Transactional Analysis (TA) is a fascinating theory of communication. It was created by Eric Berne in the 1950s and 1960s but is still very much used today.
3 Ego States
We All Have Split-Personalities or Ego States
The theory is based on the idea that we have 3 parts (or Ego States) to our personality (the Parent, the Adult and the Child).
Parent, Adult and Child Ego States exist in each of us irrespective of our own age.
Here are a few pointers to understand and recognize these Ego States:
We Communicate Through These Ego States
Whenever we interact with others, transactions take place between our different Ego States.
It’s easier to explain with an example. Here’s a conversation between a boss and his employee and in brackets the Ego State they use.
- At what time is the train due? (Adult)
- – It’s late by 5 minutes (Adult)
- Absolutely typical! (Critical Parent)
- – Yes, they always manage to run late and they never give any warning! (Critical Parent)
- I checked your document for our meeting. It’s full of spelling mistakes! You should have run the spell-check. (Critical Parent)
- – Oh, I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. (Adaptive Child)
- I can hear the train arriving. (Adult)
- – That’s good, we’re not too late. (Adult)
- Let me help you with your luggage. (Nurturing Parent)
- – Oh, thank you very much! (Free Child)
- Oh wow! They’re giving out free Champagne! (Free Child)
- – Fantastic! (Free Child)
We can notice several things:
1 – In one single conversation, we can use different Ego States
In our example, we can see one single person talking in turn as an Adult, a Critical Parent, Nurturing Parent and a Free Child. While the other person replies in turn as an Adult, Critical Parent, Adaptive Child and Free Child.
Observe your own conversation and others’ and you’ll notice that as subjects flow and the conversation evolves, you adopt different Ego States. You’ll also notice however that many people have one or two preferred Ego States they feel more comfortable in.
2 – Parent and Child have 2 sub-categories each
The Parent can be either Critical or Nurturing. The Critical Parent, for example, criticises us for making a mistake in our homework. The Nurturing Parent is the one who gently helps us find the correct answer.
The Child can be either Free or Adaptive. The Free Child is the child acting in a natural way, giving in to pure instinct. Secondly, there is the Adaptive Child who has suppressed its natural instinct and is focusing its behaviour on doing what it thinks the Parent wants in order to gain approval.
3 – When transactions are complementary, conversation flows
In our example, all the conversations are complementary.
- The Adult addresses the Adult and is answered back from Adult to Adult.
- The Critical Parent is talking to the Critical Parent.
- The Critical Parent addresses the Adaptive Child which responds as such.
- The Nurturing Parent addresses the Free Child which responds as such.
- The Free Child is talking to the Free Child.
Because they’re complementary, these transactions flow without tension.
The Cause Of Conflicts
When we talk to someone, without being aware of it, we do it from one of our Ego States and we specifically address one of their Ego States:
- If I talk about the weather, my Adult is talking to their Adult.
- If I ask for advice, my Child is talking to the Nurturing Parent within them.
- If I complain about their bad parking, my Critical Parent is talking to the Adaptive Child in them.
If they reply with the Ego State I address, all goes well.
But if the other person replies from an Ego State that is not the one addressed, transactions become crossed and communication suffers. We argue or we simply don’t understand what each other is saying.
In the example above, the employee could have rebelled against the spelling mistakes comment:
– I did check for spelling mistakes! (Free Child) You make mistakes too you know! (Critical Parent)
In which case, it would most certainly have caused a conflict.
the Ego State addressed to is not the one the person replies with.
How To Avoid Conflicts And Improve Communication
Communication is exchanging words or ideas.
Good, effective communication is more than that, it is ensuring that the other person understands not just what we say but what we want to say.
The first condition for effective communication is to keep transactions complementary, so the other person really hears what we have to say.
It means that:
- if transactions are crossed and a break in communication results, one or both individuals will need to shift Ego state in order for the communication to be re-established
- we should choose to express our views from the Ego State the other person is the most likely to hear us
Shift your or the other person’s Ego State to keep the conversation going
Pay attention to the Ego State you’re in and the one you expect a reply from. If you notice a mismatch, you can help communication by trying to shift the other person’s Ego State or shifting your own.
3 Ego States are particularly useful in case of crossed communication: the Adult, the Nurturing Parent and the Free Child.
You can calm passions down by both moving into an Adult Ego State where facts prevail. Do this by:
- Asking a question
- Stating a few facts
- Asking for their view
Another strategy is to appeal to their Nurturing Parent (this is particularly useful if you’ve noticed they like to be in the Nurturing Parent position). Do this by:
- Asking for their help
- Asking for their advice
- Asking for their expert opinion
- Communicating your fears/worries
Finally, use your Free Child to appeal to theirs in an effort to lighten things up. This works if you know they can let themselves go to use their Free Child (it’s better to choose the Adult or Nurturing Parent strategies otherwise). You can invoke their Free Child by:
- Being yourself
- Showing the funny side of the situation
- Going to nurturing parent
- Being enthusiastic
- Showing an unconventional way of looking at things
Plan your transactions
We can also use Transactional Analysis to help us plan our transactions.
We can plan according to:
– what we have to say
Think about which Ego State would be most valuable to send the message from and which Ego State it would be better for it to be received by. If you receive a reply from the wrong (non expected) Ego State then you can either try to shift it or, if you can’t, postpone the conversation until the other person is in a different Ego State.
– who we need to say it to
Listen to these 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.
We can pick the one or switch to the one that is the most appropriate for our message to be heard and understood.
Want More on Effective Communication?
Understanding Transactional Analysis can vastly improve your communication (and also conflict resolution). If you’d like more tools and techniques specifically for better communication, check out the following:
The Pyramid Technique: How To Communicate Effectively with The Pyramid Technique
Chunking: Want To Be A Better Communicator? Learn To Chunk
How To Improve Your Communication Skills With Better Breathing