What is your script?

July 23, 2018

Transactional Analysis (TA) is essentially a social psychology through which we can learn about our personality by analyzing the way we behave with others. Originally developed as a psychiatric approach by Dr Eric Berne around sixty years ago, it provides a systematic framework within which we can learn how to communicate smoothly and effectively with people; build genuine and sincere relationships based on respect for each other; discover unconscious mental barriers that may be holding us back from realizing our true potential; and relate to others in an open, honest, and meaningful way devoid of any exploitation or manipulation. The principles and techniques of TA can be applied wherever human beings interact with one another, whether in private, social, or organizational settings.

There are four distinct fields of application of TA:

  • psychotherapy
  • counselling
  • educational
  • organizational

The last three are also clubbed together under the umbrella term Developmental TA, since their focus is on applying TA for self-development and personal growth rather than for treatment of psychiatric problems.

If we consider the organizational field, then it is not difficult to appreciate the value of TA in culture-building and organizational development. Improper or ineffective communication is the bane of many companies; indeed, it is rare to find an organization, which has clear and smooth flow of communication, whether horizontal or vertical. Again, only a few enlightened companies pay serious attention to culture-building—the majority taking the phrase to mean nothing more than organizing social events, birthday parties, and the likes. However, real efforts to build culture would involve inculcating the values of mutual respect and trust among the employees, getting them to recognize and appreciate each other, and relate to each other in a genuine, honest, and meaningful way. Likewise, if we are able to talk among ourselves in a non-threatening and non-judgmental manner and clearly understand one another, we will be able to work smoothly together. TA teaches all this and more; knowledge and application of its concepts and techniques will almost certainly lead to improved productivity and, by implication, organizational success and growth.

So, exactly what is Transactional Analysis all about? What does it teach, and what does it hope to achieve? At the individual level, it will teach you how you can take charge of your life. Here is an extract from the book Winning Hearts and Minds:

“The goal of Transactional Analysis can be summed up in a single word: Autonomy—autonomy by breaking away from conditioned thinking; autonomy by taking responsibility for one’s actions; and autonomy of behavior by building and sustaining meaningful and enriching relationships. In short, unlocking your potential to achieve, grow and find happiness.”

To begin at the beginning: all of us were children once; all of us had parents or parent figures when we were small. While growing up, we received certain messages from them and other authority figures about how we should act or behave in order to win their approval. Some of these messages, if repeated enough times and reinforced by both parents, became ‘hardwired’ in our personality, so much so that we keep replaying the same behavior unconsciously after we grow up, although the context, situation, and people may have changed. Here is an example from the book:

“Raju, aged five years, is walking on the road with his parents when he suddenly stumbles and falls down. He hurts his knee and starts crying because of the pain. His father tells him sternly: “Big boys don’t cry!” Raju gets the message: “Don’t show your feelings”. If he gets the same kind of messages frequently, he may well start believing that it’s not OK to express yourself, and that parental approval is best obtained by suppressing feelings. The same Raju, when he grows up, may find it difficult to express his emotions, and go through rocky relationships with people close to him on account of this—all due to the old parental command ‘Don’t Feel’.” As a manager, Raju is likely to be regarded by his subordinates as machine-like, cold and unfeeling, and generally unresponsive and unsympathetic.”

Such messages, or the way we interpreted them when we were small, form part of our ‘script’, or unconscious life plan; by the age of six, the child decides, in psychological terms, who she is going to be, and how she is going to behave, for the rest of her life. However, this decision is made at a time when she has limited experience of people and the world in general, and when her intelligence and reasoning faculties are not fully developed. And so, later in life, she—and everyone else—needs to examine her old script commands and decide what is relevant to her present situation and what can be junked. There may be some old commands, which are preventing her from achieving what she could achieve, like success in a relationship, or in her career, and so on.

“All this is very interesting” the HR manager says, “But how does it help me in my work?”

To understand how, we need to first clarify a few TA definitions and concepts.

A ‘transaction’ is an interaction between two or more people, whether verbal or non-verbal. The term has a vaguely commercial tinge, but actually emphasizes the fact that the person initiating the interaction is investing an amount of psychological energy in it, and expecting to get something back in return.

A ‘stroke’ is recognition or acknowledgement of another person. Again, it may be verbal or non-verbal; a smile, look, gesture, and nod that says, “I know you’re there.” Positive strokes are those that make us feel good (OK) about ourselves, and negative strokes are those that make us feel bad (Not OK) about ourselves.

Based on the strokes received while growing up, we make certain assumptions about ourselves (I am OK or I am not OK) and others (You are OK or You are not OK). This leads to our assuming any one of the following preferred ‘Life Positions’:

  • I am OK, You are not OK (bully)
  • I am not OK, You are OK (loser)
  • I am not OK, You are not OK (hopeless)
  • I am OK, You are OK (healthy)

These are not fixed and immutable; indeed, during the course of a day, we frequently move from one position to another. But when we are under stress, we lapse into our preferred Life Position.

We all have certain psychological needs, which are acute enough to be called ‘hungers’:

  • stimulus hunger is the need for stimulation of our senses—touch, taste, hearing, smell, and sight.
  • recognition hunger is the need to be appreciated, to be given the message ‘You’re OK’.
  • structure hunger is the need to structure our time between getting up and going to bed.

Now, the work situation provides a rich matrix for giving and receiving strokes. If people can learn to be more generous with positive strokes, and resort to negative strokes only when necessary, then it would work wonders in enhancing cooperation and teamwork, and making that most elusive quality of teamwork, synergy, a reality. TA teaches us how to get rid of ‘stroking myths’ that we have grown up with, and how we can recognize and appreciate each other freely.

If people can learn to spend as much time as possible in the ‘I am not OK, You are OK’ position, then it lays the foundation for an organizational culture built on the value of mutual respect.

Coming to transactions, they originate from one of three ego states—parent, adult, and child—which make up our total personality. There are different types of transactions, and TA makes it possible for us to recognize— and stop—transactions that result in hurt feelings on one side or the other, or on both sides. Thus, smooth communication within the organization can be ensured.

The ego states themselves are analyzed in terms of positive and negative aspects. People can train themselves to receive messages more and more through the ‘adult ego state’, thus putting it in executive control of their personality, so that parental or childlike behavior emerges only when the adult deems it appropriate. This greatly reduces miscommunication, misunderstanding, and friction in a work setting.

People structure their time in various ways: being ‘alone’ with their thoughts; politely interacting with each other through ‘rituals’; conversing enjoyably with each other as a ‘pastime’; working or playing together as an ‘activity’; and trying to develop enriching relationships with those they are attracted to, ie, attempting ‘closeness’. However, the latter effort often meets with failure due to another method of time structuring known as games, which are compulsive, repetitive interactions which lead to bad feelings on one side or the other, or on both sides. Games are played because of unconscious script commands and in order to reinforce one’s preferred life position, and they prevent people from forming healthy relationships. They can be recognized and stopped through the application of various TA techniques.


* http://www.ericberne.com/transactional-analysis/

(This article is based on Winning Hearts and Minds which has been consciously designed to be useful at three levels: for the layman interested in self-development and personal growth; for management students who want to learn how to communicate smoothly and build enduring relationships; and for working managers who want to build a great culture in their team or organization)