Change Work December 2009

Your move

In the early 1960s, the American psychiatrist Eric Berne wrote about "ego states" and the way that we can all adopt different ones at different times.  The three ego states are Parent, Adult and Child.  The study of how the states adopted by the parties in a communication affect the outcome is called Transactional Analysis.

For example, person A might ask person B, "Do you know where the TV remote is?"  This is a question only intended to elicit information and therefore comes from the Adult state.  B might reply, "Yes, it's on the table," (Adult) or, "Why are you asking me. I haven't touched it!" (Child) or, "Have you lost it again?" (Parent).

The Adult response closes the interaction successfully whereas the Child complaint might well induce A to reply as Parent, "Well, I've told you before to put it back ..."  Alternatively, A might join B in the Child state: "Well, someone's taken it and it wasn't me!"

If you actually are a parent then this conversation may be very familiar.  The point is though that people of all ages can (and do) take on the Child state.  Similarly, very young people learn to take on the Parent state - even with their own parents!  ("Dad - you've asked me that before!")

Between adults, it's usually most beneficial for transactions to be Adult-Adult.  However, our ego states tend to be assumed habitually in response to familiar stimuli.  So, A's simple question is interpreted as an attack which automatically invokes the Child.  Then, the best strategy for A is to remain in the Adult state saying, for example, "I just thought you might have seen it".  B is then quite likely to respond as Adult.

I'll leave Transactional Analysis there and just briefly touch on Berne's ideas about "games".  These are ritual patterns of conversation and action that we follow, quite unconsciously and repeatedly.

In his book "Games People Play" , which also gives a brief account of Transactional Analysis, Berne describes many distinct sequences that occur in various contexts.

For example, the game "Why Don't You - Yes But" is very familiar:

White: "My husband always insists on doing our own repairs, and he never builds anything right."
Black: "Why doesn't he take a course in carpentry?"
White: "Yes, but he doesn't have time."
Blue: "Why don't you buy him some good tools?"
White: "Yes, but that would cost too much."
Brown: "Why don't you just accept what he does the way he does it?"
White: "Yes, but the whole thing might fall down."
Such an exchange is typically followed by a silence.  It is eventually broken by Green, who may say something like, "That's men for you, always trying to
show how efficient they are."
... A good player can stand off the others indefinitely until they all give up, whereupon White wins.

The players think they're having a unique conversation and don't know that they're playing a game - one they've played many times before.

Berne describes over 40 games like this and gives them fascinating names such as "Kick Me", "Wooden Leg" and "Now I've Got You - You Son of a Bitch".  Many of them are explained in detail on the website

So, have fun watching for these (it's a really good game!) and remember to express your inner Adult - at least some of the time!