledge personal wrongness against his will, has a button pushing effect and provides a way for him to keep us wrapped up in the drama.


Set Your Boundaries

With reasonable people, we solve problems by working together to reach mutually
satisfying solutions. Reasoning with reasonable people works, which makes for good
conflict outcomes.

But that doesn’t work with unreasonable because they don’t have the necessary abilities. And if we attempt it, the frustration we experience puts us right back into the drama. Reasoning doesn’t work but a limited substitute does— setting boundaries. Boundaries accomplish what reasoning can’t. They restrain the problems in such a way that they no longer dominate the landscape of our lives.

For instance, Mr. Jones had an obnoxious neighbor with an obnoxious dog, who regularly dug up his flowers and made unwelcome deposits in his yard. All efforts to persuade the neighbor to leash his dog failed and it became clear to Mr. Jones that he was attempting the impossible—trying to reason with an unreasonable person.

Finally, Mr. Jones put up a fence, which kept the canine terrorist from terrorizing his existence. In this example, no mutually agreeable resolution was reached because the neighbor’s unwillingness to reason made that impossible. But Mr. Jones did find a way to keep the dog out of his yard. The problem was not actually solved but his boundary enabled it to be restrained. He improved the dog situation by putting up a fence. In this case, the solution that couldn’t be achieved through reasoning was achieved through boundaries. Yes, it cost him something but it worked.

With reasonable people, problems are fixed when both sides participate in the reasoning
process. With unreasonable people, problems are restrained, not when both sides participate, but when the reasonable person does a good job of setting boundaries.

• Boundary Goal for Level 1 Unreasonable People: (Growth)

• Boundary Goal for Level 2 Unreasonable People: (Containment)

• Boundary Goal for Level 3 Unreasonable People: (Protection)


Lean on Your Connections

All aspects of dealing with the unreasonable are challenging.

So challenging, in fact, that we won’t succeed without the support of others. They can be so confounding, so determined, and so frustrating that we’ll most likely fail if we try to go it alone. The understanding and reinforcement of other reasonable people is not a luxury but a necessity.

Slaves in the pre-Civil War South understood this all too well. For all practical purposes, their masters operated under this unreasonable set of assumptions: “We’re good, you’re bad, and you exist for us. If you submit to our control, we’ll all get along just fine.” Lack of submission could—and often did—lead to physical harm. Their sufferings under that system of chattel slavery were eased somewhat by singing songs which came to be known as “Spirituals.” Through the lyrics, they could express thoughts and feelings to each other about their trials, their tribulations, and their hopes. Thus, the ability to endure was enhanced through mutual encouragement.

We may not be literally enslaved by unreasonable people, but the need for support is just as essential. Remember, his survival depends upon getting us to believe, “There’s nothing wrong with me but there’s definitely something wrong with you.” 

Without reference points for our sanity that others provide, it’s very easy to get swept up into that distortion and to become discouraged. Handling manipulators is achievable only with the support of reasonable people relationships.

• Encouragement with Level 1 Unreasonable People: (To stay with it)

• Encouragement with Level 2 Unreasonable People: (To stay sane)

• Encouragement with Level 3 Unreasonable People: (To stay safe)

Accept Relational Limitations

A relationship with a manipulator may require coming to terms with certain limitations:


A Relationship with Limited Depth

Our relationships with some unreasonable people may be workable only if the level of relationship is limited. It may be more superficial than we’d prefer, but superficial and civil is better than close and contentious.

If drama enticements are resisted, the relationship changes. In some cases, refusing a role in the drama ends the relationship but more often, it changes the level of closeness. Relating in this way may feel disingenuous to some of us, like we’re pretending to get along when we’re really not. Actually, it’s more honest to be superficial if relating more deeply requires drama

A Relationship with Limited Value

It’s not unusual to have relationships with unreasonable people with whom we experience a dilemma.

On the one hand, we greatly value their gifts, talents, and abilities. On the other hand, they drive us nuts. We treasure their talents but deplore the drama. It’s like having a brilliant physician with a horrible bedside manner. We can’t stand him personally but wouldn’t want anyone else to perform the surgery. And we may have unreasonable people relationships that are valuable to us in some ways but detrimental in others.

When this is the case, we need to re-structure the relationship in order to make use of its limited value. We can’t “make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” as the saying goes, but we may be able to “make a pretty good tote bag” as a friend of mine says. The relationship may not be all that we desire, but it has value to us nonetheless.


A Relationship with Limited Growth

One of the outcomes of handling unreasonable people well is that we grow whether they do or not. We become better versions of ourselves while they remain unchanged or become worse versions. The growth is limited to us.

When a reasonable person has good conflict with an unreasonable person, the reasonable
person grows even though the person fails to do so—unless he’s a Level 1.

Handling a manipulator well contributes to the growth of character and identity. It brings out
our best and we become better versions of ourselves.
— Alan Godwin

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