Transactional analysis (more commonly known as TA) was developed in the 1950s by Eric Berne. Although trained as a psychoanalyst, Berne was highly influenced by humanistic psychology and sought to find a model of personality that was easy to understand, offered clear processes that clients could share in and could be easily communicated to the non-therapeutic public.
Berne’s seminal work, Games People Play, and Thomas Harries’ follow up, I’m OK, You’re OK, laid clear foundations for TA which, to this day, offer extremely invaluable insights that enable us to understand our relationships.
Since its emergence, TA has become firmly established as a clear, simple and highly effective way of examining and working with patterns of emotional response, communication and behaviour.
Transactional analysis offers a model of how our personalities are made up. It describes us as being made up of three ego states:
These are known as the structural ego states. Each of these ego states makes us act and think in certain ways that influence how we interact with others. The Adult state is a single state that accounts for our logical, clear-sighted and authentic thinking in response to our current situation. The Adult and Child states, however, comprise different functional ego states. These different functional states mean that the Child and Adult states can act either positively or negatively.
The Parent ego state combines four functional states:
- Positive: Nurturing, Structuring
- Negative: Critical, Smothering
Similarly, the Child ego state combines four functional states:
- Positive: Cooperative, Spontaneous/Creative
- Negative: Resistant, Immature
Combined with the Adult ego state, this gives people access to five functional states. The diagram below explores this:
A person’s behaviour at any one time, therefore, is a reflection of the ego state they are accessing and demonstrating and, unsurprisingly, these are often unconscious patterns.
TA identifies 5 key counter-injunctions which are particularly significant. These are the drivers.
- Be perfect
- Be strong
- Try hard
- Please people
- Hurry up!
These drivers appear to be present in everyone to a varying degree.
Programmes are the parents’ and other authority figures’ Adult messages taken on board by the individual. They are strategies and tactics for achieving outcomes. Programmes include such things as:
Here’s how to:
- manage your money
- drive a car
- play football
- bake a cake
- find a job
- get a boyfriend
Programmes explain why so many people insist that their way of doing something is the right way. They are unconsciously protecting and respecting their parents’ Adult messages. After all, how could these be wrong without a whole lot of other messages being up for questioning?
Injunctions are the parents’ Child messages communicated nonverbally to the individual in their childhood. They are unconscious and felt rather than conscious and verbalised. For each injunction there is also a permission. While injunctions begin with “don’t…”, permissions offer choice by suggesting, “it’s ok to…” Again, injunctions and permissions are not stated but implicit and shown in the behaviour and outcomes of the individual.
There are 12 key injunctions which affect how people feel and behave:
- Don’t be or don’t exist
- Don’t be you
- Don’t be a child
- Don’t grow up
- Don’t make it
- Don’t! (Don’t do anything)
- Don’t be important
- Don’t belong
- Don’t be close
- Don’t be well or don’t be sane
- Don’t think
- Don’t feel
Through the coaching conversations with clients, you will pick up many of these themes and can choose to explore them with the client. You can also explain the concept and labels to the client and allow them to discover what patterns they’re running.
Another key set of observations TA makes is that in any given script, there are six script processes. All six script processes have both a short-term and long-term dimension to them. The scripts are:
The until script says that “until I achieve some particular task or outcome, I can’t have something else.” This might be short-term: “I won’t eat today until I’ve been to the gym” or long-term: “until I get a promotion I can’t relax”, “until I find Mr Right I won’t be happy”, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” and so on. Life is in a constant state of anticipation.
The after script takes action now but with an eye already on the consequences. Short-term this might be, “OK, I’ll have that tequila but I know I’m going to regret it!” or long-term, “After we have a baby it’s just one long hard slog!”
We can discount at different levels, with some levels taking precedence over others of how I act. If, as a coach, I am challenging a discount at the lower level of importance, it won’t matter what shift I cause, since the controlling level is still in place. The four levels of discounting are:
- Change possibilities
- Personal abilities
We can also see that there are three things that people might discount:
- The stimulus
- The problem
- The options
We can best see this in the discount matrix:
Let’s take an example to understand at which level intervention and coaching need to take place: Marie is verbally abused with sarcastic humour by her partner. Everyone sees it. But Marie won’t accept it’s happening. Marie is denying the existence of the problem.
If we try to intervene by coaching around her personal ability to solve the problem, we will be fighting a losing battle, as she doesn’t even accept there is a problem. However, we notice that every time her partner enters and makes a comment, she goes red and looks flustered. We mention this to her. And she says, “Oh, do I? I guess that’s because you’re here and I know what you think!” She is now discounting the significance of the stimulus – i.e. the going red doesn’t mean anything important.
At some point, Marie realises she is unhappy with her partner. She accepts that he is abusing her in this way. But she says, “Well what can I do!? We’re stuck together with our mortgage and debts! I just have to put up with it.” Are we dealing with her personal ability to act on options? Well, it might seem it but in fact she is denying the existence of options or at least the viability of options. Yet in a deeper way, she is still discounting at the level of the significance of the problem, since she is effectively saying that managing the debt issue is more important or significant than managing her happiness.
Understanding at what level, and on what issue, Marie is discounting will make our coaching far more effective and less prone to resistance.
There are various other models and techniques within TA such as the drama triangle which views people coming from one of three stances: Persecutor, Rescuer and Victim.
An easy example would be the coach0client relationship! As a coach, it is easy to fall into one or all of these over a period of time.
- The Persecutor is the Critical Parent talking, and wants to ask something like: “Why don’t you just do it and stop messing around?”
- The Rescuer is the Smothering Parent and wants to say, “Let me show you how to do it or even do it for you.”
- The Victim is the Immature Child and wants to say, “I’m stuck too and don’t know what to ask or suggest!”
Coaching, from a TA standpoint is therefore partly about becoming aware of the dynamics of interactions and seeking methods to ensure you are coming from your authentic, adult ego state.