Toward effective service to individuals and low-nurturance families

Useful Clinical Intervention Techniques -
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By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW


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   Relationship-triangle Sculpting

Goals - (a) provide experiential learning about divisive Persecutor-Victim-Rescuer (Karpmann) triangles, and (b) motivate adults to evolve and use an effective strategy to avoid and dissolve triangles in and between their related family homes.

Participants - two or more client adults and/or minor or grown kids. If only two clients are present, the clinician can role-play the third triangle role.

Best time to do this - after...

  • any client crises are stabilized, and (d) everyone's E-levels are "below their ears;" 

  • introducing and discussing stepfamily identity, membership (if relevant), values, and loyalty conflicts and the topics above, and...

  • all participants' true Selves are guiding their personalities.

Ideally, offer this experience to courting co-parents before any re/wedding commitments!

Preparations - expect this exercise to take at least 30," and often a whole session. If necessary, move furniture to provide a clear space about 8 feet in diameter. Before the session, consider the ideas in this 2-page article, and decide whether to give the clients a copy (or Web address) afterwards.

Options - In this or a prior session, offer a brief didactic description and illustration of...

  • typical values conflicts,

  • family loyalty (priority) conflicts, and...

  • PVR triangles, and...

  • their typical impacts on family and other relationships. Also...

  • review this adult priority scheme and learn if and how client couples can adopt and model it to avoid and resolve family impasses; and/or...

  • review the idea of relationship bonds (attachments) with the clients, and validate the different bond-strengths between mates, bioparents and biokids, divorced parents, stepparents and stepkids, and bio and step siblings. Then relate these strength-differences to loyalty conflicts and triangle formations; and/or...

  • do the exercise first, to raise client interest in and understanding the relevance of the family dynamics above.

Technique - the full exercise sculpts before and after scenarios.

A) "Before" Sculpture

Assure everyone that this learning experience is not about blaming or shaming anyone, and that PVR triangles are normal and inevitable in all families and social groups. Ask the clients to agree on a recent family triangle involving some or all of the family members present, and briefly identify who took each of the three PVR roles. Then say you want to use that situation to safely illustrate how everyone can avoid or dissolve such divisive triangles. If more than three client-members are present, ask the "extra" people to be observers.

        Ask the three role-takers - including any kids over say 5-6 years old - to stand and face each other in a comfortable circle. Ask the Persecutor (P) to briefly reenact their behavior with the Victim (V) in the chosen situation, including the same body language and voice dynamics.

        Option - have V kneel and look up at P. Then ask V to recall what s/he felt, and to re-enact their verbal and nonverbal response with appropriate emotions and expressions. Then ask the Rescuer (R) to recall her or his feelings and needs, and re-enact their verbal and nonverbal behaviors. Use your judgment as to whether to re-enact the next sequence of P-V-R interactions - usually one round of interactions makes the point.

        Stop the action, and ask each person to breathe, reflect, and describe (a) what they feel (now), and (b) what they needed in the original triangle. Options -

  • note that the role-title "Persecutor" usually feels disparaging, and that in typical triangles, people in that role are (usually) not trying to "persecute" the Victim, but their behavior feels like "persecution" - i.e. scorn, criticism, disapproval, discounting, demanding, controlling, and/or disrespecting.

  • note that V's ruling subselves can feel like a victim (1-down) and/or R's subselves can misjudge P as "persecuting," even when P acts respectfully. These are each symptoms of significant false-self wounds, which need to be permanently reduced before family triangles can be permanently avoided or dissolved effectively.

  • Ask everyone to summarize (a) what each person in the original situation needed from the other two, and (a) who got these needs met well enough. Then ask how triangle events and outcomes like this affect the mates' relationship, and their stepfamily merger progress over time.

  • (a) refresh everyone on the difference between fighting or arguing and win-win problem-solving, and (b) note objectively that the three people were unable to do the latter together in this triangle situation. This adds incentive for client adults to progress at Lesson-2 learning and skill development.

  • (a) review common communication blocks, and objectively note any that occurred as this triangle played out; and/or (b) invite the clients to objectively map the sequence of the triangle interactions at home, from start to finish (outcome). 

B) "After" Sculpture

        If time permits, ask if everyone is willing to redo the exercise to illustrate options for a more satisfying outcome. If the answer is "No," then note the option of doing this in another session. If everyone feels like redoing, then suggest each role-player stretch, breathe, and get back into each original role.

        If appropriate, summarize the difference between surface and primary needs, and then ask each person to reflect and identify one or two main needs they had in the original situation. Use empathic listening to validate each need. Note that the common goal here is to find a way to fill each person's needs well enough - i.e. to do win-win problem solving as teammates, vs. combatants.


  • remind the clients of everyone's need to feel respected by themselves and each other, and of R(espect) messages. If appropriate, ask each person to identify the R-message/s s/he got from the others in the first scenario.

  • start by having R reenact her or his behavior from the first round, and then have someone say something like "Hold it! We've got a triangle going!"

  • if s/he was kneeling, have V stand up and face the other people;

  • With comfortable eye contact, have each person say something like "My needs and yours are equally valid and important now." to each other person. Acknowledge his feels awkward and alien, if necessary. This is powerful experiential learning.

        Ask R(escuer) (usually an adult) to ask P(ersecutor) "What do you need from (V) now?" Help P as needed to identify one or two main needs. Then have R ask V(ictim) "And what do you need now?" Help R define several primary needs. One of them should be "To feel respected by P." Then have P ask R "And what do you need?"

        Facilitate win-win problem-solving, as time permits. When you feel done enough, ask each person to say (a) how they feel, and (b) whether they got their needs met well enough or not. Ask everyone to sit down, and ask any observers for feedback on each half of the sculpting exercise.

        Ask clients to summarize the point of this exercise (to experientially teach them about PVR relationship triangles and a better way of getting their needs met). Then ask "Who in your home and family is responsible for avoiding, spotting, and resolving these stressful triangles?"

        Finally, ask something like "What do each of you want to remember about this experience?" Option ask "What's the next likely triangle to occur in your home, and who will take each role?" Thank the clients for being willing to try something new - and notice how you feel now.

Next - Follow up with clients to see if they're starting to spot and replace their triangles in and between their homes with win-win problem solving. If not, identify what's in the way, and work to reduce any barriers. Encourage client adults to teach other family members what they're learning here - possibly by doing a version of this exercise at home.

        Steadily encourage clients to strengthen their communication skills, and affirm their progress. Watch for chances to illustrate how values and loyalty conflicts usually cause one or more concurrent relationship triangles, and continue to help clients become aware of these interactive stressors and to evolve effective strategies to avoid and resolve each of them. Note that evolving these skills and strategies is an important adjustment task for adults and kids typical divorcing families and new stepfamilies. If you haven't yet, consider sculpting loyalty conflicts to add to clients' awareness.

  Family Sculpting 

Goals - To provide a general or problem-focused experiential illustration of structural and/or dynamic facets of a client family system. General sculptures can (a) raise clients' awareness of their family's  alliances, roles, rules, structure, membership, and/ort bonds, and (b) expand their vocabularies to enable discussion of these factors.

        Problem-focused sculptures can empower members  to use the same factors to understand and resolve a presenting problem to (unmet need/s in) one or more adults or kids. This technique is useful with typical divorcing families and stepfamilies at any developmental phase. It provides a memorable new frame of reference for each member, and an activity clients can use at home with other members.

Participants - four or more client-family adults and kids, at least 6 or older. The clinician and any co-therapist can be part of the sculpture as needed. Option - do this exercise in a support group, using volunteers to portray key members of someone's inner or outer family. If some people aren't comfortable doing this, ask them to be neutral "reporters" or "observers," and coach them what to look for. (e.g. "Watch people's facial expression, eye contact, and body language, without judgment." Usually such people want to participate, once they see the exercise happen.

Best time to do this - when all client-members are undistracted physically and emotionally, and have chosen the open mind of a student. The clinician needs to be comfortable directing people ("I want you to..."), and to have earned at least the preliminary trust of all client members present. It may be useful for the clinician to have...

  • assessed the family's structure alone or with the clients, and/or...

  • defined who comprises the client's nuclear family, and/or...

  • offered a brief description of family systems, and/or...

  • illustrated win-win problem-solving,

before doing this exercise.

Preparations - Plan on using a full session and a room at least 12-15 feet square to do this (ideally) two-part exercise. Move furniture aside to open up a free space in the center of the room. Remind all participants why you all are meeting (or ask a client adult to do this), and do an initial distraction check, Then explain the purpose of this learning activity, framing it as "worth a thousand words."

        Assure everyone that no one will be shamed or blamed, and often this becomes fun, vs. "work." Also propose that there is no "right or wrong" way to be in this exercise - no one can "fail," and each person's job is to (a) be herself or himself, and (b) notice what they think and feel as the exercise evolves.

        Options -

  • to develop a context for this experience, first discuss (a) the purpose of the client's family, and (b) the concepts of needs and family nurturance levels. This raises the implicit question "What is your family's current nurturance level?"

  • ask if anyone has done a family role play or sculpture before, and - if so - what that was like for them;

  • seed expectations by suggesting something like "We can wonder what you each are going to realize about how you see each other in this special family," and/or "Here's your chance to show other people a problem or something you like about your family." 

Technique - Decide alone or with client adults whether to make this (a) a general sculpture (e.g. with courting clients preparing for stepfamily life), or (b) a problem-focused one. Option - if circumstances permit, it may help to do general sculptures first to orient the clients, before focusing on a "problem" sculpture.

A) General "Before" Family Sculpture

        Define your role as being like the director of a play, unless you're also standing in for an absent client family member. Ask that clients not say anything during the experience, and be nonjudgmentally alert to their thoughts, feelings, and needs as the experience unfolds. Let them know you all will discuss the experience and share useful learnings afterwards, and that they may continue that at home. Options

  • invite anyone who becomes significantly uncomfortable or distracted to say so without guilt, so you can pause or stop the exercise to learn what they need;

  • ask whether the family wants to include God or a Higher Power, guardian angels, and/or special ancestors and/or absent family members in the sculpture, including dead person/s; and.... 

  • say that after the first sculpture, you may redo the exercise  with client members taking on the role of director (if true).

        Ask everyone to put down any encumbrances (note pads, purses, pens,...) and stand in a loose circle in the middle of the room or space. Verify who each person is "playing" - themselves, or another family member. Option - ask if the clients would like to specify their setting in the sculpture - e.g. their home in general or in a specific room, a relatives' home, a public place, on vacation, etc. Ask (a) if they would like to specify a time of day or night ("This is us as everyone gets ready for bed.") or (b) a particular situation (e.g. "getting ready for dinner"), and/or (c) where absent members of the family are - included, or elsewhere.

        Start with primary partners, if present, and ask them to position their bodies, limbs, faces, and eye contact in a way that represents their current relationship. Avoid being too specific, and let the clients decide how to do this. Option (with all players) - decide if you want the clients to be able to move their bodies and faces (without speaking) as part of the sculpture - e.g. frowning or grinning, yawning, waving a hand, rolling their eyes, pointing, clenching a fist, kneeling and standing, hugging ort pushing away, etc.

        One at a time, ask the players to position themselves relative to the mate/s and each other in a way that suggests their feelings, emotional focus, alliances or avoidances, and priorities, without speaking. Option - use movable furniture and any objects as props, if/as appropriate. ("Nancine, do you want to use  this doll / pillow / scarf to represent your cat?") Validate any feelings of confusion and uncertainty, again saying that there are no right / wrong choices, and encouraging the clients to notice how they feel and what they're aware of mentally and physically - specially any needs (discomforts) they discover.

        Once everyone is positioned, ask if anyone needs to change their position (without speaking) - e.g. moving closer or farther from someone else, hugging, sitting or standing, turning their face or body, or moving outside ("leaving") the group, Based on what evolves, improvise your direction, staying alert for feeling the sculpture has gone far enough. Take your time: awarenesses bloom as the group stays in static or dynamic position for several minutes. As this happens, notice your own feelings, thoughts, and needs., and whether your true Self remains in charge of your other subselves.

        When it feels appropriate, ask each person to hold their position, assess what they're aware of at the moment, and invite them to describe that or say "I pass, for now," one at a time. When everyone has responded, ask them to reassess their awarenesses, and say in a word or phrase "Right now, I need...") Option - the clinician can also say what s/he is aware of now, or not.

        depending on time remaining and the group's "feel," decide whether or not to direct the clients in an "After" family sculpture. To do that, ask everyone to do something physical (touch their toes, stretch their arms, take several deep breaths, turn around in a circle, etc. to "break the spell" and reorient to the present moment, situation, and their bodies. If another 20" or more remains, ask for a show of hands as to how many are willing to do a related sculpture, to illustrate changes they'd like to make in the first one (in their family structure and dynamics). If they're not, go here. If they are, then do a version of this...

B) General "After" Family Sculpture/s

Goals - to (a) expand everyone's learning from a "before" sculpture, and (b) help each other get clearer on anyone's needs for constructive systemic change.

Technique -  Remind everyone this is a learning experience, an ask each person to reflect without judgment (option - and say out loud) on...

  • how they felt during the "before" family sculpture,

  • what they needed, and...

  • whether they'd like to change something about anyone's position and/or behavior (body actions, expressions, eye focus, closeness, etc. in the sculpture

Suggest that each adult and child who wants to can now act as the director one at a time (within time limits), while you observe and coach. Summarize and illustrate relevant guidelines, like "limited or no talking ("Amy, you look at Jack and whine pitifully); asking players to move in place is OK; direct people's facial expressions and/or bodies  ("George, make an angry face, and clench your fists"); set the physical closeness or distance between people ("Jose, kneel on the ground and wrap your arms around Margie's legs); etc. If there are no questions, ask "Who would like to be a world-famous director now?"

        As the volunteer director starts to position other people, stand off to the side and coach as needed - e.g. "Do you want Tomiko to look a certain way, make any sounds, or be doing anything with her face or body?" Let the clients create the sculpture, unless you see a strategic opportunity to illustrate something they're avoiding or unaware of. Option - offer to stand in for a missing family member if the director wants you to. If the director is a child who starts to get silly or inappropriate, refocus them respectrfully. Use your knowledge of the client's situation to make suggestions and/or ask open-ended questions as needed ("Max, you've said that your parents fight a lot. Do you want to model that here in some safe way?")

        Remind everyone that their feelings, thoughts, and needs during the sculpture set-up are just as useful as awarenesses after the sculpture is stable, and that there isa no "right" way to do this experience. When the director is satisfied with the set up, ask everyone to be in the sculpture for several minutes, paying attention to (a) their thoughts, perceptions, body sensations, emotions, and needs; and (b) whether they would want to change something about the sculpture if they were the director. Options -

  • ask everyone to guess how each other person feels right now, and what they may be thinking. Remind clients that this sculpture represents how the director sees things, not what's "right" or "true." 

        When appropriate, end the sculpture. Ask everyone to breathe, reorient to their body and the room, and to stay in place, Facilitate discussion about what this experience taught them about themselves and their family - particularly if there was anything new and/or surprising for anyone. Watch for chances to change something and redo the sculpture, if conditions permit. (So Luanda, you feel your parents should have stood back to back? Do you all want to try that briefly and see what you learn?")

        When you feel the experience is finished, ask everyone to sit down, and begin to recap and close the session. Options -

  • If anyone chose to observe rather than be part of the sculpture, ask them what they saw, felt, and learned.

  • ask a volunteer to say (a) why everyone came to this meeting, and/or (b) why you all did this experience together.

  • ask each person to say how they felt about doing this exercise together, or to "pass."

  • Suggest that people will probably continue to think about and learn from this sculpture after the meeting ends, and to share any awarenesses with each other.

  • Remind everyone to use "hearing checks" in any such sharing, and to avoid right/wrong judgments about others' perceptions, thoughts, and needs.

  • Decide if and what to share about your own observations and reactions to the "after" sculpture or the before and after sculptures together. ("Something I learned from doing this with you all is ____.")

  • Ask everyone to notice the difference between talking about a family situation (or not), and acting it out. ("Actions really do say more than words, don't they?")

  • Ask how any absent family members or supporters would have reacted to the sculpting experience. ("How would Tim's grandfather have reacted to what we all did here together?"

  • Observe that before and after sculptures are a useful way of identifying unmet needs, and trying out ways of filling them.

  • Propose that the client's' family is like a mobile, and that any one member changing something will usually affect everyone else in small and/or significant ways.

  • If appropriate, ask if people were aware of who was leading their personality subselves during the sculpture/s - their true Self, or "someone else." If a false self led, ask clients to reflect on what that means.

        Ask whether anyone else wants to try being the director, and if the adult/s could supervise doing their own before and after sculptures at home. Affirm each person's willingness to participate or to take care of themselves and contribute as an observer, Options -  if appropriate, ask everyone to stand and form a circle, hold hands, and to look at each other family member and notice what they think and feel; and/or (b) invite everyone to do a "group hug," and make any sounds they wish to. Ask what would happen if they evolved a ritual like this at home, including any absent members.

C) Problem-oriented Sculptures


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Updated September 29, 2015