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

Even elephants crave strokes.

Even elephants crave strokes.

Transactional analysis defines two basic units of measure – the transaction and the stroke. The transaction is the unit of social intercourse and the stroke is the unit of social action. Strokes are when one person recognizes (verbally or non-verbally) another person. Rene Spitz incorporated the concept of a stroke into transactional analysis; when he observed that infants deprived of handling were prone to emotional and physical difficulties. We all hunger for social contact, and in fact suffer greatly without it. Sales guru David Sandler, in his book with John Hayes, Ph.D, You Can’t Teach A Kid To Ride A Bike At A Seminar suggested that everyone is stroke deprived. Therefore we are always looking for strokes that provide recognition, either positive or negative.  In order for a team to reach maximum effectiveness each individual needs to get the positive strokes they need, while minimizing the negative strokes. There are four basic variants of strokes – positive, negative, unconditional or conditional.

Strokes can be positive (“That is great idea”) or negative (“That is a horrid idea”). Strokes can have different values depending on the source and the perceived veracity. For example, a peer telling another that a business solution was brilliant will have more value than a simple “good morning” even though both are positive strokes. In this example while the “good morning” is a positive stroke it is undifferentiated and would be discounted more than the specific stroke about work done. Agile teams provide an excellent platform for delivering and receiving strokes.  In Daily Process Thoughts, May 2, 2013 we discussed how team boundaries impacted team effectiveness.  Team boundaries help establish trust which amplifies the value of strokes. Getting enough stokes from the team reinforces membership and increases teamwork.  Teamwork and productivity are highly correlated.

Strokes can also be either unconditional (“You are a great person”) or conditional (“You are a great person for solving my problem”). An unconditional stroke is for being you, and a conditional stroke is for having done something.  Positive conditional strokes are a powerful motivational tool when they are genuine (when you think they are not genuine you naturally discount them). Because unconditional strokes pertain to characteristics which occur naturally they can not be earned.  For example a piano player might be given a stroke for having long graceful fingers and that would be unconditional. If he was stroked for his performance, that would be conditional.  Unconditional strokes are often used as softeners when coupled with a negative stroke.  For example how many time have you heard someone begin a conversation with “You are a smart person” (or some variation) which is a positive, unconditional stroke only then to whack them with “but that was stupid” (negative, conditional stroke).  The last example could also be considered a counterfeit stroke which is giving something positive, then taking it away again.

Giving strokes is positive feedback loop that reinforces behavior.  When there does not seem to be enough strokes to fulfill an individual’s need, they will seek out negative strokes rather than getting no strokes at all (i.e. being ignored). While observing a daily stand up meeting for a few days, I noticed one individual who came late, daily, for which he was called out, daily.  Upon investigation I found that the person was not interacting much with the team, and was therefore receiving little feedback.  Coming late to the stand-up was his mechanism for getting a negative, conditional stroke. As an outside coach, I facilitated an impromptu retrospective to discuss how we could get everyone involved in a positive manner.  The team performed better afterwards and everyone showed up on time to the stand-up meetings.

Everyone needs strokes and no one gets enough. We are all looking for ego stokes in all of our interactions. Strokes are delivered by transactions between the three ego states defined in transaction analysis.  Strokes are powerful tools for any team to use to reinforce membership (your teammates will help satisfy your need for strokes and you can do the same for them) and for reinforcing competence. In the end all strokes have value, and when there aren’t enough positive stroke we will seek negative strokes which slowly poisons the team environment.  Focusing on delivering high value, positive strokes will foster an environment of trust for teams to be at their most effective.

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 us 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 grow up in. 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 Blackberry), 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 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 based on 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 (1961) 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]” These trigger behaviors patterns that define the adult ego state directs which ego state is called into action.

Understanding the ego states described in Transactional Analysis provides a set of behavioral and communication attributes to understand how the ego states 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, they are complementary.  One of the rule of Transaction Analysis is that successful communications must be between complementary states. We will explore the permeations of the parent, child and adult ego states over this week. 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.


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