Getting all Transactional Analysis

So last week I had some interesting responses to a question I put out there on Twitter about Transactional Analysis. I was asking what we should be driving people towards in helping them to understand the model. Should we be telling people to always try and reach an Adult conversation, or should we be telling them to aim for complimentary transactions?

I love me a bit of gobbledygook.

Transactional Analysis is essentially about helping you to observe behaviours in others, and identifying what ‘state’ they’re in. They can either be in a ‘Parent state’, ‘Adult state’, or ‘Child state’. If they’re in Parent state, this is when they are using language and displaying behaviour that is in line with judging others, being critical, coming from a moral high ground, defining right and wrong (this set of behaviours are called ‘critical parent’), nurturing others, caring for them, kind behaviours, (‘nurturing parent’). If they’re in Adult state, they are being empathetic, calm, logical, rational, in control of their emotions, and being a steady force. If they’re in Child state, this is where they are being fun, spontaneous, rebellious, single-minded, creative, and emotional. These descriptors aren’t exhaustive, I’m just hoping to provide some context to the jargon.

Eric Berne (the father of TA), helped us to understand that in most conversations we flow between these states constantly. And naturally this is because of the conversations we are having with others. He described those conversations as being transactions. Person A sends the message, Person B receives the message and responds. He said sometimes those transactions are complimentary. E.g.

Person A – Why did you not file the report on time? (Parent state)
Person B – Because the information we received was wrong and needing correcting before I submitted it. (Adult state).


Person A – I feel like getting some ice-cream. Do you fancy some? (Child state)
Person B – No thanks, I don’t enjoy eating ice-cream without a meal. (Parent state)

And sometimes those transactions become crossed. E.g.

Person A – Why did you not file the report on time? (Parent state)
Person B – How dare you accuse me of being slack in my work, you have no idea how hard I tried to get that report in on time. (Child state)


Person A – I feel like getting some ice-cream. Do you fancy some? (Child state)
Person B – What at this time of day? Don’t you know it will cause you dental problems in the long run? (Parent state)

In both those examples, you can see how easy it is that one response may be given over the other.

Often, I’ve heard it taught that you should be trying to get each other to Adult state in order to have the best transaction. I’m not so convinced.

Human nature doesn’t stay stale. It doesn’t stay in one state. We are in constant flow, and this is exciting. It means we either really connect with others or we really don’t. Life is made all the more richer by exploring those conversations to see where they can lead. Keeping each other in Adult state just sounds so boring.

My impression is that we should be helping others to reach complimentary transactions more often than not. And when I reflect on it, that’s when I’ve been most engaged, most interested, most in love, most vibrant, because I’ve found a way to transact with someone which is complimentary and very exciting.

What do you think?

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

4 thoughts on “Getting all Transactional Analysis”

  1. Thanks for the introduction on TA Sukh – I read it briefly on wikipedia the other day when you mentioned it and was swiftly confused!

    Out of interest (and a bit off topic to your final question) – how are you meant to get both parties into an adult state? What’s the preamble? I can think of loads of times that I’ve responded emotionally to a situation impulsively. Sometimes wrongly, sometimes (I believe) justified.

    More related to your final question – is everyone being in an adult state healthy when we’re all told that we need to innovate, be curious, be spontaneous etc. in order to both survive as individual professionals and as a business as a whole?

  2. Hi Sukh,

    You’ve touched on a topic that I’m very passionate about (& have spent the last 4 years studying to some depth)… so I’d like to pick up on an important point.

    Something that oft concerns me about TA is that people don’t realise there are a number of models looking at the egostates (Parent, Adult, Child). The 2 key – very differnt – models that may be important to understand are:
    the structural egostates (what we hold within us; our mindset; the way we see the world and ourselves)
    and functional egostates (behaviour we see in ourselves and others).

    What you’re describing seems to be the functional egostates; and from that perspective it is absolutely okay to be operating from any of them. It’s important to set boundaries and provide structure; to care for and nurture others (both Parent); to account for reality (Adult); to fit in and create harmony; to play, create and experiment (both Child). There are positive and negative behaviours in both Parent & Child – and the postives are important to building great relationships/interactions.

    The Structural egostate model (sticking with Berne’s original) essentially implies that for us to get the best out of a situation, we need to be operating in the here & now; rather than the there and then. This is where we need to be in Adult – to enable us to choose which of the functional egostates are most appropriate for this situation. It allows us to notice what’s really going on and access more of our resources, more readily.

    So when people say we need to have an adult-adult conversation, I believe they’re confusing ‘structural adult’ with ‘functional adult’.

    In short, I agree that it’s useful to bring all the egostates and offer cross transactions amongst many others, to illuminate; challenge or enhance a conversation. Hopefully doing all of that from my adult (rather than ‘in an adult way’).

    How does understanding this, help with your thinking?

  3. Sukh, thanks for putting this out there.

    Esther, thanks for sharing your knowledge and insight. I had responded to Sukh’s tweet with my thought that its all about intent. I guess thats very much about the here and now and what state do I choose to be in to get the best from this conversation. I imagine thats what you mean by Structural ego state, and doing that from my “adult rather than in an adult way”.


  4. I had an antipathy to TA in the past as it can be jargon laden and therefore inaccessible – or accessible to anyone without the depth of knowledge. Having a supervisor who has an incredible depth of knowledge along with being fortunate to work with Esther and a couple of other individuals who are trained therapeutically, I can see what a valuable tool it can be.

    I can also see how a little knowledge can get in the way. I experienced this myself before my own learning.

    Here’s a couple of things I like about TA to add to others comments:

    At the heart of TA is the fundamental belief that people can change, and, each of us have a right in this world, and a right to be accepted as we are. A great starting point for accepting others and being curious.

    When we have an awareness of ego states, and understand what we learned about parenting as children, and understand the different elements of the structural and functional models, then we deepen our own insights into our communication and relationships and can take greater responsibility in our interactions with each other. So, the learning starts with me.

    It’s powerful, but like all power tools, needs careful handling.

    Are we driving people in their learning – that feels like parent to me, and aren’t we more likely to invite the children out to play if we are in our parent ego state?

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