Does it sometimes surprise you that a seemingly mature senior manager colleague is behaving like a mischievous child or that another colleague is constantly giving you instructions like a parent?

Perhaps you can gain some valuable insights into the origins of these behaviours by reflecting on the nature of the relationships you and they have developed and the way you communicate as a result. 

We have been communicating for all our lives so we tend to take it for granted and don’t often pause to review how we actually do it and what impact it has. Transactional Analysis (TA) is an approach to analysing the interactions or ‘transactions’ between people. As such, it can provide a useful framework for giving some insights into interpersonal communications and for enabling people, through a better understanding of this process, to make personal choices about how they wish to establish and develop effective working relationships in organisations.

Since its development by Eric Berne in the 1950s, it has evolved into a complex theory of interpersonal behaviour with many facets.

One of the central concepts of Transactional Aanalysis is the classification of the person into three ‘sub-personalities’ or ‘Ego States’, each with characteristic attitudes, feelings, behaviour and language. The three Ego States are referred to as ‘Parent’, ‘Adult’ and ‘Child’

The Parent Ego State consists of feelings, behaviour and attitudes taken from influential grown-ups when we were growing up. The Parent operates in two ways - as a ‘Critical (or Controlling) Parent’ and as a ‘Nurturing Parent’. The Critical Parent sets standards or rules to live by, uses authority, is responsible, makes value judgements and exercises control (of others).  Whereas the Nurturing Parent is loving, caring, helping and protecting.

The Adult Ego State uses information in an objective way to evaluate situations in order to make rational decisions. It makes statements, estimates probabilities and makes decisions in an objective and dispassionate way.

The Child Ego State contains all the urges and emotions that we experience as a child. There are three aspects to this Ego State:

  • The Free (Natural) Child is loving, spontaneous, carefree, fun loving, adventurous, trusting and joyful. It expresses these feelings without concern for reactions by others. It is the source of our energy.
  • The Adapted Child is compliant, restrained, polite and self-controlled. It expresses this behaviour in order to seek approval from others.
  • The Little Professor is intuitive, creative and manipulative.

All three Ego States are important at the right time, there is no ‘best’ one. A fully functioning person will have access to and move constantly between aspects of the Ego States, using each set of behaviours as appropriate for the situation. The ability to recognise which ego state is operating at any given moment, both in ourselves and those with whom we are communicating is a valuable skill in order to avoid breakdowns in communication.

Conversations (according to Transactional Analysis) are composed of a series of transactions. Each transaction consists of a stimulus (spoken or unspoken) and a response to it. This is seen as the basic unit of communication. In any transaction, one person’s Ego State (Parent, Adult or Child) communicates with another person’s Ego State (Parent, Adult or Child).

So take a minute to reflect on some of the challenging relationships you have or have had in your work either with a boss, a colleague or a person reporting to you. What was the main ego state present for them and for you in the communication transactions you have or had with them? It is perhaps surprising that even very experienced senior managers can fall into a pattern of irresponsible childlike behaviour in the face of a controlling parent ego state boss or CEO. When I explained the model to one CEO and we analysed the behaviour of his senior team it became very clear the nature of their ego states and how they were pushing him into a parent ego state way of behaving. He had to communicate differently to bring them to a different ego state.  

That is not to say that childlike behaviour is bad. In fact it can be very important for us to rediscover some of the freedom of childhood especially when we are seeking to be innovative or creative. The child is free spirited and challenges boundaries which the adult takes for granted and does not challenge. The danger is if we get stuck repetitively in the same ego state and over use it or if our relationship with another is locked into a repetitive dynamic. 

This seminar enables you to understand better other people in your world, and how you relate to each other.  You will walk away with a more effective plan to avoid the pitfalls which can cause so much disruption to individual and team relationships, which are so important for the success of the business.


About the Author

Elizabeth Moon Leading International Expert on Effective Communication for Leaders and Executive Coach

Elizabeth Moon

Elizabeth Moon is an international trainer and executive coach based in France but working throughout Europe and on specific assignments in The Middle East, Asia, North America and Australasia.