Transaction Analysis

Transaction Analysis

Transactional analysis, originally developed by Dr. Berne, defined the transaction as the basic unit of social intercourse. When two people communicate, one person initiates the transaction. The person to whom the transaction is directed responds. Basic transactional analysis involves identifying the ego state that initiated the transaction and which ego state responded.  There are three types of transactions: complementary, crossed and ulterior, all of which you will encounter on a daily basis.

The crux of transactional analysis is the rule that effective and successful communications must be generated from complementary transactions. Complementary transactions complete a transit from the receiving ego state back to the sending ego state. If the transaction is from adult to child, the response must be child to adult.  For example, seeing that Paul the programmer is agitated during a team discussion, Sari the scrum master pulls Paul aside and says . . .”Paul you seem to be upset, tell me what you’re feeling.” The transaction goes from the scrum master’s nurturing parent to Paul’s child. If Paul responds, “I was feeling cut out of the conversation and I need help,” he would be responding from his child state to Sari’s parent.

Crossed transactions occur when the communication transaction does not return directly to the state it came from.  In the saga of Paul and Sari, if Paul had responded from his adult state to Sari’s adult state the communication would be confused and ineffective. For example, Paul asked Sari for a definition of the term upset. A crossed transaction occurs when an unexpected response is made to the stimulus. Crossed transactions occur for many reasons ranging from misinterpretations (the receiver does not understand the transaction) to misdirection (the receiver want to avoid the conversation). Crossed transactions can escalate into anger unless one (or both) parties disengage or redirects the conversation back to complementary patterns.

The third type of transaction is ulterior. Ulterior transactions always involve two or more ego states in parallel.  One portion of the transaction is generally verbal and the other an unspoken psychological transaction.  For example, if a manager tells an employee, “this is a really intriguing problem, but it it might be too hard for you.” This message can be heard either by the employee’s adult (I don’t have the capability to deal with this scenario) or by the employee’s child (I will do it and show him!).  Ulterior transactions are manipulative and increase the risk of communication failure and conflict. A better approach be to avoid innuendo and to break the conversation down into a set of complementary transactions exposing the meaning of each step in the conversation.

Teams are built on effective communication.  Very little productive work can be accomplished if communication breaks down. Agile team members need an understanding of the three ego states and how the transactions between the states can either be complementary (effective), crossed (ineffective) or ulterior (manipulative). Transactional analysis provides a framework to understand whether our communication is effective and how to get it back on track when it’s not.