Is Transactional Analysis (TA) relevant?
In the first of a multi part series written by RapidBI team associate Vince Whittle, we look at Transactional Analysis and its application in management and people development.
Introduction to TA
Many people have heard of Transactional Analysis (TA) and it was popular a number of years ago in management development programmes but how relevant is a psychoanalytic tool developed in the ‘50s to today’s managers and consultants in industry and commerce?
There is scepticism about the role of a host of ‘psychological’ interventions and tools and the legitimacy of their use in the work place or of the consultant peddling their “snake oil” as a cure all for organisation problems – and rightly so. But what of a straight forward model for understanding the behaviour of our self and others that can give a rich insight into the complexities of human relations?
I would argue that knowledge and experience of Transactional Analysis as part of personal development provides a very useful understanding of individuals, relationships and communication which is at the heart of management and organisational effectiveness.
History of Transactional Analysis (TA)
TA has its roots firmly in the therapeutic arena. It was developed as an approach to psychotherapy by Dr Eric Berne, a Canadian Psychiatrist who had become increasingly frustrated with approaches to psychotherapy in the late 1950s. His revolutionary approach led to an effective theory of personality and systematic psychotherapy with a wide range of applications from clinical approaches to psychopathology, child development, communication and therapy for individuals, couples, groups and families. However the great legacy is its application outside the therapeutic field in education, social work, management and organisations.
The models that Dr Berne developed are readily accessible and provide insight into the dynamics of human relationships. He published Games People Play in 1964 which became a best seller. According to Dr. Berne:
“… games are ritualistic transactions or behaviour patterns between individuals that can indicate hidden feelings or emotions – you can think of a game as a series of interactions (words, body language, facial expressions, etc.) between two or more people that follow a predictable pattern. The interactions ultimately progress to an outcome in which one individual obtains a “payoff” or “goal.” In most cases, the participants of the games are unaware that they are “playing.””
All models are based on some key assumptions and in the case of TA the philosophical assumptions are that:
- People are OK – Both you and I have worth, value and dignity which is unconditional
- We all have the capacity to think – and be responsible to decide what we want and face up to the consequences
- We decide our destiny – strategies and ‘games’ we play even if decided on as children are our decisions and these decision can be changed
So how can some of the TA concepts help?
In TA, ego states are sets of related behaviours, thoughts and feelings. Individuals have a limited repertoire of these that can manifest themselves at different times. The repertoire can be can be sorted into three categories, ego states that resemble those of parental figures (referred to as Parent), those that are directed towards an objective appraisal of reality (referred to as Adult) and those which represent relics but which are still active and where fixated in early childhood. Movement between these states can explain some of the shifts in behaviour we observe in others and are all components of a person’s personality. It is important to remember that each of these states is quite distinct and that movement between them can be rapid. When two or more people interact we have what is called a “transaction” and that is when this understanding of structure becomes interesting,
Complimentary transactions are the basis of appropriate interchanges for example in Adult to Adult exchanges where there is some stimulus which is correctly interpreted and a complementary response is given. These complementary transactions lead to smooth communication, however when the transactions are crossed then communication breaks down. A classic example of this is where there is a stimulus that produces an inappropriate response, if the Adult to Adult stimulus was a question such as “Maybe we need to find out why you’ve been putting on weight recently?” the appropriate Adult to Adult response would be “Maybe we should I would really like to know” However if the person retorts angrily “ You are always criticising me just like my Dad, I hate you” you are getting a Child to Parent response and the Adult concerns about weight will be suspended until the transactions can be realigned.
The workplace has many such examples of “crossed wires”.
When people transact they acknowledge each other by an act of recognition – these are called strokes and are necessary for people to maintain both their physical and psychological wellbeing. Different strokes for different folks, is very true as many a naughty child will play up just to get the attention – even if it hurts! I bet you already recognise this in a number of your colleagues or clients! But understanding and recognising the need for strokes is fundamental in developing positive working relationships.
As children we write for ourselves a life script, it’s a story of our life with beginning, middle and end. The basic plot is formed in infancy and most of the rest is completed by age seven. Whilst most of us will not consciously remember what we determined for ourselves we are likely to live it out without being aware of it tending to set up our lives to move towards the final scene we decided upon when very small. Becoming aware of your own life script can help people understand how they may, unconsciously, set up problems for themselves – and how they may resolve them. Jerry B Harvey recognised this in his brilliantly titled book “How come every time I get stabbed in the back my fingerprints are on the knife?”
Games are ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions which progress to well-defined and predictable outcomes. Dr Berne details thirty-five games in his book each of which results in a “payoff” for at least one of the players. Recognising what is happening in social interactions is sometimes difficult which is why TA therapists undergo extensive training. However having a knowledge and understanding of the nature of games gives managers and consultants some choices about how they approach engaging with others which can realise benefits for both.
TA – a summary
In summary the models developed by Eric Berne are readily accessible and straightforward, he uses simple language to describe some of the complexities of personality and social interaction and on the whole it is a very “user friendly” approach which clearly explains many of the truths we experience in our personal and work lives. That understanding gives choices in the way we manage our own communication and interaction helping us be more authentic and effective.
More to follow in coming pieces – how to use these concepts in practice
VJ Whittle 2010