Have you ever said something in the heat of the moment, that you later regret? An emotional response to a frustrating situation that in hindsight you might want to change. Join the club.
Here is a simple model that might help to explain it, and help you to avoid this happening again.
What is Transactional Analysis?
Transactional analysis helps us recognise and understand the different ego states and how they work. We can then choose to adapt our behaviour and communication styles to improve our interpersonal skills and build a thriving workplace culture.
This popular psychological concept could transform the way you deal with conflict and communicate with your colleagues.
In the 1960s, psychologist Dr Eric Berne suggested that many of our interpersonal relationships are driven by deep-rooted learned behaviours, often acquired very early, and can be the root cause of communication conflict at home and at work.
He proposed a theory that suggests we react to confrontation, management and authority through one of three ego states – Parent, Adult and Child – and proposed that the key to successful, positive transactions lies in seeking to always be in the ‘adult ego-state’.
According to Berne, every conversation is a transaction of sorts. One person initiates the interaction, and the other replies.
When both parties are speaking from complementary ego states, the communication is smooth and effective. However, if the transaction becomes crossed, and one or both people drop into a clashing ego state, the result is mixed messages, conflict, or damaged relationships.
Transactional analysis helps us identify the ego states present in any interaction so that we can make the necessary adjustments to enable constructive communication.
Understanding the Ego States
Ego states are more than just communication styles – they are often automatic responses to internal or external triggers. Our feelings determine which one we use, and we can shift between states quite suddenly.
However, although these reactions feel automatic, it is possible to learn to recognise them and consciously change the way we react. So, let’s start with getting to know each ego state.
This is our taught ego state – the voice of authority we learned and absorbed as children. This ego state reflects the attitudes of our parents, teachers, adults and authority figures in our lives.
When people are communicating from this mindset, they may use words like “how to,” “under no circumstances,” “always,” “never.”
There are two potential sides to the parent state –nurturing and controlling – each with both positive and negative consequences to their behaviours.
- The nurturing parent may appear caring, supportive, encouraging, and non-judgmental. Sometimes over-protective and smothering.
- The controlling parent may appear directive, critical, and patronising, may involve angry or impatient expressions or gestures like finger-pointing. But can provide useful structure, clear direction and expectations.
The child state is all about feelings. It represents our internal reaction to external events, and is based in emotion. It lacks self-awareness. Whenever despair or anger is evident, the child is in control.
You can recognise the child in sad facial expressions, temper tantrums, a whining voice, eye-rolling, teasing, laughter, squirming, or other childlike gestures.
Verbally, you may hear things like, “I dunno, I want, I’m gonna, I don’t care,” or dramatic statements like “this is the worst day of my life.”
As with the parent state, there are two potential sides to the child state – adapted and free/rebellious.
- The adapted child may appear co-operative, eager to please, and spontaneous.
- The free child may appear rebellious, moody, and resistant.
The adult state is rooted in rational thought, balance and perspective. It provides us with the ability to think and determine our actions for ourselves based on the data we receive.
To adjust the subconscious behaviours triggered by our parent or child ego states, we need to consciously access our adult state.
Adult communicators are attentive, interested, straight-forward, non-threatening and non-threatened. They use measured language like “when, what, who, in what way,” and statements such as, “in my opinion, I believe, I see, I realise, I think, probably, possibly.”
Importantly, adult communicators ask questions, listen and seek to understand.
The adult state is our ideal self, set free from the clutches of our unconscious reactions. Therefore, it’s the ideal state to communicate effectively from.
How to Improve Workplace Relationships via Communication
Armed with this information, you can begin observing conversations from a unique new viewpoint.
Watch other people closely: listen to their words and tone, and study their body language to see if you can identify the ego state they are in. Often people have favourite ego states and tend to stick with those. For example:
- some people are always criticising and directing, or helping and protecting others: the parent
- some people continually analyse, and prefer facts to feelings: the adult
- some people operate with strong feelings and without thinking – either pleasure seeking or feeling helpless, and generally unwilling to take responsibility: the child.
It is possible to develop the ability to switch ego states when you need to (some find this easier than others and it takes practice). This is the sign of a skilled communicator – someone who is both self-aware, and notices the other person’s state and adjusts their style accordingly.
Complementary or Clashing Transactions
Successful workplace communication depends on navigating complementary transactions by responding in the right ego state for that situation.
This is what complementary transactions can look like, where the ego states are aligned, and the responses match:
Person A (Adult state) – “That didn’t work out as we had planned, let’s go over it and find out what we can do better next time.”
Person B (Adult state) – “I agree, we can do better in future; let’s make a plan.”
Person A (Parent state) – “It looks like you struggled with that job; do you need help to improve?”
Person B (Child state) – “Ugh, yes please, I really need some guidance on this one.”
And here’s how it can go wrong with crossed/clashing transactions:
- Person A (Adult state) – “That didn’t work out as we had planned, let’s go over it and find out what we can do better next time.”
Person B (Child state) – “Why are you always so critical? I can never do anything right.”
- Person A (Adult state) – “I’d appreciate a little clarification on this job when you have time.”
Person B (Parent state) – “Do I have to do everything around here? I may as well just take care of it myself.”
Become attuned to what’s happening during conversations, first in yourself, and then in others.
The ideal person-to-person communication happens when both individuals are present and aware in the adult-to-adult states. This is the ideal to strive for. We can work towards this first by becoming more conscious of our own thoughts and feelings, then observing others and more consciously choosing how to respond.
If you would like to understand more about how to improve communication, personal effectiveness or leadership team dynamics with the use of HR coaching and strengths-based coaching, please contact me today.