Transactional Analysis

When we are young, many of us have an insatiable thirst for knowledge. We want to know everything about everything. Often we end up knowing nothing about nothing, or even something about anything. But none of us ever reach the stage where we know nothing about something, unless everything was anything anyway.

In 1988 I was in Bookworm, a small independent bookshop next to the Post Office in Cwmbran Town Centre when I spotted this book –Eric Berne

“Hmm,” I thought. “Interesting.”
What made it particularly interesting was that I was browsing the Enid Blyton section, so what it was doing their God knows. Not that I believed in God back then, but if I had, then he would have known. That is, he would have known how that book got there, not known that I believed in him. Though he would have known that too. I guess I need to stop drinking.

So I picked the book up and perused its contents. I read the back cover blurb and then read the inner cover blurb. I randomly flicked through the book, picking out a few other blurbs of interest until finally I parted with £6.99 and bought the book. Now I need to say something here. £6.99 was a hell of a lot of money in 1988. I could have bought around 50 copies of Whizzer & Chips for that amount of money and STILL had some left over for a Mars bar, a packet of Monster Munch and a pair of tights. It sat on my bookshelf for a while, along with Nietzsche’s Critique Of Pure Reason and Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. I did eventually read it a few weeks later and although some of its themes and ideas were difficult to grasp, I enjoyed it, particularly when Moon-face slid down the helter-skelter in the middle of the tree.

Many years later in 2009 I left Wales and moved to Wiltshire. The NHS Trust I worked for was excellent at providing training for staff, allowing them a degree of control over which training courses they attended. One day, upon browsing the courses, I noticed a two day event in Bath titled Enhanced Communication. It was held in a huge hotel, high on a hill near the city centre. On arrival, I was greeted by the facilitator, Alison Barclay, and joined a happy throng of approximately fifteen other people; some students, some nurses, some support workers like myself, and we began the course. Day two featured Transactional Analysis and for the first time in over twenty years, I heard the name Eric Berne again. Alison was a great facilitator, helped by the enthusiasm and knowledge of a couple of psychology students that were also on the course. The three of them were able to put forward the theory of Transactional Analysis in a lucid, entertaining and engaging way – no small feat considering they just had half a day to do this. Squeezing over forty years of theory into five hours is tricky, but they did it and I found it engrossing. Subsequently, when working on the rehab ward that was my main base, I was always very observant regarding the way my colleagues would interact with the patients. I, too, became more thoughtful and reflective about the way I project myself.

So here is my take on it, in a nutshell.

There are three ‘states’ that we can adopt in any given human interaction.

TA diagram

Whenever we communicate/chat/gass/gossip/chin-wag/converse or chew-the-fat with someone, we unconsciously adopt one of the three states – Parent, Adult or Child. That bit is easy, right?

So what happens when we are in Parent mode? The other party can adopt one of three positions.

TA diagram 2

 

Let’s invent a conversation.

Person 1 (politely) : “What time is it?”
Person 2 (impatiently) : “Haven’t you got a watch?”
Person 1 (sarcastically) : “Sorrreee! I was only asking!”

So person 1 starts out in Adult mode and asks a question. Person 2 responds in Parent mode. Maybe they are in a rush. Maybe they have things on their mind and their mood is out of sorts that day. But for whatever reason, they don’t respond as an adult. Person 1, reacting to this unexpected reply, turns into a Child, using sarcasm to deflect away the hurt that they felt in being told off (as their first memory of being told off was by their parent, when they were a child, so becoming a child again is easy when dealing with an assertive, slightly impatient adult.)

So you can see where this is going can’t you? You have all the permutations of those three states – parent/parent, parent/child, child/parent, child/adult and so on.

TA diagram 4

 

Another example –

Employee (meekly): “I am wondering Mr Hamish, if you would possibly consider giving me a raise, as I have worked so hard for you this past year.”
Manager : “You stacked cat food on the rack of seamless stockings this morning. That’s just stupid. Can you imagine if a lady had actually bought a packet of Whiskas instead of the Pretty Polly sheer nylons they wanted to buy? They’d end up with mechanically recovered meat all down their legs.”

So here we have the employee adopting the role of a child, only to be greeted by an admonishing adult. However, this script is one that had probably been thought out beforehand. Many of us may unconsciously (or not so unconsciously) adopt a child-like stance when attempting to gain something from someone whom we know is in a position of power. It is a strategy that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. But these scripts and strategies are used over and over again throughout our lives, each of us adopting a certain stance, be it adult, parent or child, depending on external variables.

The most interesting thing is this – none of the positions are empirically correct. You are probably thinking “So ideally, I should always be looking to be an adult? That’s the most mature position to be in during all human interactions, right?”

Wrong.

Eric Berne took great pains to point out that it isn’t the case that we should always strive to be the ‘adult’. It’s simply about being mindful and aware of those times when we adopt a role, and being aware of when the person we are interacting with adopts a role. And roles can switch mid-way through a conversation too. It’s just about being aware. Because sometimes it is useful to be a child, or useful to be a parent, depending on the person we are interacting with.Many of us have become petulant children when other people have not been able to meet our needs. And sometimes that can work.Sometimes we can become admonishing parents in the face of an admonishing adult. Sometimes that can work. The word ‘manipulation’ can automatically invoke negative connotations in many people but the fact is, we manipulate our environment the best we can all through our lives. Eric Berne has merely written about this in an extremely thorough and insightful way.

Of course, this blog is just a soundbite when it comes to transactional analysis. It obviously goes much, much deeper. For example, the diagram below shows how the categories can be broken up further still –

Transactional Analysis

 

So hopefully, this little taster has whetted your appetite for Transactional Analysis and you will now pursue a career in psychology. Alternatively, you may just switch on the telly and watch another repeat of Bullseye. If you do, then I will adopt the role of the admonishing adult and say “What are you watching that nonsense when The Walking Dead is on the other side?”

Jim Bowen - Bullseye