Owner vs. Victim theory and the pitfall of overusing it

Published by Norberto Herz on

If I already have your attention, let me tell you that this is not the place where you will find the meaning of the “Owner vs. Victim” theory which can be found in bazillions of different sources. It will be generally explained, though, since we are talking about it. This article is more about the pitfalls of people reading people and how misusing this theory could lead you to miss important communications.

In a nutshell, the owner vs. victim theory states that there are (at least) 2 kind of attitudes when facing the same situation and, furthermore, different languages are used by persons depending on the position they take. I will take a random example from this article, but please, read it to better understand the concept if you didn’t know about it:

  • Victim: He makes me so mad!
  • Owner: I feel mad when this happens.

That said, the theory can be used by anyone trying to improve his or her own communication skills, or by people trying to identify these behaviors in others (colleagues, relatives, celebrities, etc). The article is mostly oriented to this second group.

Some repeated behavior

I remember (maybe) 15 years ago, a lot of people talking about NLP (that was actually developed in the 70s). It caught on along my professional circle, mainly driven by a couple of university professors that talked about it as if it was some kind of superpower that you could develop by simply reading a couple of books, learning some cheap tricks to finally read somebody else’s mind. The examples given during classes were quickly adopted by the students and what is worst, everyone started to think that analyzing independent signals was the proper use of this new superpower. So, if you rolled your eyes up-right, you was using your creative brain, so you was imagining something, hence, you was lying. The big pitfall here: you can’t isolate an expression and jump into a conclusion. Expressions are evaluated all together and what is harder, you don’t analyze these, you perceive these. There should be a moment where you are trained enough to start having impressions beyond what is being said, but without knowing exactly what you saw that raised that particular flag. It becomes natural. Anyway, no matter how good you get at it, if you are still trying to “read people” you are getting it all wrong. NLP is about understanding that different people communicate in different manners so you can count with more tools to understand and deliver messages.

I have seen the Owner vs. Victim theory “users” running into that same pitfall turning this wonderful concept into a label maker. What is the point of putting somebody into the victim container?

Simple tricks to escape this pattern

  • Know this theory in deep: You might have heard about it at the office hall, as a passing conversation during a meeting, or even read about this in some incomplete article (like this one). Good material will always mention the origins of the theory and the real power of using it to help people to overcome challenging situations.
  • Try to embrace a holistic approach: Exposing a frustration out loud every now and then doesn’t convert a person into a victim (the same way than taking care of a problem once in a lifetime won’t make you an owner). Context is everything when analyzing behaviors.
  • Avoid labeling people: “She is an owner” or “He is a victim” are only valid if you mean that somebody is at some state at a particular moment. If you don’t think that this is something that can change, what is the point of spending time understanding the theory?
  • Understand what to do: Detecting this kind of behavior could be tremendously impactful for your team and your company. But it first needs to be handy for the person you want to help to deal with the problem.
  • Avoid using it in the conversation: “I notice some victim language in the way you are speaking” is definitively not the way to approach the subject. First of all, it is just your impression. Second, it is not valuable for the person in that place. It just states something that was obvious for you and doesn’t add any value in the path to overcoming the phase. Try with “Hey, are you having a hard time with this?” instead.
  • Keep yourself honest: How often are you listening to yourself and analyzing if you are not at that place? How would you deal with it? Is your experience valuable for others in that situation?
  • Assess the situation yourself: This shouldn’t be an excuse but, have you ever seen a victim using victim language? That’s because a victim is a victim. Changing that reality is usually close to impossible. But helping somebody to process that reality in a different way is simpler and more feasible.
  • Look for a mentor: If you think that you are not being capable of helping somebody out and that you could get better at it, identify people that are great at analyzing behaviors and ask them for help and coaching to master the art of helping somebody else.