It’s no secret that one of the most advanced qualities we as a species share with those less evolved than us, is communication.
The ability to communicate isn’t unique to humanity, yet this quality has allowed us to dominate the planet in a way we never could have done otherwise.
Understanding communication is paramount to success in all fields of life, be it professional or personal. A lack of solid communication can have disastrous consequences, yet it’s so rare that we seek to enhance our own ability. Why is that?
Transactional Analysis Theory
Transactional Analysis is a theory developed by Eric Berne in the early decades of the 20th century. This school of thought believes that interactions between ourselves and others are transactions that can be studied and understood.
By better understanding a transaction and why it happened the way it did, we can improve the way we transact with people in the future. This includes communication transactions between family, friends and coworkers and clients.
This theory believes that we call have three “ego states”.
These aren’t always literal, they just represent how we feel and position ourselves when communicating with others.
Parent Ego State
If we are embodying the parent ego state, we are assuming a position of authority over the person we are interacting with.
We ourselves are the product of conditioning that was forced onto us through our lives by the “parents” in our lives.
This can be anyone from teachers, to grandparents, childcare workers, police and of course, actual parents.
The parental interactions we had with these people have forged our own parental ego and have built part of the foundation on which we carry out interactions every day. Hundreds of our decisions every day stem from tiny memories that live in our brain and influenced our view of the world.
Adult Ego State
The adult ego state is the one over which we have the most control. It is constantly being built from our daily experiences as an adult, and is always learning and improving. It’s the part of our ego that is the most rational and in control.
Child Ego State
The child ego state is the part of our mind that governs our emotional response to stimuli. Whenever we forgo logic in favour of emotion, we’re allowing the child ego to govern our decisions when we’re communicating.
This is the other ego state (besides parent) that’s developed as the result of conditioning when we were growing up. Our childhood experiences go a long way in influencing how well or poorly we react emotionally to situations for our entire lives.
Making a Change
Of the three ego states, the adult is the one over which we have the most control.
Both the parent and the child ego states were conditioned outside of our control, and can therefore be unruly and underdeveloped.
It’s while in our adult state that we can improve the two other ego states and try to become a higher functioning person.
So to summarise, the adult ego state is the rational state of mind that’s improving every day and in which we can have the most control during an interaction with another person.
The child is the ego state responds emotionally and was conditioned during childhood.
The parent is the ego state was also built during childhood, and can be greatly or poorly developed depending on our upbringing.
It was developed during times when we were governed by people of authority, and in turn has a strong influence over how we govern others.
It can be the reason why some people hate to be given positions of authority, and why others excel while being in charge.
Whenever we communicate with anyone every single day, we are doing so from one of our three ego states.
We can hold on to an ego state for the entire conversation, or switch at any time. A switch is usually triggered by an interaction, most likely because of something someone has said.
If someone has said something shocking to you, this can trigger you to switch from one ego state to the another.
Can we improve our communication according to this theory?
Berne believed that ego states could be complimentary, and that we need to adjust our ego state to match those being given by another person.
Each ego state can be matched with a complimentary one for an ideal conversation.
For example, if the other person is exhibiting the child ego state, your best approach will be as the parent.
Parent and child ego states are symbiotic, and matching yours with theirs will yield a more successful interaction.
The person that is trying to improve the conversation must be willing and able to spot signs that indicate which ego state the other person is talking from, and must be willing to switch their ego state to one that will bring peace to the interaction.
During a negative interaction, someone using the parent ego state will be bossier, patronising and judgemental.
Someone in the child ego will be visibly sadder, emotional, may use body language rather than using words (such as shrugging or pushing out the bottom lip). They’re also the most likely to exaggerate a situation.
Someone in the adult ego state is much more likely to be treating the situation logically. They will ask critical questions and will be critical of your responses.
Berne believe that to understand communication properly, we must understand that communication is only 10% the words themselves.
It’s also 30% the tone at which you speak the words, and 60% body language and face expression.
Berne didn’t live long enough to learn about texting, but I believe that this is a big reason why texting is so often misunderstood.
I’ve completely given up making jokes or confronting anyone with a text message, because I can almost guarantee it’ll be misunderstood.
By understanding how people interact with each other and why they’re saying what they’re saying, we can better understand what they actually mean. We can better understand where the things they’re saying are coming from, and what’s motivating their responses.
We can choose an ego state that mirrors theirs and ensure we’re able to simmer down a tense situation, or drive a positive one.
If someone has chosen a patronising or bossy approach, see if you can get through to them with emotion.
If someone is being hyper-emotional, try the stern and solid approach.
For the person that uses logic and reason to get what they want, try to match their reasoning and see things from a complimentary level.
Using emotion to beat reason, or bossiness to counter bossiness will only escalate a poor situation. Grow to understand where people are coming from, and tailor your own responses to be better suited to their ego state.
Through understanding and effort, we can have better and more productive communication.