Connected communication: The key to improved collaborative outcomes
Awareness requires living in the here and now, and not in the elsewhere, the past or the future.
– Eric Berne “Games People Play: The Basic Handbook of Transactional Analysis”
Recently coaching my primary school-age child through playground conflict, I got to thinking; too often, this type of petty conflict borne through basic communication breakdown continues well beyond the school gates and into our workplaces. Thankfully, as adults and leaders, we can learn how to navigate workplace interactions to connect, inspire and persuade. The key is in psychology and Eric Burne’s theory of Transactional Analysis.
What is Transactional Analysis?
Communication is messy and complex. Transactional Analysis is a method that can help us to improve communication effectiveness by analysing, understanding and adjusting our communication and interaction with others based on the roles we play when we communicate.
Are there any grown-ups here?
At its core, Transactional Analysis suggests that every person, irrespective of age, has three ego states – parent, child and adult – and the ultimate success of every human interaction requires complementary ego states in both parties.
Have you ever felt, said or done something and recognised that your reaction was uncannily like your mother, father or other primary caregivers? It can be nurturing – encouraging, caring, loving, helping – or controlling – criticising, reprimanding, interfering, censoring. These attitudes, feelings and behaviour reflect our parent ego state.
No matter how old you are, situations can trigger your child ego state, mirroring the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours you experienced as a child. The innocence and natural child characteristics – curious, creative, loving, open – are in stark contrast to the adaptive child attributes – guilty, afraid, anxious, oppositional, reckless, appeasing. The adaptive child parts of our personality developed as we learned to modify our behaviour and feelings in response to the world around us. They are, unsurprisingly, some of the most problematic parts of our personality.
Our adult ego state describes our ability to think and act based on the here and now. It is generally straightforward, non-emotional, open-minded and non-judgemental. Facts, interest and objectivity fuel the adult ego state.
Ego states are as unique as our fingerprints, and naturally informing our reactions is the ego state triggered in an interaction. While both the parent and child ego states are rooted in the past, the adult state is rooted in the present.
When expectations aren’t met
According to Burne, Transactional Analysis theory identifies three parts to every interaction: what we say, the response we expect, and the response we receive. Moreover, there are three types of transactions – crossed, ulterior and complementary.
Conflict and communication breakdown often stems from a misalignment between what we expect and the response received. Transactional Analysis theory describes this as a crossed communication, and it is created when the ego state being addressed is not the one that responds.
Ulterior communication is often present in toxic or dysfunctional work environments, and it happens when messaging is multi-layered, contradictory and confusing. Think inconsistency between what we say and what we do or the underlying tone in passive-aggressive communication.
Neither crossed nor ulterior communication effectively builds good working relationships because expectations are not met or clear.
On the other hand, complementary communication occurs when both parties’ ego states are aligned or sympathetic and the response received is as expected. It makes sense that complementary communication underpins the most productive and high-performing teams.
Positively influencing communication
To improve the productivity and effectiveness of our exchanges, we need to be attuned to our behaviours, responses and roles while communicating. We can do this by challenging ourselves to default to ‘adult’ when initiating workplace interactions. If we feel ourselves regressing, remaining attentive, curious, non-threatening and using reasoned statements, calm body language, and genuine interest will help get things back on track.
Applying Transactional Analysis as a guide to rectifying communication breakdowns in the workplace and proactively fostering mindful communication across our teams and organisations will inevitably lead to more positive, productive and collaborative outcomes. The only way to address crossed communication is for one or both parties to switch their state. Using our awareness, we can recognise the ego state in others by actively observing tone, word selection, gestures, body language and emotional state. While we can control and switch our state, we can also influence others’ state by being conscious of the situation and mindful of the objectives.
As John Gottman established, the ratio of positive to negative interactions needed as the basis for a good relationship is 5:1. We are not talking about placating people with meaningless praise. We are talking about ensuring that the vast majority of interactions are clear, calm and constructive. In addition, recognising game playing (ulterior communication) in individuals and teams early and dealing with it transparently will stop relationships from declining into dysfunction.
Berne, E., 2011. Games People Play: The Basic Handbook of Transactional Analysis. [Place of publication not identified]: Tantor eBooks.
Medium. 2021. How to Use Psychology to Communicate Better and Avoid Conflict. [online] Available at: <https://medium.com/@NataliMorad/how-to-communicate-better-with-transactional-analysis-d0d32f9d50da> [Accessed 16 May 2021].
Harvard Business Review. 2021. The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio. [online] Available at: <https://hbr.org/2013/03/the-ideal-praise-to-criticism> [Accessed 16 May 2021].
Businessballs.com. 2021. Transactional Analysis – Eric Berne. [online] Available at: <https://www.businessballs.com/building-relationships/transactional-analysis-eric-berne/> [Accessed 16 May 2021].