Analyzing Transactional Analysis

I went to a leadership training course a few years ago and the only thing that has stuck with me is the concept of Transactional Analysis. In a nutshell, the premise (derived from Dr. Eric Berne) is that every social interaction is “between parental (critical and nurturing), adult (rational), and childlike (intuitive and dependent) aspects of personality established early in life.” These three aspects are called the ego states and they live quite separately inside us all.

The Parent ego state is stored with external events that happen in the first five years of our life. Parents are the majority of a child’s first five years of life governing what they do (eat, drink, sleep, exercise). Something recorded from the Parent ego state may be “Don’t run with scissors!”. This may come from a kindergarten teacher but will still be defined as Parent.

The Child ego state is stored with internal events that occur from external events the child experiences in the first five years of life. Emotions and feelings rule the roost in the Child ego state. Something recorded in the Child ego state may be “The brocolli tasted so so bad!”

The Adult ego state is stored with logical decisions and summations derived from external events observed (Parent) and thoughts and feelings experienced (Child) from about 10 months onwards in life. In essence, the Adult ego state uses experience from the more primitive Child and Parent ego states to make decisions and act accordingly with evidence gathered from previous events. With an Adult ego state and a Parent ego state being somewhat similar on paper it is important to note that one of the most important things for an Adult ego state to achieve is to validate a Parent ego state’s findings. For example if a person observes a near miss from someone not looking left and right before crossing the road they may validate the data in their Parent ego that “It’s true, looking left and right before crossing the road is a really important thing to do for people’s safety”.

Dr. Thomas Harris simplifies these three ego states as follows:

Parent – taught concept
Child – felt concept
Adult – learned concept

So, yeah, every social interaction you have with another person is defined as a “transaction” in Transactional Analysis. Like social currency or something. As defined on ericberne.comSimple Transactional Analysis involves identifying which ego state directed the stimulus and which ego state in the other person executed the response.” With identifying these states it is likely that conversations and communications between people can be more effectively carried out and completed ie. a transaction completed.

The most effective and productive complimentary transactions will happen, most likely, between two adult ego states as they are the most rational and reasonable. However there are other complimentary transactions that can occur between competing ego states. An example from Dr.Berne’s Games People Play: “The fevered child asks for a glass of water, and the nurturing mother brings it.” The Child ego state in the child asks the Parent ego state in the mother for water. The Parent ego state of the mother responds by providing the water. Simple!

Crossed transactions happen when ego states clash in their back and forth. An Adult ego state may ask “The deadline has passed for that project, what’s the hold up?” If the person responds in a Child ego state with “It’s not my fault, why put the blame on me?” then of course you have a crossed transaction where the attributes of the different ego states clash.

Ulterior transactions are kinda ridiculous (but unfortunately more and more common) and it’s when you think certain messages are coming from a certain ego state but in fact it’s from another one. Sometimes this happens when people don’t know what they want or don’t know how to ask. Sometimes people want more than a traditional response and what they might need is help, a caring ear, or a shoulder to cry on. Perhaps an example of this is when someone asks for advise but when they receive it they respond immediately about how that will not work (so what appears like an Adult ego state asking for advise but is really a Child ego state looking for support), Adult ego state gives advise back, Child ego state responds with extra problems and concerns and the transaction gets derailed. Through this roundabout time wasting way the person uses their underlying Child ego state to achieve what they set out to achieve. For all concerned if their Adult ego state just stated logically what the main issue was then all parties would get to the desired result quicker.

Transactional Analysis is just one of a plethora of systems in social psychology to try and define and solve breakdowns in communication but it is one that in its simplicity can assist people in everyday interactions.

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