Transactional Analysis: Supporting People Throught Rapid Change

January 23, 2011   ·   By Jonathan Trubshaw   ·  
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Transactional Analysis is a theory developed by Dr. Eric Berne (1910-1970) in the 1950’s.

The theory is underpinned by the philosophy that people can change and that we all have a right to be in the world and be accepted.

The theory originated in the context of hospital psychotherapy but has since found application in individual therapy and organisational development. Transactional Analysis relies on clear contracts and employs concepts of ego states, different types of transaction, life positions, scripts, strokes, games, to identify ways in which we can change our thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

There are three major schools of thought: the Classical school, representing Berne’s work (1961, 1964, 1966) and those closely aligned with him, the Redecision school, based on the work of the Gouldings (1979), and the Cathexis scool, based on the work of Schiff (1975) and her associates.

Contracts

Transactional Analysis is a contractual approach. A contract is "an explicit bilateral commitment to a well-defined course of action" (Berne, 1966). Contracted coaching and counselling goals are positively framed, tangible and feasible.

Ego States

One of the building blocks of Transactional Analysis is Berne’s (1964) concept of ego states, used to help understand how we are made up, and how we inter-relate. Ego states are called Parent, Adult, and Child and each ego state is given a capital letter to denote the difference between actual parents, adults and children.

The Parent ego state is a set of feelings, thoughts and behaviours that we have learnt from our parents and significant other figures of care or authority. As children we take in lessons, feelings and actions from our caregivers, introjecting these in their entirety and reproducing aspects through our own adult behaviour. Whilst consciously we may not choose to, at times we find that we sound like our parents or behave as one of our teachers. The Parent ego state can be nurturing or critical – as we replay ways of taking care of or instructing others. And each aspect can be positive or negative – we may be considerate or smothering, and protective or oppressive.

The Adult ego state is a direct response to the here and now. We deal with things that are going on today in ways that are appropriate to the current situation and not influenced unhealthily by past experience. When in our Adult, we see others for who they are, not what we project onto them. We ask for information rather than make assumptions.

Using our past experiences to appropriately and accurately inform our Adult enables us to integrate the positive aspects of our Parent and Child ego-states and is known as the Integrating Adult (Berne, 1961). Spontaneity and intimacy in our Adult ego state allows us to experience life in its reality and to use our experiences to continually update ourselves.

The Child ego state is a set of behaviours, thoughts and feelings which are replayed from our own childhood. As a six year-old child, for example, you may have felt insecure or unsafe in new groups. As you enter new groups today, you may re-live some of those childhood fears about fitting in, and you may re-experience some of your six year-old beliefs about your place in a group. You might try to deal with the present-day situation in the same way that you did as a child – whether that is to withdraw, or to play the fool to find acceptance. As a strategy, this may still be useful today in certain circumstances, but there will be other times when this response is no longer appropriate or helpful and an updated response may get you closer to what you want.

The Transaction

Berne (1961) describes a transaction as a unit of social intercourse, consisting of a stimulus and a response. Transactions can occur simultaneously at both explicit and psychological levels, for example, a caring question with a sarcastic undertone. In Transactional Analysis, we attend to both the social and ulterior reading of transactions.

Knowledge of ego states enables us to understand the social and psychological flow of communication. If both parties address the ego state the other is in, this is known as a “complementary transaction”. For example:

Employee A: “Have you managed to finish that report?” (Adult to Adult)
Employee B: “Yes, I am about to e-mail it to you.” (Adult to Adult)
This is an example of Adult to Adult communication. However, with different intention and emphasis, this could also be an example of complementary Parent to Child communication. Employee A: “Where is that report!” (Parent to Child)
Employee B: “Leave me alone! I’m busy – I’ll do it later!” (Child to Parent)

As long as transactions are complementary, a psychological balance will be maintained and communication will flow indefinitely. If parties address ego states other than the one their partner is in, the result will be a “crossed transaction” and will typically be experienced as a breakdown in communication. Using the example above:

Employee A: “Have you managed to finish that report?” (Adult to Adult)
Employee B: “Leave me alone! I’m busy – I’ll do it later!” (Child to Parent)

Crossed transactions can lead to a collapse in communication but can also be used positively, to break a cycle of inappropriate communication:

Employee A: “Where is that report!” (Parent to Child)
Employee B: “I am about to e-mail it to you.” (Adult to Adult)

Resisting the invitation to respond from Child and choosing to communicate from Adult may feel unnatural but can help to manage a potentially inappropriate and unproductive workplace interaction.

A third type of transaction is known as a “duplex” transaction, in which the overt social message is accompanied by a covert psychological message. On the surface, communication may appear to be Adult to Adult but the undercurrent may be one of exploitation or one-upmanship and will impact on interpersonal relations. For example:

Employee A: "Have you managed to finish that report?" (Adult to Adult words), with a flirtatious smile (Child to Child)
Employee B: "No, I will need to stay late tonight." (Adult to Adult words), with a wink (Child accepts the ulterior invitation)

Life Positions

Behind transactions, lies the Transactional Analysis theory of "life positions" (Berne, 1962/1976). The four life positions are possible viewpoints from which we each experience and anticipate life and which will affect every dyadic transaction we make:

"I'm Not OK, You're OK" (I-U+)
"I'm Not OK, You're Not OK" (I-U-)
"I'm OK, You're Not OK" (I+U-)
"I'm OK, You're OK" (I+U+)

Depending on the way in which we view ourselves and others, we will spend more or less time n each of the four positions. In Transactional Analysis, the goal is to live and function more from an I+U+ position and to transact from an Integrated Adult ego state, drawing on our Parent and Child ego-states as appropriate, in order to foster healthy relationships and communication.

Scripts

Our preferred life position is a product of early life experiences, distilled into early life decisions, known in Transactional Analysis terms as our "script" (Steiner, 1966). Our script is the life plan we have written for ourselves in early childhood. It acts as a blueprint for how we believe we are to be and how we believe our life is to play out. We develop this script in early childhood, based on the best course of action available to us then, and without a fully functioning Adult ego-state, hence our script may prove to be outdated and unhelpful as adults in the present. Goulding & Goulding (1976) identified twelve injunctions which may be introjected into the Child ego state from early life experiences and be built into an individual's script:

Don't be (don't exist)
Don't be who you are (Don't Be You)
Don't be a child
Don't grow up
Don't make it in your life (Don't Succeed)
Don't do anything!
Don't be important
Don't belong
Don't be close
Don't be well (don't be sane!)
Don't think
Don't feel

To exist in spite of our injunctions, we will use one or more of five "drivers" (Kahler & Capers, 1974) or "working styles" to help us navigate through life and others' expectations. There are:

Be perfect
Be strong
Try hard
Please others
Hurry up

Each working style will have positive and negative attributes. An individual with a Be Perfect style will produce accurate and detailed work, however may punish themselves and others if they do not meet their exacting standards. A Be Strong style will make an individual highly effective under pressure and will generate a sense of security, yet they may over-burden themselves or appear detached from their feelings and critical of playful behaviour in others. A Try Hard style will mean an individual is able to gather lots of new ideas and launch many new projects but they may spread themselves thinly and be unable to finish everything that they start. An individual with a Please Others working style will make a great team member. They will aim to please everyone, but not necessarily through questioning and accurate understanding what is required. They may not demonstrate the ability to make decisions, preferring to be led, and may not share their opinion, preferring to be liked. A Hurry Up style will enable an individual to deliver results quickly. However this individual may seem dismissive, overlook important details or make superficial changes. Drivers can be of great use as they equip us with a shorthand set of skills upon which we can rely in times of stress. It is important to be able to understand our adopted Drivers in order to optimise their strengths and pay attention to their limitations; to be catalysed by them when appropriate, rather than driven by them by default. Scripts and drivers apply to groups as well as individuals. A team, department or entire organisation can further a script and foster certain preferred driver behaviours, hence we may see a company which thinks and behaves as the ‘underdog’ in the market and which ‘tries hard’ in order to succeed. Or a team may believe it is the backbone of the organisation and will ‘be strong’ for other departments. Teams and organisations may, out of awareness, recruit like-minded individuals to further an unspoken ‘life position’ and in doing so, may entrench existing limiting beliefs. Bringing these patterns into the awareness of management functions can help to develop fully-functioning, balanced teams and challenge cultural assumptions, in order to realise an organisation’s full potential.

Strokes

In Transactional Analysis, “strokes” is the term given to units of recognition (Steiner, 1974). Research has shown that mammalian babies rely on physical contact to survive and develop. The need to be touched outweighs the importance of whether the feelings it generates are pleasurable or painful and some negative contact will be of greater value than none at all. We all have certain strokes, or compliments, that we will accept and those that we will reject. If an individual has grown up being told she is caring and her brother has been told that he is bright, she will be likely to continue accepting strokes for caring behaviour but not for intellectual achievement. In her frame of reference, she is not the clever one. Claude Steiner’s (1974) theory of “stroke economies” presents that, as children, we grow up with a set of rules around the giving and receiving of strokes:

don't give strokes when we have them to give
don't ask for strokes when we need them
don't accept strokes if we want them
don't reject strokes when we don't want them
don't give ourselves strokes

Through a therapeutic coaching or counselling contract, we can work to update these rules to become unrestrictive and so, we can:

give strokes when we have them to give
ask for strokes when we want them
accept strokes if we want them
reject manipulative strokes
give ourselves positive strokes

We can create an environment in which we are able to give and receive strokes less conditionally, limitlessly and in the here and now, as our present selves. Our frame of reference, generated by our script decisions, and the strokes we expect to receive can lead us into patterns of behaviour in which we always seem to illicit a certain response from others, or end up in similar situations.

Games

When similar situations keep happening over and over again, we call this a “game” (Berne, 1964) in Transactional Analysis terms. A game is a familiar pattern of behaviour with a predictable outcome. We play games outside of our awareness and with a variety of positive, albeit flawed, intentions (ibid.):

to maintain our script beliefs and so keep people predictable
to avoid challenge to our frame of reference, which would feel uncomfortable
to give people a way of relating, albeit an inauthentic way
to give us something to talk about
to obtain strokes, albeit negative ones
to maintain our life position and reassure our Child with a familiar world view

We may unconsciously play games as our best attempt to get our genuine needs met and perhaps finally to get the different response or outcome we seek – however, through games this is rarely the payoff and we are more likely to reinforce our limiting script beliefs. It may feel safer to have our insecurities and life-limiting beliefs confirmed, than to experience the existence of new, unchartered possibilities for thinking, feeling and behaving. Games vary in the length of time that passes while they are being played. Some can take seconds or minutes while others can last years. As long as we are game-playing, out of awareness, we are denying ourselves the opportunity for genuine and psychologically intimate relationships. Transactional Awareness therapy can help an individual to bring their awareness to the game and choose a different outcome. There are various ways to stop a game, including the use of different options than the one automatically used. We can cross the transaction by responding from a different ego state than the one the stimulus is designed to hook. We can look out for the ulterior message rather than the social statement and respond to this instead. For example: Employee A: “I need that report! Where is it?”
Instead of automatically responding, snappily, “I’m working as fast as I can!”, or meekly, “I’m sorry, I’ve been really busy, I’ll do it straight away”, instead try saying from your Adult “it sounds like you are feeling panicky, what’s going on?” A game will always open with a “discount” (Schiff et al., 1975). This is when we ignore or minimise some aspect of reality about ourselves, others or the situation which would help us to problem-solve. If at work, we feel that we are overwhelmed with projects, we may complain to colleagues, affect home relationships through working excessive hours, or call in sick - we discount our ability to seek support, renegotiate deadlines or clarify expectations. If we learn how to recognise a discount, we can identify the invitation into a game and use our Adult to explore options for resolution, rather than replay automatic behaviours and outcomes. Game playing provides us with strokes, even if these are negative. If we don’t receive enough positive strokes we will prefer these negative game-strokes to receiving none at all. By ensuring that we give and seek sufficient positive strokes we can resist the pull to use games to this end. Transactional Analysis has found many applications due to its clarity and relevance to a wide spectrum of human behaviour. Its accessibility and action-focus has proved beneficial in supporting people through rapid change, across settings of education, training, coaching, management and personal development. Contact us to find out more about Transactional Analysis and how it could benefit you or your organisation.

Bibliography:
Berne, E. (1961), Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy. London: Souvenir Press
Berne, E. (1976). Transactional Analysis Bulletin (Selected Articles from Volumes 1 – 9). San Francisco: TA Press (Original work published 1962).
Berne, E. (1964), Games People Play. New York: Grove Press
Berne, E. (1966), Principles of Group Treatment. Menlo Park, CA: Shea Books
Goulding, R. and Goulding, M. (1976), “Injunction, decisions and redecisions,” TAJ 6(1), 41-8
Schiff, J. et al. (1975), The Cathexis Reader: Transactional Analysis Treatment of Psychosis. New York: Harper & Row.
Steiner, C. (1966), “Script and counter-script,” TAJ 5 (18), 133-5.
Steiner, C. (1971), “The stroke economy,” TAJ 1 (3), 9-15

 

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