Hell is other people: Transaction Analysis

Why is it that professional, adult people find themselves talking at cross-purposes? The substance of what you’re trying to say can seem ignored, almost as if there’s another script in the background. Well often there is another script. Making this explicit is the goal of the metaphors and models provided by Transaction Analysis (TA).

Many people who seek coaching are very good at their job and need little if any help with the nuts and bolts of that. But something they often want, especially in the early stages of an assignment, is to improve the way they get along with other people: colleagues, managers, staff, suppliers, and clients.

A typical complaint could be “They become defensive when I’m just wanting to understand what’s going on . . . we get into pointless arguments and as a result avoid discussing operational matters that then suffer due to lack of attention”. The TA framework can illuminate the premises that give rise to this sort of problem.

The complaint above is a “crossed transaction”; a communication that is not complementary and instead jarring. Assumptions made about what’s behind what’s being said trip it up, rather than the actual content of the conversation.

TA analyses “transactions”, between people. We have a natural pull to transact with others to the extent that we’d often prefer a bad transaction to no transaction at all. Eric Berne, the founder of TA, referred to transactions as “strokes” and observed that we’re compelled to seek them out:“folks need strokes”. Along with this basic human pull towards interaction and sociability he applied assumptions from lessons learned early in life or “injunctions”. These are natural and iron laws we pick up from parents and role models: “you must never be late”, “French food is the best in the world” etc. We don’t question these laws (until later in life but that’s another article) but accept them and apply them implicitly.

So TA assumes that 1) we have a natural drift that makes us want to transact with other people and 2) we carry “injunctions”, unspoken rules about how we feel we must see and act in the world.

Interaction with others is naturally a dynamic and fluid process. TA proposes this can be seen via three starting points or “ego-states”. The base modes are Parent (P), Adult (A) and Child (C). We adopt behaviours, thoughts and feelings copied from parental figures (P) from what’s actually going on here and now (A) or from our childhood (C). Both parties to a transaction do this without thinking and their stances when combined may then be either harmonious or discordant.

At work, we normally want a transaction where both parties are in Adult mode. Referring to data and evidence and assuming good faith on both sides we can get things done. This is a complementary transaction: it works and everyone is happy with it (even if it leads to difficult conclusions).

However, if you call me into your office out of the blue to talk about missed targets, although you’re in Adult mode, I might be intimidated by the ornate roll top desk, sharp business suit and other trappings of power. Without thinking I go back to my eight year old self and approach the conversation from this perspective. No, we’re not missing them. It wasn’t my fault, it was someone elses. You get frustrated as you’re interested in talking about what to do now and the transaction degenerates: it’s a crossed transaction.

How does this get un-crossed? It needs become complementary and move from Adult to Child to either a) Parent to Adult or b) Adult to Adult.

Speaking to someone who’s in a defensive child mode as a benign parent might seem patronising but in TA terms, it’s complementary. It can also be done with subtlety, through listening, providing reassurance and above all, a sense of safety. Importantly you are now relating to one another and there is rapport rather than frustration. This can allow the person acting in the Child mode to shift to where we want them to be, i.e. the Adult mode. You then come down from the Parent mode to join them in the preferred b) Adult to Adult transaction.

This is TA at it’s simplest (it’s actually called the over-simplified model) but I find it helps many people to get a handle on breaking down and understanding dissatisfactory conversations.

The PAC modes can be sub-divided with increasing levels of complexity, in the first instance by splitting the Parent into Controlling Parent (CP) and Nurturing Parent (NP). At this point individuals will differ based on their own specific background.

The Child can be divided into Adapted Child (AP) and Free Child (FP). This refers to your unique upbringing and as an adult you may follow or react against the level of parental control you experienced in your youth. Further, there may be good (nurturing) elements of parental control or bad, constricting or even abusive ones.

There may be times at work when a complementary transaction that is not Adult to Adult can work very well. For example Child to Child states, especially involving the Free Child, can be optimal for brainstorming and creativity.

You can make a profile of yourself (an “egogram”) and evaluate the relative dominance of these states. Of course, in any one transaction there’s another party with their own profile and these will collide of complement depending on the context(!)

As you can see, TA takes simple concepts that then get quite specific and potentially complex very quickly when applied to real world relationships.

It delves deeper into how people transact through the idea of “scripts” – archetypal stories that people re-live and cling to, seeing themselves for example as a variation of hero or victim. Scripts lead to ways of approaching life that can then lead to another key TA concept: “game playing”. The point of games is to deliver a script and in circumstances can lead to odd and even damaging behaviour. Berne explored various models in The Games People Play.

There’s a whole literature on the subject and what I’ve outlined above is TA at its simplest. However, for many people, just thinking about work relationships through these filters can be very illuminating and helpful.

And I don’t think there’s anyone who I’ve taken through TA who hasn’t observed that it could be really helpful at home for their relationship with their spouse.

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