Five years ago I was introduced to a communication model called Transactional Analysis. It is fascinating, and completelytransformed the way I perceive communication, and engage in it.
Communication goes wrong when the proverbial wires get crossed. Where your super-hero communication power lies is in the ability to prevent wires from crossing in the first place. Recognizing when another person has crossed wires with you, and not permitting them to take you down a bad path is POWERFUL.
What is Transactional Analysis?
Transactional Analysis is a model of people and relationships that was developed during the 1960’s by Dr. Eric Berne.
The core constructs:
- We have three ego-states to our personality: parent, adult, and child
- Our ego-states converse with one another in transactions
Human beings have conversations with others, as well as internal dialogue in our own heads, which stem from a parent, adult, or child role.
I must walk you through the ego-states before I can introduce examples. I guarantee you’ll be identifying the ego states of co-workers and family members in no time, and you’ll know just how to counter-balance these ego states by the end of the article!
The Parent Ego-States
There are three forms of parent we can assume in our conversations:
1. The Nurturing Parent
- Openly expresses concern and care for others, gives recognition freely and listens intently to what others are saying.
2. The Controlling (or Critical) Parent
- Tries to make the Child do as the parent wants them to do, perhaps transferring values or beliefs or helping the Child to understand and live in society.
3. The Rescuing Parent
- Often motivated by guilt and feels the need to rescue people from themselves.
The Child Ego-States
There are three forms of child we can assume in our conversations:
1. The Free Child
- Characterized by the non-speech noises they make (“Yahoo”!, “Whee!”, etc.). They like playing and are open and vulnerable. They are curious and explore.
2. The Rebellious Child
- Reacts to the world around them, rebelling against the forces they feel. The behavior is often argumentative.
3. The Wounded Child
- Believes they are not in control and life “happens to them” while they are simply observers. This child form has a vulnerable and victim-like mentality.
The Adult Ego-State
The Adult is the rational person grown up who:
- Speaks with assertiveness, and is reasonable.
- Does not try to control, or use aggression toward, others.
- Is comfortable in their own skin and is, for most of us, the ideal self.
When people communicate, an exchange is called a transaction. The bulk of conflict is rooted in unsuccessful or broken transactions.
The following transaction begins as an Adult transaction, but is met with aCritical Parent response:
When a communication stems from either a Parent or Child ego-state, that transaction becomes crossed, and is considered unsuccessful. In this case, theAdult is being treated as a Child by the Critical Parent ego-state.
Let’s look at another example using a Wounded Child response:
The initial communication is a direct, rational question. However, it’s met with aWounded Child response. Again, the wires are crossed, altering the trajectory of this conversation, creating a power differential between the speakers. The Adult is being goaded into the role of Parent by the Child ego-state.
Double-crossed transactions are the most volatile. Let’s take a look at a classicCritical Parent met with a Rebellious Child response:
This probably looks familiar to some of my married readers when you’ve spent too long working on a frustrating project around the house with your spouse!
What about Rescuing Parent? I refer to this ego-state as an enabler:
Seems harmless enough. After all, the person is trying to be helpful, right? Unfortunately, rescuing people thrusts them into the Child ego-state against their will.
You may have noticed I didn’t provide examples of Nurturing Parent, or Free Child. These ego-states are not considered negative but are meant to be used in appropriate doses.
There are certainly times when it’s appropriate to operate out of a Nurturing Parent state. An example is a much older co-worker that is mentoring a younger, inexperienced associate. Again, the key is small amounts, lest the younger associate be relegated to a Child state.
Free Child is also considered a healthy ego-state in appropriate amounts, because all work and no play makes Jack and Jill some pretty dull kids. However, an ego-state of Free Child in large amounts in the workplace (or home for that matter) could cause some concern for the adults around you (think Tom Hanks in the movie, Big).
When you operate from the Adult ego-state, it shines a light on the bad behavior of others, and does not justify their continued bad behavior. You’re Parent orChild reaction further fuels crossed wires, and ensures the conversation will crash and burn.
This model is why I’ve eliminated sarcasm from my speech, as it has significant potential to increase unsuccessful communication transactions.
- Watch out for crossed wires! This is where conflict arises.
- For rational conversation move yourself, and the other person, to the Adult level.
I hope you’ve found this helpful, and would love to hear your comments.
All the best to you!