Transactional Analysis


Transactional Analysis

If you speak with any of the Executive Coaches at MRA we’ll all consistently talk about our ‘high support and high challenge’ approach to coaching and how the most successful coaching relationships are based on the coach and client remaining in the Adult:Adult space. But what does Adult:Adult really mean and how does it enable being both supportive and challenging when we’re coaching or leading others?

Founded in the 1950s by Eric Berne, Transactional Analysis (TA) – the ‘parent adult child theory’  - is one of the most accessible theories of modern psychology and helps to explain why we think, act and feel the way we do. The starting point for his analysis was that verbal communication is at the centre of all human social relationships; when two people encounter each other, one will speak - transactional stimulus - and the other will respond – transactional response. TA became the method developed by Berne of analysing these transactions so that we can better understand ourselves and those around us.

TA is based on the key principle that, as adults we all have the ability to operate from three ‘ego states’ (Parent, Adult and Child) and that we all have ‘transactions’ either with other people or with ourselves. Underpinning all of this is that we all activate our ego states in our transactions, which can lead to either positive or negative consequences depending on the situation or person with whom the transaction is taking place. If you can become skilled at identifying which ego states are present when you’re interacting with someone then you can become more conscious of your thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and ultimately this can lead to more constructive transactions with others.

The three ego states are being activated all the time whether we’re conscious of it or not:

Parent – this state is based on the behaviours, emotions and attitudes we witnessed from our parents (or primary caregiver) and other figures of authority in early life. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘Taught’ state; it is our ingrained ‘voice of authority’. This state is further sub-divided into ‘Nurturing’ – caring, loving, helpful, and ‘Controlling’  - critical, reprimanding, censoring, punishing.

Adult – often referred to as the ‘Thought’ concept of life; this ego state is our ability to think and act based on what we are experiencing in the present, and on what is happening in the here and now. It is through our Adult state that we can control the Parent and Child ego states.

Child – this state contains the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that we experienced as a child. It is an emotionally-led ego state and can work in two ways; the Natural Child – curious, creative, open, loving, and the Adaptive Child – guilty, afraid, trying to please everyone, resistant, stubborn. Given the degree of emotions coming into play it is not surprising that this is often referred to as the ‘Felt’ state.

There are behaviours or features of each state that can indicate which one you or others are occupying:

Critical Parent – judgmental, dominating, autocratic, critical, reprimanding, sets standards

Nurturing Parent – supportive, caring, comforting, encouraging, understanding

Adapted Child – withdrawn, pleaser, overly polite, passive, agreeable, obsequious or scared, ashamed, angry, stubborn,

Natural Child – spontaneous, impulsive, playful, creative, selfish, overly enthusiastic

Adult – logical, objective, realistic, asks for information, gives information, present, practical, thoughtful, rational, problem-solving, decision-making

Reflecting on your day-to-day relationships, what behaviours do you recognise in yourself and in others? What ego state does this put you in?

According to TA, there are three main transactions that play out regardless of the ego state in which you start: complementary (predictable), crossed (unpredictable) and ulterior (manipulative). And there are three parts to any transaction - what you say – your activated ego state; the response (and ego state) you expect to receive, and the response you actually receive.

Complementary transactions are widely accepted in TA theory as being the most effective and successful as the two people involved in the exchange occupy sympathetic or complementary ego states to each other - what you say and the response you receive are in alignment. Also the two ‘vectors’ of communication (the stimulus and the response) are in parallel, which means they set up a reciprocal pattern of behaviour and so could be maintained indefinitely.

Complementary transactions

Crossed transactions occur when the response received is from a different ego state to the one expected. This creates cognitive dissonance and is a highly unstable transaction. One of two things can happen as a result – either the transaction will stop, or there will be a shift in ego state to create a new, stable and complementary transaction. And ideally this shift will be to the Adult ego state

Crossed transactions

Ulterior transactions occur when the three or more ego states interact at the same time – there are covert intentions and messages at play, mixed with overt communication and spoken words – what is said is not necessarily what it meant.

Ulterior transactions

Putting Transactional Analysis into practice

So what does this all mean and how can TA help us develop more mutually beneficial exchanges both personally and professionally? At MRA we champion Adult:Adult interactions in order to facilitate the high support and high challenge relationships in coaching and as leaders that we know are most effective. Thomas A Harris (I’m Ok, You’re Ok, 1967) took the basis of TA and looked it from the perspective of how our life position/ego states affects the responses of others. He concluded that TA constructs four life positions with respect to oneself and others, all around the concept of ‘Okayness’

Ulterior transactions

The emphasis of his analysis is on helping people analyse how their life position affects their communications (transactions) when interacting through one of their Parent, Adult, or Child ego states.

Whilst there are certainly times when a Parent state, particularly nurturing parent is needed (perhaps if someone is experiencing a high stress situation that may be impacting their wellbeing) being ‘Adult’ is usually the most effective activating state and will elicit the most beneficial response. It is particularly helpful, for example when providing feedback, a critical part of a coaching relationship and something as leaders we should be doing regularly. Providing feedback from a position of ‘high support and high challenge’ or, in Radical Candor vernacular (Kim Scott, 2017) from a position of ‘caring personally and challenging directly’ we are more likely to say what we mean, be clear and direct in the way we articulate the feedback and also understand how the individual we are giving the feedback to will likely receive it.

Taking an understanding of TA and applying it to yourself and others can be mutually beneficial and help to build and sustain brilliant relationships across organisations. We urge you to ask yourself the following questions…

Be aware of your starting ego state and look to consciously choose to start from Adult – what am I thinking, feeling and how am I behaving as I enter into this conversation? What ego state does that put me in? What ego state response am I expecting?

Notice any repeating patterns from yourself or others. Is one ego state constantly being activated? When is that more likely to happen and with who?

Once you are more conscious of the ego states being activated, practice shifting to Adult. What behaviours could you adopt that would ensure you can move from Parent or Child to Adult? What do you notice when you do this? How could you do it more of the time?

There is a lot of information in this blog, so take some time to read it and re-read it, to truly embed your learning!

Further reading you might be interested in….

I'm OK You're OK - Thomas and Amy Harris

Staying OK - Thomas and Amy Harris

Games People Play - Eric Berne

Radical Candor – Kim Scott


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