A brief introduction to transactional analysis

Transactional analysis is a useful and widely applied model of communication. This is a brief introduction to some of the main elements of the theory.

Transactional Analysis (TA) is a very useful and fascinating framework for analysing the behaviour of both ourselves and other people. It offers some very useful insights into the impact of different behavioural styles on relationships between people.

It was defined and evolved by Dr Eric Berne whose thesis was that there existed in everyone three quite clearly distinguishable sets of attitudes and behaviours. He called these ego states: that is configurations of states or frames of mind. These are readily recognisable by things that we say, the ways in which we say them and the support that we give them by way of body language gestures and mannerisms.


Frames of mind (ego states)

TA involves using knowledge and skills to recognise frames of mind; and from this to adopt a frame of mind that determines whether the transaction (i.e. communication, what the sender sends and what the receiver hears) is to be effective, ineffective, business-like or a crossed transaction leading to a misunderstanding.

The frames of mind (ego states) are as follows: Parent, Adult and Child. The "Parent" is further modified into Parent controlling and Parent nurturing. The "Child" is further modified into Natural Child and Adapted Child.

Their importance lies in the fact that there is nothing in human communication that cannot be attributed to one of these frames of mind. People write and talk from different states and it is possible to identify which it is in all cases. From this, a method and choice of response and an appropriate frame of mind can be adopted so that the transaction proceeds in an effective way.

It is important to appreciate that a person can be in a Parent state although not a parent and that the Adult and Child states bear no relation to physical age. A person of seventy years can be in Child frame of mind.

The Parent frame of mind (or ego state)

Contains patterns of behaviour from significant authority figures (primarily parents) including values and morals, our ideas of right and wrong, good and bad. It has two sides to it:

  • The controlling (or critical) parent (CP). "You shouldn't" or "How dare you"?
  • The nurturing parent (NP). "I'll take care of you" or "Well done".

A typical tone of voice could be stern, condescending (CP) or caring, sympathetic (NP). Often, these characteristics are the same as our actual parents.

Nurturing parent

At some point when we are small children, we realise that one day we too will be a grown-up. We set out to prepare for this by copying as much as possible of what the big people around us are doing. Much of this has to do with looking after others.

They dress us, comfort us when we are hurt, prepare meals for us. So we do the same, as best we can, for our dolls or pets or younger siblings. We may notice that they do similar things for other adults and not just for children; if not we may grow up believing that such nurturing should be restricted to babies.

As adults ourselves, we need our Nurturing Parent ego state at those times when it is appropriate to care for someone else. Perhaps a new member of staff needs to be shown around the building, or someone about to tackle a difficult task needs some reassurance. Sympathy may be called for when bad news has been received, even a simple thing like getting coffee for a colleague who is overworked and needs to relax.

In many organisations, there is barely enough Nurturing Parent to go around. However, occasionally you meet someone who overuses this wavelength. They are likely to smother you with their concern. They may fuss over you as if you were not capable of managing alone, or even insist on doing the job for you. It is difficult to refuse their assistance when they are so clearly intending to be helpful. When this happens, people are denied the opportunity to develop their own skills.

Controlling parent

As with Nurturing Parent, we develop this ego state by mimicking our elders. We observe that one of the ways we can take care of others is by setting down rules and boundaries for them. In this way, we keep them safe and make sure they learn the correct ways to behave. Parents do this for children when they stop them from doing dangerous things, warn them against going with strangers, impose curfew times on reluctant teenagers.

This ego state is the one to use when we need to be firm. Many disciplinary meetings in organisations might be avoided if managers were to use Controlling Parent sooner - to spell out clearly what the performance requirements are and how the person must change in order to meet them.

Firmness may also be appropriate with colleagues and customers who are trying to take unfair advantage. A firm refusal to do their work for them or to provide services not covered by the contract will be more skilful than resentful compliance.

Overdo this ego state and you will come over as bossy and overbearing. This happens when we insist that the job is done our way, even though there are other options that would work just as well.

Imposing rules based on our opinions rather than the true requirements of the task is another area for grievance. Ordering people about as if they were children will not usually fill them with enthusiasm for us, or our instructions. Indeed, we are more likely to stimulate rebellion than obedience.

Mother holding sonThe adult frame of mind (or ego state)

Is the clear thinking, rational, analytical way of dealing with the reality of the present. In the Adult state, the individual is commonly problem-solving or dealing with information in some way. Characteristics are typically the calm even tone of voice, asking five WH questions, (what, where, when, why, and how) seeking and evaluating options and alternative courses of action.

This ego state is tuned in when we are being rational and logical. As children, we begin to understand cause and effect. We drop a rattle from the pram and observe that people keep picking it up for us. We tip the bottle too far and our drink overflows the mug; we work out that we need to hold the bottle differently to avoid spilling any more. We learn that compromise may be called for: if I want to ride my brother's bike I will have a better chance if I offer to lend him my computer for a while.

We develop the ability to think rationally on more than one level so that we can understand both our inner and outer worlds. We acquire the skills of problem-solving and decision making. All of this is clearly relevant to us in later life. We have to balance priorities and decide between conflicting requirements and limited resources. We have to take into account our own feelings and those of others, yet still, remember the objectives and practicalities.

A word of caution. If we spend too much time in Adult we will come over as boring and pedantic. It is not always necessary to analyse a situation. Sometimes intuition or past experience will provide a better basis for our decision. Imagine the effect of Adult on someone who is telling jokes, as we keep attempting to analyse the punch lines. Being logical about everything may make us seem like a robot. If we lack the characteristics of the other four ego states, people will find it hard to get to know us.

Paying attention to the ego state selected customarily by the other person can give us a good idea of the best way to respond.

The child frame of mind (or ego state)

Does not mean behaving childishly but is concerned with behaviour and feelings as they were experienced in childhood.

The Natural Child (NC) is spontaneous, fun-loving and uninhibited. But as the constraints of dealing with others (particularly authority figures such as parents) take effect, the Adapted Child (AC) emerges. Typical characteristics are please, sorry, I'll try hard; whining voice or mumbling, perhaps taunting, argumentative or manipulative; polite, spiteful; looking away/down.

Natural Child

In this ego state, with which we arrive in the world, we display our natural feelings. We let people know we have needs and we act on our impulses. Our communication as babies is limited to crying and cooing, but we still manage most of the time to let the grown-ups know when we want something. Soon, we add a myriad of other emotions, including contentment, a sense of humour, and frustration when we cannot get our own way.

Curiosity emerges, especially as we become mobile. We begin to show our creativity as we invent toys out of everyday household implements. We may have to be protected from the results of our curiosity and creativity when we want to explore dangerous objects such as electrical outlets.

As small children, we also demonstrate a considerable capacity for friendliness and affection. At this age we like other people unconditionally; we have not yet learned to be wary. Watch how small children accept each other, strangers and stray dogs alike-they look pleased and excited as others move towards them. As grown-ups, whatever we retain of this open friendliness will be an important facet of our personality.

Natural Child is the wavelength to adopt when we judge it appropriate to let others know how we feel. We will then let them see our genuine pleasure in their company, our friendliness, our excitement about working with them. We will also allow those we trust to know when we are disappointed, or angry that things have not worked out as we had hoped. Genuine sadness at unhappy events in our lives will not be hidden.

Natural Child is also the ego state needed for genuine brainstorming, as this is when we are at our most creative and can invent ideas that are outside our experience.

Other positive aspects are our willingness to ask questions and express our curiosity without feeling the need to pretend to know more than we do.

However, if we spend too much time in this ego state, we risk being labelled immature, childish, over-emotional. People may feel that we are unlikely to settle down to serious work instead of having fun. A surfeit of creativity may be perceived as being out of touch with the real world. Our genuine friendliness may come over as too good to be true; we may be somewhat naïve if we expect everyone to reciprocate.

Young boy on computer

Adapted Child

As children, we soon sense that grown-ups have certain expectations of us. We recognise this even before we can talk by the way they hold us and through their tone of voice. Later they tell us how they require us to behave and may punish or reward us for specific actions. We come to realise that Natural Child behaviour is not always welcomed. We, therefore, set about developing an alternative version that will enable us to fit in with the demands of our family and society.

Depending on our culture, we learn to say please and thank you; to perform simple greeting rituals, to eat with knife, fork, chopsticks, right hand only; to defer to our elders; to help old ladies carry their packages. In other words, we acquire the skills of getting along politely with other people and of behaving in socially acceptable ways.

We may also acquire some of the gender-specific messages that belong in our culture. Often, boys are allowed to show anger but mocked for sadness; they may grow up to display only aggression and no tenderness. Girls may well receive the opposite programming so that as women they become tearful when the genuine response would be anger.

When we are older, we move into Adapted Child when we demonstrate that we know how to behave. By now much of this is automatic and we are barely conscious of it. If we are British we apologise when someone else bumps into us, we join queues and we do not talk to strangers. At work, we are especially polite to customers and senior managers. We pay attention to the organisational norms of dress and appearance. We adapt in a variety of ways so that other people will find us acceptable and amenable.

If we overdo it, however, we may be perceived as lacking in confidence. We will not then be trusted with responsibility and may have difficulty in resisting unreasonable demands from colleagues or customers. Perhaps we were told that "children should be seen and not heard", so now we sit so quietly at meetings that no one recalls afterwards that we were there. Alternatively, we may have learned during childhood to overcompensate so that now we appear aggressive and rebellious. In this case, our objections may be dismissed as just another attempt by us to start an argument.


T.A. "proper" refers to the analysis of transactions between people. It is the process of considering which ego state in one person is interacting with which ego state in another person.

Berne identified three types of transactions and three corresponding "rules of communication".

Complementary and crossed transactions require analysis at behavioural level only, whereas ulterior transactions involve hidden agendas at psychological level only, that is, the message is implied, not stated.

When this is the case the ulterior transaction is inevitably that which is acted upon (and which the initiator will probably have devised); or the ulterior is that which is intended to be received (for example when a politician says to his opponent "I respect your views", what he actually means is "I do not respect your views").

  • Transactions may be complementary - from adult to adult, parent to child, or child to parent.
  • Transactions may be crossed - any other variation (parent to parent; child to child; adult to child; child to adult; adult to parent; parent to adult).

Effective, successful and productive transactions

A complementary transaction is when the ego state addressed is the ego state which responds.

If I use Controlling Parent to address your Adapted Child, and you reply from Adapted Child to my Controlling Parent, we have a complementary transaction. If you opted instead to respond from Adult and sought to interact with my Adult ego state, we would have a crossed transaction.

The rule for a complementary transaction is that the communication can continue indefinitely. The rule for a crossed transaction is that a break in communication will occur. However, this does not mean that complementary is good and crossed is bad. A complementary transaction can be a highly unsatisfactory one.

For example, an angry colleague shouting at you from Controlling Parent about a mistake you have made. You began with a compensatory transaction by apologizing from Adapted Child. However, your colleague ignores your apology and continues to shout at you.

It is not appropriate to keep apologising while he/she continues to shout. You need a break in communication that a crossed transaction would provide: a shift to Adult for some problem-solving discussion, or use your own Controlling Parent to tell their Adapted Child firmly not to talk to you like that.

Here we have a crossed transaction where the wife (represented by the model on the left) asks an information-seeking (Adult to Adult) question, but the husband (represented by the model on the right) replies as a child to a parent.
Remember, ..Child ego state has nothing to do with physical age and does not require communication with one's father or mother. The child ego state communicates with the Parent ego state.

There are other options that will enable us to communicate adequately but these will not necessarily have the added benefit of building a close working relationship through using the preferred channels.

Some combinations of ego states are unlikely to lead to good communication. Miscommunication is likely to occur if we use Adult to address someone in any of the Parent or Child ego states. Conversely, we are unlikely to get an appropriate response if we use Parent or Child with someone who is clearly tuned into Adult and expecting a logical discussion.

Such crossed transactions are only useful when you want to make a significant change to the communication. Even then, you are more likely to be successful if you first select one of the four preferred channels before you attempt the change. By doing this, you will establish an initial contact in the way the recipient expects. They will then be more likely to switch ego states in order to maintain communication with you.

Whether we have to cross a transaction or not, we still need to attain some matching of our ego states for the communication to proceed at any length. Our process of choosing an ego state needs to include consideration of the effect we want to have on the other person.

Although, in theory, we can pair any ego state with any other, in practice, there are four channels that are especially likely to result in good relationships:

Ulterior transactions

By combining the models for external and internal ego states, we can now understand what happens in transactions where there is a hidden message. Our Internal Child is intuitive and will pick up underlying signals from someone else's internal ego states whatever they may be doing behaviourally.

Take the example in the diagram below of the manager who asks a subordinate whether the report will be ready by the deadline. This may be phrased as a logical, rational question. However, the manager may really be convinced that the subordinate will be late with the report, as has happened in the past. The manager's Internal Parent is, therefore, holding some fairly derogatory thoughts about the subordinate's performance. These are liable to "leak"; there will be small indicators of them through the manager's body language and tone of voice.

A reasonably intuitive subordinate will pick up these small signals through the excellent antennae to their Internal Child. They may choose to say nothing but will now believe that the manager does not trust them. This can be enough to justify a late report—why bother if it's not expected on time anyway? Or they may respond directly to the signals and accuse the manager of lacking trust. This is more likely if the comment has reactivated the store feelings in Internal Child that they acquired during previous bad experiences.


There are many ways in which TA can be applied to enhance our skills with people.

Conflict will often begin with an ulterior transaction; sometimes an individual's frame of reference will lead them to believing there is an ulterior when none was intended. The result may be the same. Knowing about internal ego states can help us avoid conflict.

As we are criticised, we can make a point of investing extra energy into Internal Adult. Count to ten and keep thinking. Remind ourselves that we are likely to react by re-experiencing an old hurt. Check how much of the pain is really related to the current comment and consider the consequences of responding angrily. Review what other options we have.

Natural Child could be used to let them know that we are hurt by the criticism. They may not have realised that they have said something unkind. Adapted Child could accept the criticism as justified and ask how they want us to be different. An adult could be employed to question the basis of the criticism and discuss what we might decide to change.

Controlling Parent could tell them firmly that they are criticising unjustly or unhelpfully. Nurturing Parent could reassure them that our action will not cause a problem for them.

Several of these options are aimed at the internal ego state in the other person. Used in a genuine attempt to avoid conflict, they are likely to be perceived as constructive and will help build a closer relationship.

The wealth of information contained in this leaflet has only just scratched the surface of TA. Berne's rule of communication for ulterior transactions says that the behavioural outcome will be determined by the psychological or ulterior level of the interaction. The unspoken intent will have more impact than the overt, social comment. Whenever our inner and outer messages conflict in this way, the secret agenda will carry the most weight, even if we both pretend it does not exist. It will be difficult to build effective relationships with people unless we address their underlying concerns.

Illustrations of different emotions


Eric Berne also identified a number of games that arise from ulterior transactions. He suggested that people spend a large portion of their time and energy in these games; and that the main reasons for this were to gain recognition or "strokes" or units of recognition.

Just two examples of these games are as follows:

  • "Why don't you", "Yes but". The initiator states a problem and seeks the advice of others. They offer solutions based on the "why don't you" which the initiator rejects with "yes but". He/she ends up feeling self-righteous and thinks "I know best".
  • "Now I've got you". The initiator of this game contrives a situation whereby somebody makes a mistake. At the appropriate moment, he/she steps in and confronts the offender who feels bad, whilst the initiator enjoys feelings of superiority and dominance.

Of course, these kinds of games inevitably take place in organisations and are played by managers who attempt to satisfy personal goals and advance personal values which have their roots in culture.

Put very simply: none of the frames of mind (ego states) is intrinsically "better" than others, but each is appropriate in different situations and will have a different effect on those with whom we communicate.

Transactional Analysis is a wide-ranging set of theories and techniques that can be used by individuals and groups to enable and help themselves and others to grow and develop to their full potential.

The underlying philosophy is one of self and mutual respect and caring. It is a very useful and fascinating framework for analysing the behaviour of both ourselves and other people. It allows us to see how our behaviour impacts others.

It shows us how, by operating in a particular Parent, Adult or Child state, we are likely to "hook" into specific Parent, Adult or Child states in other people, who will then respond (or react) from their "hooked into" state. This may be helpful or unhelpful in the communication process.

The successful communicator is flexible and will choose the appropriate Parent Adult or Child state in which to operate in order to best meet people's needs and to achieve the desired outcome to the situation. ("Win-win")

Poor listening habits cost millions of pounds each year in lost productivity at workplaces. They also constitute a prime reason for the breakdown in relationships both at work and in the wider society.

Research indicates that people only use about a quarter of their listening capacity, about a tenth of their memory potential. They forget half of what they have heard within 8 hours and distort what little they do remember. Furthermore, such memory is subject to their perceptions and preconceptions.

People who feel they are listened to perform better, work more cooperatively, and have fewer on the job problems.

Good listeners think more broadly because they hear and understand more facts and points of view. Active listeners make better innovators because listeners look at problems in a fresh way and combine what they learn in more unlikely and creative ways.

They are more likely in turn to hit upon truly innovative ideas. Ultimately, good listeners attune themselves more closely to where the world is going and to the products, talents and techniques it needs to get there.

Transactional Analysis has done much to help with the understanding of the "communication transaction.

Employing the concept of ego states gives us a method for checking our behaviour
and consciously selecting the most appropriate option for our current objective. In summary, the key qualities of each are:

What happens inside us

So far, the only detail described is the way that ego states are exhibited to others. This concentrates on the identification of an ego state using behavioural clues. For many of our interactions, this will be enough to allow us to analyse the transaction and select our own ego state for good communication.

However, there will be times when this is not so. It will sometimes seem as if the person is in two ego states at once, or the behavioural aspects will feel somehow out of line with our intuitive sense of what is happening. We can use the familiar diagram of three stacked circles to show these internal ego states.

To distinguish it, the dotted lines indicate that these are under the surface-they cannot be observed directly by others although we can speculate about them based on what behaviour and body language that we do see.

Internal Child

As with Natural Child, we arrive in the world with the beginnings of this ego state already in place. Basically, it is our experience of ourselves. We have needs, wants and feelings. These include hunger and thirst, fear, curiosity, anger, wanting to be loved, and a whole range of other feelings that occur as we grow.

All of these are recorded. It is as if our Internal Child is a computer disc on which we file everything away. We are continually adding new data. We also refer back from time to time to the old files. We may do this consciously, as when we are aware we are remembering. We may have lost the file, as when we try unsuccessfully to recall something we used to know. We may go back without realising, as when an incident in the present triggers an emotional response from the past.

A common example of reverting without intending to is when we meet someone who treats us as a teacher used to. Perhaps they say our name in a way we no longer expect. For men, this may involve being addressed by your last name only-not Mr Smith, just Smith said in a tone that sounds ominous.

For women, it is perhaps the use of your full first name rather than its shortened version. The result is often an instantaneous reaction of feeling like a small child who is back at school. Sometimes we may momentarily expect to have to stay behind after classes. We then realise that we are really a grown-up.

The same thing happens if we actually meet our teacher again. In spite of being an adult now, and perhaps having children of our own, we still get an overwhelming urge to relate to them the way we did years ago.

On a training course, we may well experience the same response to the trainer even though they have never been a school teacher and do not behave like one. For example, see what happens when the trainer leans over you to look at your work. You are quite likely to want to hide it with your arm in case they criticise you, whereas they are more interested in finding out whether they have taught the topic successfully.

Every day, we add new recordings to our Internal Child. We react in a variety of ways to what is going on around us; these responses will become our memories of the future. For now, though, they are our current sensations. We feel them internally and can then choose whether to display them through Natural Child. We may decide that this would be inappropriate; in that case, we select a different way to behave.

We may go for Adapted Child and hope that people remain unaware of our real feelings. We may use Adult to describe or explain our feelings, and perhaps to review how their behaviour affects us. We may use Controlling Parent to insist on a change in their behaviour. Our Nurturing Parent might shift the focus onto someone else's feelings. In the right circumstances, however, we will react spontaneously and let others know how we really feel.

Internal Parent

It has already been said that Controlling and Nurturing Parent are learned by copying the big people.

Internal Parent is our storage system for all of these copies. Included are the opinions, beliefs and value systems that go with the behaviours. As with Internal Child, at any moment we may pull out an old recording or lay down a new one.

Old recordings emerge when we catch ourselves repeating what our parents told us years ago. This may be a problem if things have changed since then. Beliefs about nutrition, for example, are very different nowadays. We may share our parent's political views without question and yet be leading a life that depends on economic policies they would disapprove of. Racial prejudices are often the result of old recordings from a time when people had insufficient information and exposure to other cultures.

Our development as individuals requires that we can update our Internal Parent. We need to pull out the contents of the file for scrutiny. Then we can archive those aspects which are no longer relevant. As we meet more people, we can observe and copy things they do that are effective. We can then add these new options to a part of our filing system where they will be readily accessible.

Internal Adult

Our Internal Adult is like a computer programme that we use to access our disks and to process and store new data. It takes in information from the outside world, such as who is talking to us and how. It monitors our reaction in Internal Child and checks whether these seem relevant to the situation. It scans through our Internal Parent for any recorded ways of responding that would be appropriate now.

When our Internal Adult is functioning well, we are continuously making choices about what to do. These selections may take only fractions of a second, yet we manage to weigh up probabilities and make balanced decisions. Doing this does not prevent us from behaving instinctively; rather it paves the way for more spontaneity by ensuring that we have considered the consequences first.

Each of us has a preferred channel. We will probably be reasonably comfortable with one or two of the others, and somewhat uncomfortable with the fourth. Our interaction will be successful more often if we can match the channel to the recipient. Paying attention to the ego state selected customarily by the other person can give us a good idea of the best way to respond.

Hopefully, this information has been successful in demonstrating how the wide-ranging set of theories and techniques can be used by both individuals and groups to enable and help themselves to grow and develop to their full potential. The underlying philosophy is one of self and mutual respect and caring.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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