This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.
Have you ever had a conversation where the other person left you feeling a bit like a small child?
Or maybe you have felt like kicking yourself at the end of a meeting because you spent the whole time criticising someone.
Or have you found yourself being over protective of a colleague, or perhaps you have seen someone stamp their feet and rebel against a perfectly reasonable request?
What all of these situations have in common is that you can easily understand them, spot them coming, and take control of them, when you understand a simple model of communication, called Transactional Analysis, or TA.
Eric Berne developed TA and suggested we can think of all of our communication as coming from one of three ‘ego states’. When we speak, we speak as a parent does, as an adult does, or as a child does. We all encompass all three, but address others from one at a time, depending on the relationship, how we feel, and how the other person is acting.
Parent Ego State
Parents are both worldly and experienced, and therefore speak critically of anything that does not match their learned view of the world, or they are caring and try to nurture and protect us.
Child Ego State
Children can both do what they want and rebel against any kind of authority and they can conform; adapting themselves to the wishes of those around them. Their responses are primarily driven by the emotions they are feeling.
Adult Ego State
Adults behave rationally, looking for the best outcome and trying to find the most effective way to achieve it. They think things out, rather than repeating past lessons or acting purely on emotion.
In the workplace, Adult-Adult transactions are nearly always the ideal: both of you are speaking respectfully, looking for the best result. However, if you find yourself annoyed by something I have done, it is easy to find yourself slipping into Critical Parent ego state and addressing my Child state. If I respond accordingly – either by arguing petulantly (Free Child) or by being too obsequious and over-apologetic (Adapted Child) then we will get stuck for a time in that Parent-Child structure.
Likewise, if you feel guilty about asking me to do something so instead of asking assertively, you plead with me (Adapted Child), I will respond from Parent state, by either telling you off or reluctantly agreeing (Critical Parent) or by condescending to act in a patronising manner (Nurturing Parent) thereby taking control of the situation.
Parent-Child transactions work well in communicating, even if what they communicate is rarely healthy for a mature workplace relationship. Consequently, they can persist and become ingrained patterns that repeat over and over again, reinforcing inappropriate power balances.
Other transactions are possible too, such as:
- Parent-Parent – let’s moan about her
- Child-Child – let’s play a trick on him
But not all transactions are universally unhealthy:
- Parent-Parent – let’s gossip about yesterday’s football – a healthy way of passing time in the appropriate context
- Child-Child – let’s come up with some new ideas – the Child state is the state from which we become creative.
There is a whole lot more to TA than Parent, Adult and Child states and a whole lot more to Ego States than we have covered here. It is a rich and rewarding source of understanding for any manager.