Transactional Analysis (TA) is a set of tools for understanding people and their relationships; this article coninues our series on key TA concepts.

If everyone has (Inner) Parent, Adult, and Child Ego States, then we can describe the exchanges between people in terms of their different Ego States. Some examples:

  • my Child can express a feeling (“I’m sad that my dog died”), and you could respond with
    • Critical Parent (“I told you not to let him out!”),
    • Nurturing Parent (“Of course you’re sad; do you want to get another one soon?”),
    • Adult (“What happened to him?”), or
    • Child (“I feel sad, too”).
  • In another example, my Adult can say something (“The charge is $85”), and your
    • Critical Parent can respond (“You charge too much; you’re exploiting people!”);
    • a Nurturing Parent response might be “You certainly work hard; you deserve a vacation.”
    • An Adult response might be “It’s more than I expected; do you take Mastercard?”
    • The Child Ego State might react with “I don’t like paying you to be nice to me,” or “Whatever you say.”

One complete exchange between two people is called a Transaction (a Transactional Stimulus followed by a Transactional Response). Any conversation, including non-verbal exchanges (smiles, dirty looks, gestures), can be looked at as a series of overlapping Transactions (the Transactional Response is the Stimulus for the next Response from the other person, etc.).

The analysis of Transactions can help people understand why certain patterns keep recurring, and can identify alternative ways of responding that could produce better results.

A client who has a difficult time with his boss, for example, discovers that he usually feels ineffective and inadequate whenever she talks to him about something that needs improvement or correction.

When he thinks about it in my office, he recognizes that he responds to her Adult information as if she were a scolding, Critical Parent. He sees that he then stops using his own problem-solving Adult and moves into his Child, who tries hard to please.

Once he starts to observe the pattern (which is an Adult activity), he is much freer to choose to use a different Ego State to handle the situation.

Using this model, Eric Berne described some patterns of communication between people. He saw that communication tends to continue when the Ego State that is addressed is the one that responds. If my Parent speaks to your Child, for example, your Child is likely to be the part of you that responds (“You should come on time!” “You can’t make me!” or “I’m sorry, I’ll try harder next time”).

Berne also noticed that communication gets interrupted, broken, or confused when a different Ego State responds than the one that was addressed. If your Parent addresses my Child, for example, and my Adult answers, there is a moment of interruption or confusion for you (“You should be more responsible!” “Is there a problem for you with something I did? What can I do to help fix it?”).

The other common problem in communication that is addressed by TA is that there are often hidden levels of transactions. For example, it may seem like an Adult question to ask “What time is it?” However, if I ask you that while I’m wearing a watch, there’s a clock on the wall, and you are in deep concentration on some important task, we can suspect that there is something going on besides my wanting some information.

We would probably understand this situation in terms of a hidden, Child-to-Parent Stimulus, as if I were saying “I want you to think for me and take care of me.” Berne pointed out that the response to Ulterior Transactional Stimuli, as he called them, was not predictable. In this example, it’s hard to predict whether you will just tell me the time (Adult response to the apparent Adult question) or will deliver a Critical Parent attack on me for being stupid, selfish, inadequate, etc.

Berne observed that the most common ongoing problems that people have with one another can be understood in terms of repetitive patterns of Ulterior Transactions; he called these patterns “Games People Play,” and wrote a best-selling book about them. In the next Post, we will discuss the concept of Games, and show how to recognize and avoid them.


For further information about Transactional Analysis, visit the websites for the International Transactional Analysis Association (ITAA) and the USA Transactional Analysis Association (USATAA).

There is a major TA Conference scheduled for San Francisco in August, 2007; details HERE.

[tags]Personal Growth, Self Help, Self-Improvement,Transactional Analysis[/tags]