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How Transactional Analysis Can Help With Effectiveness at Work

Updated: Apr 3

Transactional Analysis is a model which helps us understand communication and relationships between people and across organisations. We'll have a look at two of the key concepts in transactional analysis; ego states and transactions and then explore how understanding them a little can help at work.

What is Transactional Analysis?

Transactional analysis (TA) was initally developed by Dr Eric Berne in the 1960s but has evolved significantly since. The central belief of TA is that interactions can be described using 3 ego states; parent, adult and child. Berne believed that issues with communication and 'personality' come out of how we interact - that is through 'transactions'.

By exploring the three ego states and transactions we can have a greater understanding of how the way we communicate affects people around us and also, therefore, the effect their communication has on us.

One of the key beliefs in TA is that how we communicate and deal with confrontation in adulthood is largely determined in our earlier lives - particularly as children. As a consequence, the way we react to situations and stresses in later life is heavily influenced by our experiences at that time. 

Introduction to transactions

In general terms, each time we engage with another person, we are offering a transaction.

Using TA theory, we can develop a greater understanding of the effect our words and interactions have on those around us. Furthermore, by reflecting on and transactions (this is the analysis part), we can learn to adapt what we say, how we behave and the way we react to certain characters and situations. We'll explain more about this after the next section.

More about Ego States

To understand a bit more - its important to explore the ego state model. The three ego states have characteristics that help us to understand our transactions.

Parent adult child PAC diagram

Parent ego state

The parent ego state can be described in two parts - the nurturing parent or the controlling parent. A nurturing parent typically works from a place of concern and offers advice and unconditional love. Each transaction from the nurturing parent aims to create a safe environment for growth and development.

The other side of the coin is the controlling or critical parent. This is the side which tends to try and dominate and is judgmental and feels that their way is best. Reactions to the critical parent tend to be submission (adaptive) to their way or rebellion.

Adult ego state

The adult ego state can be seen as the 'grown up' state. The adult state is about clear here and now responses. We are able to see people as they are, rather than what we project onto them. We can be spontaneous and intimate. We can ask for direct information and are able to deal with things without being unhealthily influenced by our past. People in the adult ego state don't try to control or over-react towards others. They are comfortable with themselves and this is, for many of us, our 'ideal self'. Characteristics of the adult ego state are:

Child ego state

In the child ego state, feelings and behaviours are replayed from childhood experiences that we are re-experiencing in the present. The child ego state is made up of three parts; the natural, curious or adaptive child.

The natural child ego state has little self-awareness and a greater naivety

The curious child part is adventurous and not afraid of trying something new

The adaptive part reacts to the energy around them and tends to change behaviours to fit in with the crowd, or alternatively, strongly rebels against authority.

More about transactions

Each of the three ego states interacts within characteristic ways through transactions. There are three types of transaction; complementary, crossed and ulterior. - looking at how these work will help explain how communication issues or personality clashes arise. To start with, lets look at a complementary transaction. This is one in which the person responds in the same ego state they were approached in.

Complementary transactions diagram
Complementary Transactions

In this example, person 1 asks 'Where did you get your great shirt?' and person 2 responds with 'Not sure where its from, it was a Christmas present'. Both people are communicating from the adult ego state.

With parent and child ego states, the complementary transaction can be where one person is parent and one is child. e.g. 'Its been a long day' (child), 'you poor thing, sit down and I'll make you a cup of tea' (nurturing parent).

Crossed Transactions

A crossed transaction has a quality of unpredictability about it. The approach and response are between any two different ego states.

Crossed transaction diagram
Crossed Transactions

e.g. Person 1 says 'That was a difficult meeting'

Person 2 says 'You should be used to them by now'.

Whenever a transaction is crossed, a breakdown in communication results and something different or surprising is likely to follow.

Ulterior Transactions

An ulterior transaction contains a hidden or covert message. The approach and response are between three or four ego states, with the non-verbal covert psychological message given in addition to the overt social message. The hidden psychological message can be given in a variety of ways – via tone of voice, gesture, bodily posture, facial expression or choice of wording.

ulterior transaction diagram
Ulterior Transactions

For example the social level verbal conversation might be 'Bring our coffee in my office, I'd like a word' and the response might be 'Yes of course'.

The underlying psychological transactions could be 'You are in trouble!' and 'Yes, I know'.

Using Transactional analysis at work - communication and transactions

Think back to a transaction you had this week where you were aware of there being a break in communication. Which ego states were being used? Was there ulterior transactions concealed under the message? What was the outcome?

Think about a situation where transactions were crossed. Which ego state are you being invited into? Can you respond differently to get a different outcome?

Could you begin a conversation differently by approaching in a different ego state?

Using TA at work - Management style

Exploring the ego states can help you develop your team member style or management style to be more effective. There are some obvious things to avoid:

My way or no way: Give people some space to do things a different way that wouldn't necessarily how you would do it. Use team creativity to come up with creative solutions.

Critical parent: Public humiliation is not helpful and causes resentment - don't shout at or shame people in front of others.

Critical parent: avoid being patronising or condescending when talking to others for the same reason.

Gather facts: avoid reacting to a situation immediately. Instead, gather the facts before making a decision or judgment.

Finally, its important to see any change as a process. Getting some insight is the starting point. If you wanted to explore further, there are any number of books, courses and Youtube videos on transactional analysis out there though it is sometimes more helpful to go on a course - the TA101 Introduction to Transactional Analysis is a good introduction.


TA101 image
TA 101 image


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