Communication is a series of transactions.

Communication is a series of transactions.

People are the heart of the interactions that drive every organization and team. Increasing the effectiveness of communication will directly translate to higher productivity. To improve communication you need to develop an understanding of psychology. Transactional analysis is one of the most useful communication theories for IT professionals. Transactional analysis provides a basis to enrich your dealings with others by helping you understand why communication gets crossed. Developed by Eric Berne, it was built on the idea that the human psyche is multifaceted. Berne suggests that there are three egos states: the parent, the child and the adult. Each of these ego states has different attributes, and an understanding of each can help IT professionals better communicate.

The parent alter ego is the voice of authority. It represents the conditioning, attitudes and learning we absorb through the environment we grew up in. The environment includes both the physical and cultural. We are taught this role. The parent role comes in two flavors: nurturing (viewed as positive until it goes too far and results in spoiling) and controlling (viewed as negative when it is simply critical rather than providing structure). IT personnel are generally not trained psychologists, so the identification of an ego state is difficult without examples. Examples of nurturing parent behavior includes being fully present in your interactions (put down that phone), providing physical comfort when sought and providing challenges that promote healthy development. On the other hand, controlling behaviors may include angry or impatient body language and finger pointing (a big one with my mother). The parent role guides behavior either through controlling or nurturing communication. The ability to identify communication coming from the parent role is important because interacting with the parent ego state using the wrong ego state will cause misinterpretation (known as crossed communication).

The child ego state represents the part of us that reacts to the world emotionally. We learn this role as we experience events and simultaneously record our emotions. The child’s role interprets events based on the relationship it has established through experiences and feelings. As with the parent ego state, there are two sides to the child ego state: the adapted child and the free child.  The adapted child state reacts to the parent state either with obedience or defiance. The free child state is characterized by openness, spontaneity and boldness. The child ego state tends to be feeling and very egocentric. Understanding this state is important because the emotional linkage is important to selling change.  For example, marketing communication that aims to induce impulse purchases is targeted at the child state.

The adult ego state is logical (think of Spock in the original Star Trek series as an extreme adult ego state). It acts as a control between the parent and the child state. It makes plans and decisions based on data it receives. Berne stated, “I have heard the adult described through the metaphor of a tape recorder that is turned on at ten months then switches off at some point and then is only replayed. The adult ego state is characterized by an autonomous set of feelings, attitudes and behavior patterns which are adapted to the current reality.[1]” The patterns that define the adult ego state  become a set of triggerable behaviors patterns.

Understanding the ego states provides a set of behavioral and communication attributes to understand how people interact. When you are speaking from your ego state to someone else you are interacting with their current ego state.  Berne theorized that some ego states interact better than others because they are complementary.  One of the rule of transaction analysis is that successful communications must be between complementary states. In the world of organizational change, the parent gives permission, the adult decides and the child buys. In order to plan, sell and implement change we need to understand how to involve all ego states. [IN WHAT?]


[1] Transactional analysis in psychotherapy: a systematic individual and social psychiatry, Eric Berne, Publisher Grove Press, 1961, p76

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