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By Anthony Wooding ASM Plus associate, Law lecturer and retired solicitor

In this blog Anthony explains what Transactional Analysis is and why it is a relevant concept. This is the third in a sequence of blogs that he has written on the subject of management.  It is extracted from a book he is co-authoring with Dave Ladbrook. We are grateful to Dave for agreeing to let ASM publish these blogs. Links to the first two articles are given below.

Transactional Analysis (‘TA’) underlines much of our analysis of management in our book.  Next up in our blog series it’s time for our explanation of what this means and its crucial relevance in our argument for better understanding, and improvement, of management.

At a time of visceral polarisation, understanding how ‘the other’ ticks is of more critical importance than ever. But, at least equally important is understanding how we ourselves tick. Of the many psychological tools available that enable this, as enquiring laypeople in this respect, we believe Transactional Analysis (TA) is the most useful, both domestically and at work. Whilst obviously of much wider import as well, in the management/workplace context, understanding how we tick and others tick gives us a powerful tool to improve our understanding, authentic communication, problem-solving and dispute resolution techniques.

Here we offer a brief outline of what we find useful from the different schools of TA thought.

TA was first presented to the world in 1957, by Eric Berne and in 1964 his influential ‘Games People Play’ was published, with further popular books following by other authors. It has developed profoundly since, periodically waxing and waning in popularity.

TA starts with the assumption that we are all fundamentally OK, though our behaviour may not be, and we are all worthy of respect. In addition, we are (nearly) all capable of thinking for ourselves, taking responsibility, and thereby being open to the possibility of change.

There are two central concepts: the Ego-state model of personality, and Lifescript which is determined from our early Life Position (there are four: I’m OK, You’re OK; I’m Not OK, You’re OK; I’m OK, You’re Not OK; I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK)

TA uses the idea of three categories of ego-state: Parent (P), Adult (A) and Child (C), each having its own distinctive set of behaviours, thoughts and feelings. Parent and Child are subdivided further. Parent is expressed when I behave, think or feel as a parent figure did in my past young life. It contains rules (such as good manners) strictures and judgements. This is the Controlling, or Structuring, Parent, but also, the Nurturing Parent contains guidance on how to care; Child is evident when I behave, think or feel as I did in my past childhood experiences. Adapted Child is adapted to the demands of our parents and other Parent figures, or rebelling against them whilst Free (Natural) Child acts free from parent-related influence, being freely creative, imaginative and intuitive.  By contrast, the Adult is here-and-now, and uses all my grown-up resources. The Adult continues to develop through life. Each of the subdivisions of Parent and Child has positive or negative aspects. The key point is that Parent and Child are rooted in the past, whereas the Adult is in the present. How many of us have made the comment ‘I’m turning into my mother/father’? Or reliving (‘rubberbanding’ back to) the feelings of being my six-year-old self when in certain challenging situations, perhaps leading me to sulk? We replay a ‘tape recording’ of a specific event:  we are in Script. This can be very obvious when a manager takes a negative Controlling Parent position when talking to a subordinate. In such a case, there is likely to be a response from the Adapted Child and the communication will be unproductive, unlike an Adult-Adult dialogue.

That (Life) Script is a plan for our lives that we construct from our earliest moments and is more or less complete by age seven, though there is tweaking on into adolescence. Within is contained how our life will unfold and conclude. It is shaped by our experiences and the decisions taken in its formation are based on feelings. It is the infant and child’s survival strategy. As we grow older, it sinks beyond conscious awareness but, unchallenged, exerts a huge influence on our lives, sometimes leading to a frustrating, unfulfilled life that damages both us and others, though we can’t easily figure out why.

The goal of TA is to emphasise that we have options that we can work towards becoming an Integrated Adult, free from the constraints of the limiting, damaging aspects of the Script we constructed. The Integrated Adult has access to the contents of the Parent and Child, but uses them in a here-and-now context, for example, allowing the Free Child to indulge in playful banter at work, without slipping into immature (Script-based) behaviour. Or using an appropriate Parent figure to establish boundaries, but without falling into excessive criticism. As an Integrated Adult, the Adult is always in charge, acting as a filter, stopping the Script from replaying.

As infants, we crave contact (physical and psychological) and interactions (‘transactions’) to develop and grow normally. These transactions are called ‘strokes’, with a stimulus and response required: I say ‘Hello’ and you respond in kind, so we both get a stroke which is also defined as a unit of recognition. The case of the Romanian orphans offers a hideous example of how badly things can go wrong when there is a huge deficit of strokes.  However, whilst the growing child learns what gets them strokes, this may not be appropriate in adulthood. Some feelings are not permitted in families – ‘Big boys don’t cry’, whilst others are encouraged – ‘Get even’.  An unchallenged script will see this pattern repeated as grown-ups, leading to unhappiness with or for their partner, or more likely both, and in work relationships.   Analysis of the different types of transaction gives clues to the current ego-state of your interlocutor – and yourself! But only clues – we need to know thoughts and feelings to be certain, but, when interacting with others, we often only have the behaviour to work with.

Sometimes, due to the child’s parenting (the influence of the dominant Parent-figures, not necessarily biological parents) the balance of Parent/Adult/Child may be unhealthy. In extreme cases, this can lead to either ‘contamination’ or ‘exclusion’. As an example of the former, an adult ego-state that is contaminated by the Parent (the adult mistakes it for adult content, not Parent) will result in prejudice, whereas contamination by the Child can lead to immaturity and a fantasy view of life. Exclusion occurs when either the Parent, Adult or Child, or two of the three, are missing. A badly parented childhood can result in the absence of guiding, ready-made rules and principles (excluded Parent) or an inability to enjoy life (excluded Child) or possible psychosis (excluded Adult).

When in Script, we indulge in ‘games’ or ‘rackets’ whereby we act out repeated patterns from our early life that are not conducive to healthy, positive and constructive relations with others here and now. We do this as there is a ‘payoff’ in confirming our Script – our Child is briefly reassured, but the deeper, authentic feelings we have are not addressed and we are left dissatisfied, because we ‘discount’ the possibility of resolving matters in an adult way. However, if we become enlightened enough to realise that what we are doing is running through this repeated dead-end pattern and wish to change, the road we will travel down will be a bumpy one: our Child will feel very threatened. We will have to reassure our Child that thing will be OK. Perhaps our Nurturing Parent can do this. If we persevere, practice and reach the goal of Integrated Adult, when we occasionally slip back into Script, we are aware of what is happening and move out of it, out of the past and into the present. Old, long-established patterns can take a long time to change. As Integrated Adults, with access to Parent and Child, we won’t slip into an internal dialogue where our negative Controlling (Structuring) Parent scolds our Child, nor will we relive a Child tantrum. We recognise what is going on and let go of the Script, coming back to the present moment. It takes a lot of practice, but the rewards of freedom from Script – autonomy and effective problem solving – await. As do far more fulfilling relationships at work as well as at home, from your ability to understand what is going on within you and without you.

This has only scratched the surface, there is so much more to TA that we would encourage you to explore.

Recommended reading:

TA Today – Ian Stewart & Vann Joines; Lifespace Publishing. Publication date 15th March 2012

Into TA – William F. Cornell, Anne de Graaf, Trudi Newton & Moniek Thunnisen; Routledge publishing – Publication date – 27th September 2019

Anthony’s previous management blogs

Workplace training and coaching from ASM Plus:

Workplace training and coaching from ASM Plus – Should management exist?

Model for Management –

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