Transactional analysis or TA is a branch of psychotherapy developed by Eric Berne. His definition of it is “a theory of personality and a systematic psychotherapy for personal growth and change”.
Knowing about TA can be very useful for improving an individual’s communication skills. TA is about how people are structured psychologically and is both a theory of communication and a theory of human development.
Berne’s model is a three part ego-state model. An ego state is
- “A consistent pattern of feeling and experience directly related to a corresponding consistent pattern of behaviour”.
There are three ego states in Berne’s model:
Ego states are irrespective of age and are capitalised to differentiate from the normal use of the words parent, adult and child.
The Parent and Child ego states are echoes of the past. The Adult ego state is a response to the here and now when a person is grown up and using grown up responses.
Ego states are ‘things’ not names. They are a set and related; thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
Communication between people can be from one ego state to a different one or from one ego state to the same ego state.
Normally communication will be from one ego state either to the same ego state or a different one. The person who first communicates will expect a reply to be from a certain ego state. If communication is from a different ego state to the expected one, then the communication may be ineffective and the message may be lost, not received or disregarded by the person receiving it.
If communication is from Adult to Adult then it is likely to be the most effective communication for most of our communications.
The ‘3 Rules of Communication’ in TA
1st Rule of Communication
- So long as transactions remain complementary, communication can continue indefinitely.
2nd Rule of Communication
- When a transaction is crossed, a break in communication results, and one or both individuals will need to shift ego states in order for the communication to be re-established
3rd Rule of Communication
- The behavioural outcome of an ulterior transaction (one where two messages are sent at the same time; one overt social and one covert psychological) is determined at the psychological level and not at the social level.
Strokes – units of recognition
Can be: verbal or non-verbal
Positive or negative
Conditional or unconditional
A stroke is a unit of recognition. E.g. you walk down the street and see your neighbour. As you pass you smile and say “hello”. They smile and say “yes, great day?” That’s a positive stroke you’ve given and received.
If your neighbour ignored you then you felt left out or deprived or wonder what you have done to offend them.
Any transaction is an exchange of strokes. This may be entirely non-verbal.
Positive strokes – the receiver experiences it as being pleasant.
Negative strokes – the receiver experiences it as being painful.
For example if your neighbour replied “It was a nice day until I saw you!” then that’s an example of a negative stroke. But any kind of stroke is better than no stroke at all.
Conditional strokes relate to what you do.
Unconditional strokes relate to what you are.
As infants we test out behaviours to find out which give us the strokes we need. If we receive strokes from certain behaviour then we are likely to repeat it (and that can be where many of our learnt behaviours come from – albeit unconsciously learnt)
Using TA for effective communication
For effective communication you need to keep the transaction complementary i.e. focus on sender to receiver and receiver to sender where the message is sent to the ego state from which you expect a reply. Using ego states we can look at how others communicate and how we communicate with others. It’s possible to identify which ego state we are in and which ego state we are expecting a reply from.
We can also use TA to help us plan transactions. For example we can identify which ego state would be most valuable for us to send the message from and which ego state it would be better for it to be received by. If we receive a reply from the wrong (non expected) ego state then we can either try to shift the other person’s ego state; or if we cannot do this it may be better to stop the communication and try again another time when the person may be in a different ego state.
We can listen to people’s communication to identify if they are habitually in one ego state and then decide if communication to that ego state would be appropriate or not.
TA therefore can be used to elicit the reactions you want from other people (and this will happen consciously or unconsciously).
We can help the communication if we need to by trying to shift the other person’s ego state by inviting people to move into a different ego state (they may not always move into it though, particularly if someone is habitually in one ego state). We may do this by acknowledging their current ego state (by the appropriate message or response) and then invite them into another ego state by the words (and body language) which you use.