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Culture Change

Talking is a Transaction

Chris Harrison

March 20, 2024

I was in Cape Town last week with the good people of on a mission to create a more emotionally intelligent world. Working in culture change, I realise many organisational cultures lack empathy so I’m fully aligned with this ambition.

One surprise from the week was learning that any conversation between two humans is a transaction. And some conversations have predictable outcomes regardless of the subject under discussion.

Have you ever noticed that some patterns of behaviour repeat whenever you talk with certain people? Perhaps it’s a colleague who can never say no, but always fails to deliver. Or a relative whose constant criticism of your children puts you on the defensive. Each time you meet you hope it will be different, but it never is.

The theory of Transactional Analysis was developed in the 1950s by psychologist Eric Berne to help people understand cycles of problematic interpersonal interaction. Berne suggested that people interact through social actions, which he called “strokes”. Any time one human recognises another, through saying something or giving a look, a smile, a nod or a touch he defined as a “stroke”.

Berne noticed that as people interact through strokes, they can sometimes change their whole demeanour dramatically. Their tone of voice, body posture, gestures, choice of words, and emotional state can alter depending on whom they are interacting with.

These changes gave rise to the idea that humans have different ego states (or ways of being) which emerge in social interaction. Berne identified three principal ego states people take on in different situations:

●     The Parent ego state represents our taught concept of life using behaviours, thoughts and feelings copied from our parents. Like the oldest child in a household using what their mother has said to them in a conversation with a younger sibling.

●     The Child ego state is our felt concept of life.  When behaviours, thoughts and feelings replayed from childhood emerge in our interactions.

●     The Adult ego state is more rational. It represents our thought concept of life - the independent conclusions we have come to as we have matured.

So, the big surprise is that every one of us exhibits all of these states at different times. They’re not linked to age, but rather to the ego state we unconsciously take on in a conversation.

When there’s an imbalance in ego states - such as one person being the Adult and the other the Child - it can make for unproductive conversations over and over again. On reflection, I realise why many conversations with my wife seem to go the same way!