Have you ever had a conversation that goes something like this……
Person A: “Do you know where my cufflinks/car keys are?”
Person B: “Why do I have to know / do these things for you?”
Person A: “I only asked! you don’t have to be like that!”
In a second, the interaction between two people can shift from being calm and constructive to having the potential for a full blown argument!
In 1957 Dr Eric Berne, a psychiatrist from California introduced a concept and a new language to the world of psychology. Berne had treated hundreds of patients, and over the course of their treatments he consistently noted that his patients would change ‘state’ verbally and non verbally throughout the course of a conversation.
In one case Berne was treating a 35 year old (male) lawyer who during one session referred to himself as ‘just a little boy’, even though in the outside world he was a hard hitting lawyer. Berne was intrigued by the ‘two states of being’ and began to refer to them as ‘Adult’ and ‘Child’. Later Berne added a third state of ‘Parent’ to describe the one that represented what the child had observed in his parents when he was a little boy. Berne noticed that these three ‘states’ were present in ALL his patients.
For the sake of keeping this short I won’t go into all of the detail that I could, but as usual I direct you to the wonderful source that is the internet if you are curious, and a good place to start is http://www.ericberne.com/transactional-analysis. What I want to focus on in this article is how to recognise when a transaction between two individuals is ‘healthy’ and when it becomes ‘crossed’ or potentially unhealthy.
This diagram illustrates a transaction between a parent (in parent state) and a child (in child state).
The hot, thirsty child says to the parent “please can I have a drink” and the parent gets the drink and satisfies the need of the child. This is a healthy transaction.
This diagram also illustrates a healthy transaction, this time between two people in ‘adult’ state. Adult state being the state that develops in the child when the child starts to distinguish between what they have been told (parent), what they have felt (child) and what they have experienced in life.
A ‘crossed’ transaction occurs when someone delivers a message from one ‘state’, for example the adult in this illustration is asking “How are you?”, but the respondent responds not from their ‘adult’, but from their ‘child’, “Why do you care?”. Now, this interaction has the potential to become a bit more complicated!
Within ‘parent’ and ‘child’ there are two forms of each we can play. The ‘nurturing’ parent seeks to keep the ‘child’ contented, happy, safe and secure with unconditional love. The ‘controlling’ parent seeks to control the child and make the child conform to their wishes.
The ‘free’ child is largely un-self aware, open, vulnerable, with a sometimes challenging curiosity! The ‘adaptive’ child’ is more aware of the world around them, either changing themselves to fit in or rebelling against the forces they feel.
As you can imagine, the ‘nurturing parent’ naturally talks to and evokes the ‘free child’ and likewise the ‘controlling parent’ to the ‘adaptive child’.
Now, please don’t jump to the conclusion that the controlling parent is always the bad guy! There are positive and negative forms of all four of the child / parent states. For example, the ‘negative’ nurturing parent may do things for the child that the child can easily do for themselves or never put in the boundaries that the child desperately needs. The ‘positive’ controlling parent may offer constructive criticism and offer caring but firm boundaries. We ideally need the positive forms of both!
So, how can we most usefully use this language and knowledge in our everyday lives?
Being conscious of ‘our’ state and the state we may evoke in ‘others’ can bring clarity and understanding to our transactions. For me, recognising when I have slipped into ‘negative’ controlling parent in a transaction with another ‘adult’ (husband!) is particularly useful. Predictably, this state evokes his ‘negative’ adaptive child and he is likely to either begrudgingly follow my orders or rebel! Either way, it is not the prettiest of transactions! We may not always be able to immediately change our state in order to shift from a crossed transaction to a healthy one, but at least a little knowledge of what’s going on can help to defuse the situation and deepen understanding of where both people are coming from.
Eric Berne died four days after I was born in 1970. I’m grateful to him for giving us another way to understand and explain the transactions that occur between human beings, the most complicated and fascinating beings on the planet.