The Games People Play

A number of years ago, I remember attending a workshop in which someone introduced me to the concept of transactional analysis. It is an interesting idea and a useful tool for thinking about conversation and how and why our communication lines can often get quite literally crossed. So, in this article, I thought I would set out the basics, as I remember them.

As we make our way through life, we are influenced by many significant others including, perhaps most notably, our parents. As we mature some of our parents values and attitudes become preserved within our own personality and sometimes, we have a habit of slipping into what we might describe as ‘parent mode’. Sometimes, when we deal with other people, it is as if we are talking with them in a parental manner.

However, inside of each of us, there is still the little child that we remember, the person who often doubts our own abilities and fears people and situations we have never before encountered. If you think about the attitudes that characterised your childhood years, they are still there somewhere inside you even today. That same little child pops up in our conversations from time to time; sometimes, we drop into ‘child mode’ as it were.

Despite these influences, you have matured into a well balanced adult with your own views, attitudes and values and, hopefully, for much of the time, you tend to treat other people as adults too. When we do that, we are being rational, reasonable and level headed. We understand and empathise with other people and we do not tend to fly off the handle – that is effectively ‘adult mode’.

So, in principle, we all have these three modes, parent, adult and child and we have the ability to swap between them. Now, here’s the really interesting thing about transaction analysis: if you are in ‘parent mode’ speaking to the inner child of the other person for example, your communication will not be well accepted by that person if they are not in ‘child mode’. Parent to adult is an example of a literally ‘crossed’ transaction and it just does not work.

Think about the kind of things that someone in parent ‘mode might’ say. How about ‘you need to smarten up your ideas a bit’ or perhaps ‘why do you always have to react that way?’ – can you see the parental attitudes preserved in those statements? They are the kind of things that your parents might well have actually said.

Of course you might have had very nurturing parents who said things like ‘you can do it if you put your mind to it’ or perhaps ‘don’t worry, you tried your best’. All of these messages are parental in essence. When someone is in ‘parent mode’ and talking to your inner child, the response that causes least friction is the ‘child’ response.

Here are some examples:

Parent to child: You need to smarten up your ideas a bit. (critical parent)
Child to parent: Sorry, I’ll try harder next time.

Parent to child: You can do it if you put your mind to it. (nurturing parent)
Child to parent: OK, if you really think so.

Similarly, when someone is in ‘child mode’ appealing to the inner parent, the response that will cause the least friction is a parental response. Both adult and child responses would be crossed transactions in that case.

Here is an example:

Child to parent: Is it ok if I ….
Parent to child: Yes, of course you can.

When we begin to think about our own responses in these terms (parent, adult and child), we can begin to understand why we end up in difficult conversations at times. If someone is in ‘parent mode’ and addressing our inner child, for example by being critical of us in some way, our natural tendency might be to also respond like a critical parent. In that situation both parties are speaking to the opposite ‘child’ and neither child is responding. Hence, we get a crossed transaction and a difficult conversation.

Parent to parent is fine provided we are addressing the parent in the other person, for example:

Parent to parent: I can’t believe the clothes that these kids wear today.
Parent to parent: I know. Look at that lad with his trousers around his ankles.

That’s ok.

Similarly, child to child is ok and adult to adult works fine, but all other combinations are crossed transactions and they lead to difficult conversations. As I said, it is an interesting idea and when you begin to look for these ‘modes’ or ‘ego states’ as they are more correctly known, you can quite easily see how disagreement breaks out.

So, the takeaway from all of this is to watch out for other people’s ego states and analyse your own habitual responses and remember that those responses can be changed. They are only habits and you can unlearn them if you have the will. Recognising ‘critical parent mode’ in other people and choosing to not respond in ‘adult mode’ for example, can get you past a lot of difficulties.

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