I honestly don’t know why but I’m a huge fan of ideas and theories that emerged in the late 50’s and 60’s. It was certainly a time when ideas about the importance of ‘self’ took hold with people like Rogers and Maslow exploring how to be our best selves – scaling the dizzy heights of self-actualisation! One such idea to come out of that same era was Transactional Analysis which is a way of examining the interactions between people.
It was developed by Eric Berne (1910-70) in the late 1950’s as a basis for understanding behavior through communication. Its origins are in groupwork where the transactions – the communication interactions – were analysed to develop understanding. It draws on a range of theoretical perspectives and considers ideas about the subconscious mind and its influence, so, is psychoanalytical. It is humanist in that sees the individual as important, and cognitive as it considers cognitive processes and seeks when necessary to attempt to adapt cognitive processes.
It can be used to explore the Individual, two person relationships and group interaction. Let’s explore its components.
‘Strokes’ is a motivational concept where a ‘stroke’ is an act of recognition from one person to another. The communication of acceptance or ‘liking’, is referred to as positive stroking, whereas criticism and ‘discounting’ are negative stroking. There are parallels here with the concept of reinforcing in behaviorism and also ideas of affirmation and validation
Positive strokes would be things like praise, compliments, recognition, affection, rewards, sympathy, consolation, and even self-satisfaction from a job well done. Negative strokes would be put downs, criticism, ridicule, scolding, or punishment. Strokes can be ‘Conditional’ that is they relate to what you do and are not directly about you as a person – ‘you did that task very well’. Whereas unconditional strokes are not about what you do but are about you – ‘I really like you’. There is no condition just a statement.
Strokes can have ulterior motives where people say things to gain favor. I remember one student I taught used to say things like, ‘You’re looking good today Stephen – lovely shirt’, usually around assignment marking time!
This idea refers to a basic attitude of acceptance towards self and others and states that people adopt one of four positions.
- I’m Ok – You’re not Ok – this is rejection and belittling of the other. Maybe it’s ‘I don’t like you’ or ‘I don’t like what you represent’. It could be because the other person is constructively challenging and the person doesn’t like being challenged.
- I’m Ok – You’re Ok – the preferred position – acceptance of self and others. This is the state we need to try and establish when working with people. Such a position can generate forward momentum.
- I’m not Ok – You’re Ok – reflects avoidance of the other and maybe suggests things to be explored with the person. At least if the person thinks ‘you’re ok’ then this may give you a starting position as they may trust what you are saying.
- I’m not Ok – You’re not Ok – Berne suggests reflects a depressive hopeless attitude to life. The question is how to create forward momentum and change in such a position.
Berne suggest there are three ego states – the parent, the adult, and the child. We can all, whether we are adults, parents or children adopt these ego states.
The Parent Ego state is when we adopt behaviours, thoughts and feelings copied from parents or parent figures so is a ‘taught’ ego state. The Adult Ego state is found in behaviours, thoughts and feelings which are a direct response to the here and now and are a ‘thought’ ego state. The Child Ego state is where we replay behaviours, thoughts, and feelings from childhood and is a ‘felt’ state.
Parent (“exteropsyche”): is a state in which people behave, feel, and think in response to an unconscious mimicking of how their parents (or other parental figures) acted, or how they interpreted their parent’s actions. For example, a person may shout at someone out of frustration because they witnessed that as a response, a way of being, in a parent or important person.
Adult (“neopsyche”): a state of the ego, which is very pragmatic and practical, thinking things through logically to make predictions and maybe absent of major emotions that could affect success. Learning to strengthen the Adult is a goal of Transactional Analysis. While a person is in the Adult ego state, they are directed towards an objective appraisal of reality. This resonates so much with me in terms of my writing about productivity and being organised. Developing this ego state means we can relate to people and events in a structured way. Not lacking emotions necessarily but being in control of them.
Child (“archaeopsyche”): a state in which people behave, feel and think similarly to how they did in childhood. The Child is the source of emotions, creation, recreation, spontaneity and intimacy. We need to spend some time in this state I’d argue but it needs to be carefully managed.
Transactions that are complimentary sustain and lead to smooth conversation
So, Adult to Adult could result in solving a problem, whereas Parent to Parent could lead to critical gossip (something lots of people enjoy! We are only human!). Child to Child or Parent to Child could be about playing together.
Crossed transactions cause communication to be broken and give us what is sometimes referred to as ‘a bumpy conversation ride’. Where the stimulus in the conversation originates in Adult and is directed to Adult but the respondent returns conversation from say Child directing it to Parent, or equally, Parent to Child, we may see a problem. I’m wanting to have a serious productive conversation, but I get a petulant child response, or a critical parent response and I’m left on the back foot not knowing quite what happened. Or indeed I’m after a bit of jovial childlike banter and I make a joke that falls flat on its face when someone responds from Adult and I’m left deflated. This happens a lot with my jokes…I need to think about that…. 😉
Within each of these ego states are subdivisions. Parental figures are often either more nurturing or more criticising. Childhood behaviours are either more natural (free) or more adapted to others. These subdivisions categorise individuals’ patterns of behaviour, feelings, and ways of thinking, that can be functional, beneficial, and positive, or dysfunctional, counterproductive, and negative.
Critical Parent can be lecturing or judging – all about what you should do or shouldn’t do. Remember this is not just ‘real’ parent to ‘real’ child – you can be ‘in’ Critical Parent in adult conversations. ‘I don’t know what you do with your time. I need the report now!’
Nurturing Parent on the other hand is sympathetic, advising, and takes care. ‘You seem to be missing deadlines can we talk about what we can maybe do to help?’
In the same problem above Adult may be objective, rational, and problem solving. ‘Let’s reach an agreement on giving you a little longer but it must be done by then. Let’s see what work we can take off you to give you time’.
The Adapted Child may then play the game (Berne loves game playing ideas) and may manipulate the situation trying to drive Adult into Nurturing Parent. ‘I’ve just found everything so hard lately’. Or maybe will be submissive and conform to Adult expectations. ‘Yes, whatever you want me to do’.
The Natural Child might be playful or impulsive and may rebel. ‘Sorry but I can’t I’m taking today off – nobody bothers about the dates things are due anyway!’
How is this relevant to SW?
- It helps us understand the other person
- It gives us opportunity to consider how to respond in a helpful way to build rapport.
- It helps communication by trying to shift the other persons ego state to Adult to establish an Adult to Adult conversation.
- TA tells us you can have considerable impact on modifying behaviour by how you communicate. The Adult ego state seeks to ‘control’ the other ego states.
Using TA for effective communication
For effective communication you need to keep the transaction complementary i.e. focus on sender to receiver and receiver to sender where the message is sent to the ego state from which you expect a reply. Using ego states we can look at how others communicate and how we communicate with others. It’s possible to identify which ego state we are in and which ego state we are expecting a reply from.
We can also use TA to help us plan transactions. For example, we can identify which ego state would be most valuable for us to send the message from and which ego state it would be better for it to be received by. If we receive a reply from the wrong (non expected) ego state then we can either try to shift the other person’s ego state or if we cannot do this it may be better to stop the communication and try again another time when the person may be in a different ego state.
We can listen to people’s communication to identify if they are habitually in one ego state and then decide if communication to that ego state would be appropriate or not. TA therefore can be used to elicit the reactions you want from other people (and this will happen consciously or unconsciously). We are trying to achieve Adult to Adult
We can help communication if we need to by trying to shift the other person’s ego state by inviting people to move into a different ego state. They may not always move into it though, particularly if someone is habitually in one ego state. Do this by acknowledging their current ego state (by the appropriate message or response) and then invite them into another ego state by the words (and body language) which you use.
Transactional Analysis implies that you can have considerable impact by the way you communicate with others.
You can use your Adult ego state to think about what behaviour is appropriate and then engage in that way to facilitate helpful conversations.