Talking To Versus Talking With

A guide to improving your interactions

image by Canva

Have you found that no matter what you say, a conversation begins to spiral out of control? Or you are trying to get someone to open up to you, but their defences are up? Knowing this theory might help you achieve the outcome you are looking for.

Miguel walks into the storeroom and sees it is still a mess, he turns to the storeman, Craig, puts his hands on his hips and says “I thought I told you to tidy this up last week?”, Craig steps back and stammers “It’s not my fault, the welders keep coming in and messing it up and I never have time to tidy it because I have to deal with unloading the delivery trucks”, Miguel is getting angrier and snaps “that’s not good enough, you had the whole week and you couldn’t find time to sort it out?”, “well no, because Andy kept interrupting me.”, Miguel huffs in exasperation “right, you have two days to get this place in shape or you’re fired”. The next day, the welders are all waiting outside the storeroom and there is a delivery truck in the yard with the driver leaning on its front fender arms folded glancing at his watch. Miguel asks one of the welders what she is waiting for, “I can’t get into the storeroom to get any welding rods, Mickey is waiting to get grinding discs.” Miguel storms into the storeroom and sees one of the shelves is tidied, another has its contents all over the floor and Craig is on his knees reaching into the back wiping the lower shelf with a damp cloth. “What is going on, you stopped production and a driver is waiting for an unload” exclaims Miguel, Craig quickly extracts himself from the shelf and says, “but you said to tidy the storeroom, and this is the only way I thought I could do it in the time you gave me.”

Eric Bern was a Canadian psychiatrist who applied game theory to psychiatry, he looked at how people talk to each other and the games they play in those one-to-one conversations, in fact, his seminal book was entitled Games People Play. There is a lot in his research and theories, that discuss the deliberate ploys that people use to get a win, but here I would like to talk about the instances where there are unintended outward triggers that others pick-up on, equally unintentionally.

The approach to understanding interactions that Berne defined is known as Transactional Analysis and is based around three ego states, Parent, Child, Adult. In any interaction, people will take on one of these personas, or ego states, and these will affect the other person in the interaction, who will also be displaying one of these ego states.

Let’s think about the behaviours a parent might display, these can be split into two, positive and negative, though they both come from the same place. Positive adjectives and behaviours associated with parents might be Caring, sticking to the rules, watching out for… Negative might be lecturing, criticising, perhaps starting a sentence with “you should…” or “you need…”. All of these are things that people are not born with, therefore they are learned from others, for example, Parents, Teachers, Leaders, hence parental behaviours can also be described as Taught.

Child behaviours can also be split into positive and negative, Positive might be wondering, a desire to try new things and learning, perhaps being willing to take orders. Negative might be throwing tantrums, being sullen (like a teenager), the abdication of responsibility, blaming others for their own actions (or inaction). These are behaviours that come from emotions, hence child behaviours can be described as Felt.

Adult behaviours come from a self-possessed standpoint with the understanding that an individual can only control their own behaviours and emotions and, in turn, knows others’ behaviours can only be controlled by themselves. In general, Adult ego state behaviours will respect the other’s knowledge experience and won’t assume anything, they won’t accuse, but they will ask open non-leading questions and will listen to the reply. Adults will say things like “I think doing it like this might work, how would you approach it?” and genuinely wait for input. The Adult ego state requires consideration and so can be described as Thought.

Transactional Analysis: Ego State Descriptions (image by author)

So, how do ego states work together? Interactions between parents and children will force each further into their ego states, parent-parent and child-child will spiral until there is either a break down in the interaction, e.g. one person walks away, or one of the parties shifts to another ego state.

How parent vs child interactions escalate (image by author)
The effects of similar ego state interactions (image by author)

Let’s examine the interaction between Miguel and Craig. Miguel’s words, body language and tone were very parental, this forced Craig into the Child ego state from the beginning of the interaction, he cowered slightly and began making excuses trying to shift blame from himself. Craig’s subsequent decision to shut the storeroom was an emotionally based response to the ultimatum Miguel put on the task, he might have genuinely not known another way to tidy the storeroom, or he might have deliberately made the process fail, either way, it is a child type response. The more it went on the further each of them became entrenched into their ego state.

So, how do we stop it? If you are faced with either a child or parent ego state try to take an Adult stance, as open enquiring questions, wait for a response, discuss the merits of the response genuinely building on the other person’s input to ultimately come to an agreement. Using the adult response makes it much more difficult for the other person to stay in their Parent or Child ego state, eventually, it will force them to either break off the interaction (in this case you know they are deliberately playing that role) or come to their own Adult ego state, and they genuinely want to solve the problem.

The route to more productive interactions, assuming both parties want a win-win outcome (image by author)

How might Miguel’s and Craig’s interaction look if Miguel started in the adult ego state?

Miguel walks into the storeroom and sees it is still a mess, “you haven’t been able to get this place tidied, Craig?”, “No, I have been flat out unloading and when I am out doing that the welders come in and make a mess looking for stuff”. Miguel looks at the shelves putting his hands in his pockets and asks evenly “So what do we need to do to get this place into a safe condition whilst continuing to do what you need to do to keep this place running?”, “I could do with some help, to issue materials to the welders while I am out unloading” offers Craig. Miguel thinks for a second “ we are flat out on the factory floor so I don’t have anyone I can give you. Would there be a problem with leaving the most frequently used items in the corridor so the welders don’t have to come into the storeroom, you could even lock the door?”, Craig thinks again “Yes that would work but how would we decide what to put out there?”, “Let’s say the stuff that you see welders coming in for multiple times a day that is under £5 per pack?” suggests Miguel, “Yes that would work” replies Craig, “I can put it on a table for now and set-up a more permanent shelf once I have had a chance to sort the storeroom out.” “Great!” says Miguel “good plan, is there anything else you need from me just now?”, “no,” says Craig “I’ll try to set-up the shelf from what I have in the store but I might need some budget to buy a new shelf unit if I can’t find something”, “Ok,” says Miguel “I’ll pop in tomorrow to see what you need once you have had a chance to look. Thanks, Craig”, “no worries boss.”

I use the Miguel & Craig scenario (based on an actual interaction I witnessed) as an exercise when I am training leaders, I get them to role-play the parts and after the Parent-Child interaction I ask the person playing Craig “how easy was it to stay in the child ego state?” invariably they reply “very”. As a second-round, I ask the person playing Miguel to switch to the Adult mode and the Craig character to try to stay in the child ego state, after which I ask the same question, and the answer is always that it is much harder to stay in the Child ego state.

I run this exercise after I have discussed the Parent-Adult-Child theory with the delegates and even when they are conscious of the roles and ego states, they can still sense the effect the other person’s words, tone and behaviours have.

The scenario I presented above is not the norm in business but the ego states can be subtle and hard to detect in everyday interactions; the more subtle the ego state behaviours, the less effect they have on the other person, but they are still present. If there is even a hint of, for instance, parental behaviours in your behaviour it is likely the other person will unconsciously begin to move into the Child ego state, causing you, in turn, to move further into a parental state. So be aware of your tone, body language and the words you use before you enter the discussion. It takes time in the beginning but as you get used to it it will become second nature.

It is important to remember that there are occasions where taking a parental stance is the right thing to do, for example, when there is an emergency, but it is important to know that by taking this stance you will be reducing a lot of potentially helpful suggestions, as the people you are talking to revert to the obedient child ego, and therefore taking a lot of responsibility on yourself to get everything right. This is why the norm for leader-staff interactions should be Adult-Adult allowing the leader and staff to get to know and trust each others’ capabilities, boundaries and personalities so when the emergency occurs there is less chance of misunderstanding. Even if the leader gets it wrong the staff can be a good “Follower” and follow the intent of the leader’s parental instruction rather than their incorrect orders.

As I mentioned in the beginning, this is a small part of Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis, but it is the part that I use most often, both in everyday interactions and when teaching leaders.

Darren Clyde has spent 20 years using and training Transactional Analysis as it can apply to leader-staff relationships in the Private, Public and Non-profit sectors.

Berne, E. (1973): Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships, Ballantine, ISBN-10:0345032799

Kellerman, B. (2008): Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, Harvard Business Review Press, ISBN-10: 1422103684

TheraminTrees (2010): Transactional Analysis 1: ego states & basic transactions, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKNyFSLJy6o

TheraminTrees (2010): Transactional Analysis 2: games, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOqJ4sc9TAc

TheraminTrees (2010): Transactional Analysis 3: gimmicks https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=58F2qYyAzME

Darren is a business improvement expert with 15 years experience working with organisations to reduce the cost and frustration of doing day to day work.

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