This article explains the Transactional Analysis, developed by Eric Berne in a practical way. After reading it, you will understand the basics of this powerful communication skills theory.
What is Transactional Analysis?
Transactional Analysis (TA) is part of social psychology and was developed by the Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne in 1958. His goal was to cure people, instead of just making progress in treating them. Transactional Analysis is based on the idea that people’s early life experiences determine the decisions they’ll make. These can be both positive and negative decisions that influence their quality of life. This is also referred to as the script.
The script is central to Transactional Analysis and can be viewed as a well-described approach people use because they already learned and experienced it as a child. One example of this is that many men refuse to ever cry in public, because they learned during childhood that ‘boys don’t cry’. There are also less innocuous scripts that make people repeat their behaviour and lead to conflicts with their environment.
Transactional Analysis makes it possible to analyse these scripts. Behavioural change can help alter the scripts. Negative scripts inhibit any individual’s growth and development, whereas positive scripts have a motivating effect. Within Transactional Analysis, three different types of scripts are distinguished; the Winner, the Loser and the Non-winner (neutral). All three scripts can be going on in the same person.
Berne distinguishes three different ways to experience the world around us in Transactional Analysis. Based on these three perspectives, people behave differently depending on the situation. These are called the egos, in which thinking, feeling and behaviour are the main factors. There’s the Parent, the Adult, the Child, which can be compared to the Winner (parent), Loser (child), and the Neutral (adult). These three egos are present in each person as well. The Child and Parent are rooted in the past. The Adult handles based on the presence.
Each ego can interact with others. Eric Berne calls that transactions. Within Transactional Analysis, such a transaction is two-way communication. On the one hand there is the actual and intended communication, and on the other there’s the implied psychological sublayer.
The Parent ego is the deeply rooted voice of authority that people think, feel and express in the way parents do towards their children. The Parent ego stands for power and authority, and is pedantic and know-it-ally. The Parent ego is judgemental, critical and uses patronising language. The ‘raised finger’ is typical for this ego.
The Adult ego lives in the here and now. This ego has the ability to carefully think and take action based on available facts and data. If you want to change the Parent ego or the Child ego, it’s best to do it through the Adult ego. This ego is verbally skilled and asks many open-ended questions and bases its opinion on facts. The Adult ego also makes comparisons to other situations in order to form an objective opinion. The most important characteristics are showing interest in others, emphatic ability and patience.
The Child ego thinks, feels and behaves like a small child. This can be positive; for instance feeling excited about an upcoming holiday. Often though, it’s expressed negatively in the form of difficult behaviour, disagreeing with others, wanting to get their way, rude behaviour or anger and rage. Emotion takes over the Child ego and removes all inhibitions. The Child ego enjoys bragging, twisting the truth and making things seem worse than they are to impress others.
Each person has a need to feel noticed, appreciated and liked by others. Eric Berne has described this need for attention as wanting strokes. There are different ways to get strokes and they can be either positive or negative. That’s also the case for the two meanings of the word ‘stroke’; ‘gentle touch’ and ‘hit’. By using an action or words to elicit a response from someone, you get a stroke. That makes a stroke part of a transaction. On the one hand, people get recognition through positive strokes such as compliments, friendly remarks and encouragement. On the other, people can also receive negative strokes in the form of humiliation, cynicism, hatred etc.
Combinations of transactions
A transaction is an exchange of the previously mentioned strokes. According to Berne, there are three ways for this transaction between people to happen:
1: Complementary transaction
The equal and therefore effective communication between Child-Child, Adult-Adult, Parent-Parent.
2: Ulterior transaction
The equal communication, followed by for instance the Parent ego to the Child ego.
3: Crossed transaction
The communication takes place between two different egos. On the one hand, one person for instance starts as the Parent ego and the other as the Child ego. This leads to inequality and different expectations. The communication is no longer effective and can even turn hostile. The combination of ego styles is then unfavourable.
According to Eric Berne, verbal communication is paramount in human social relationships. In particular, it’s about face-to-face communication. When one person starts to talk, it’s called the Transaction Stimulus. When the other responds, it’s called the Transaction Reaction. In addition, people communicate on two levels.
1: The level of the social message
This is about what’s actually being said. For instance, someone says, ‘Thank you for arriving so early!’
2: Level of the psychological message
This is about what is truly meant. If the earlier sentence is spoken sarcastically, it gets a very different meaning. The message recipient can respond from his Adult ego by indicating that he doesn’t like the way the sender said it and ask them why they did that. From the Child ego, he can respond emotionally to the psychological message and become enraged.
It’s Your Turn
What do you think? Have you ever heard of the Transactional Analysis? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more suggestions? What are your success factors for personal happiness and well-being?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Berne, E. (2016). Transactional analysis in psychotherapy: A systematic individual and social psychiatry. Pickle Partners Publishing.
- Steiner, C. (1990). Scripts people live: Transactional analysis of life scripts. Grove Press.
- Wills, T. A., & Dishion, T. J. (2004). Temperament and adolescent substance use: A transactional analysis of emerging self-control. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 33(1), 69-81.
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