Nutshell: How transactional analysis can help leaders to communicate like adults

Written by
Sarah Wild, Editor, Changeboard, and Clare Grist Taylor, Associate Editor, Changeboard

Published
03 Feb 2020

03 Feb 2020 • by Sarah Wild, Editor, Changeboard, and Clare Grist Taylor, Associate Editor, Changeboard

Effective communication underpins functional relationships and is fundamental to leadership at all levels, requiring reflection, practice – and a touch of psychological analysis.

Canadian management guru Henry Mintzberg has been studying what leaders and managers actually do – and how – for a very long time. Through his research, he identified that leaders tend to play 10 different and distinct ‘roles’ that they move between on a day-to-day basis. But whether they were acting as a ‘figurehead’, a ‘disturbance handler’ or a ‘disseminator’, one thing was clear: Mintzberg’s managers spent between 70 and 90% of their time communicating with their stakeholders, both inside and outside the business. 

When we think about it, it’s unsurprising that the ability to communicate clearly and effectively is a core skill that leaders need. Whether it’s sharing vision or strategy, making a case with investors or simply motivating people on a one-to-one basis, leaders have to understand how communication works and what makes it connect, inspire and persuade. Leadership and communication are entwined, interlaced, inextricably linked. Or, to put it another way: great leaders are always great communicators. 

While a general talent for communication is beneficial for everyone at work, some specific skills become more pressing as we ascend to the higher levels of an organisation, when our audiences become more diverse and messaging more complex. And because communication is fundamental to our relationships, it’s one of those inherently human and “messy” things that can so often go awry. 

It can be hard for leaders to navigate this particular minefield, complicated as it is by different ‘roles’ we can all play at work. We might crave a world of work characterised by straightforward, rational interactions and exchanges, but we often fall short of that ideal. We’ve all known that motivation-sapping feeling of being patronised, treated as if we we’re children, or perhaps we feel, as leaders, like we’re sometimes managing a group of squabbling toddlers rather than a team or responsible adults. Please, we might ask, just give us some grown-ups with whom we might work and communicate.  

Help is at hand. Welcome to the world of Eric Berne’s transactional analysis (TA), a route map and guide to the psychology that tends to make or break effective workplace communication and relationships. 

But first, let’s take a quick look at some basic models of communication that help to make sense of what TA has to teach us. 

Understanding human communication 

The seemingly endless ways in which workplace communication can miss the mark is matched only by the number of models and typologies developed over the years to help us make sense of it. 

Fundamentally, though, human communication can be considered to be conscious or unconscious, verbal or non-verbal, face-to-face or remote, one way or two-way. And, traditionally, there are three standard models that help to explain it:

  • linear
  • interactive 
  • transactional

Each provides a particular perspective on communication and helps us to build up a picture of the elements that contribute to successful interactions. 

Linear communication

The linear (or action) communication model introduced by Shannon and Weaver in 1949 describes communication as a straight-line, one-way process: 

sender (who has something to express) ‘encodes’ a message (the ‘what’) via a channel (‘the how’); the message is then ‘decoded’ (interpreted) by the receiver

Once the sender sends the message to the receiver, the communication process ends. 

This (much adapted) “mother of all communication models” also introduces the concept of noise, any distraction that interferes with the sending or receiving of the message. The more noise there is, the less chance there is that information will be imparted successfully and understood. 

The linear model is typically applied in mass communication such as print media, radio and television broadcasts, where there is no immediate verbal or non-verbal response from a receiver (feedback). It’s a simple and effective way to send out messages for specific purposes, but, because it involves no feedback or way of telling whether communication has been effective, it doesn’t reflect the dynamic nature of most communication. 

Interactive communication

The interactive communication modelproposed by Wilbur Schramm, adds a return message (feedback) to the linear model: after a message is encoded and sent to the decoding receiver, the roles reverse, with the receiver encoding and sending a response to the original sender, who becomes the receiver. 

This makes it a two-way process, involving feedback (even in mass communication), though it is not simultaneous, and it may take time to reach the sender, becoming linear if the recipient fails to respond. Neither sender nor receiver may know who the other person is.

The model also adds context (or field of experience) – physical and psychological circumstances that influence, enhance or impede communication.

Human-computer interaction (HCI) is considered to be interactive communication, alongside social media (posting a comment under a news story, for example), chat rooms, interactive marketing, and even ATM machines and online shopping.

Transactional communication

Presenting communication as the co-creation of meaning, Dean C Barnlund’s transactional model is the most dynamic of three basic models.

The transactional model modifies elements of the two-way interactional model, with senders and receivers both considered to be communicators, sending and receiving multiple messages, and playing equally important roles in the communication. It involves simultaneous and instant feedback (from verbal prompts to facial expressions) and is used for interpersonal communication, encompassing everyday talk and interactions; ‘noise’ is amplified due to communicators talking at the same time. 

Whenever we communicate, we inevitably bring with us – consciously and unconsciously – our own identities, perceptions and biases about ourselves and those with whom we are communicating. By acknowledging that communication patterns depend on physical, cultural, environmental, social, psychological, and emotional factors, involving a range of public, private and behavioural cues, the transactional model puts greater emphasis on context/field of experience - aiming to capture the ‘messy’ nature of communication.

As Barnlund himself said, back in 1962: “Someone once said that whenever there is communication, there are at least six ‘people’ involved: the person you think yourself to be; the person your partner thinks you are; the person you believe your partner thinks you are; plus the three equivalent "persons".”

Messy indeed. 

Avoiding communication breakdowns

Given this complexity, it stands to reason that a better awareness of the behaviours and responses we exhibit, and the roles we play, while communicating can help us to manage and modify our behaviour, leading to more productive and effective exchanges.   

This is where Berne’s transactional analysis can come into play. The basis of TA is that we can better understand ourselves by analysing our communication and interaction with others (those transactions) based on the roles we play when we communicate, Berne’s three ego states

Communication breakdowns can result in conflict, distorted messages and damage to relationships. In the workplace, this can disrupt leadership, team dynamics and productivity. According to TA, these breakdowns happen because we’re not fully present in our conversations; instead of reacting to what’s in front of us, we’re communicating from those ego states. When ego states are crossed, conflict happens. 

The principles that underpin TA suggest that: 

  • We all have three ego states (Parent, Adult, and Child)
  • We all have transactions (with other people, or internally with ourselves)
  • We all (unconsciously) activate our ego states in our transactions, which can lead to less than effective transactions. 

TA helps us to identify which ego states are present in our transactions so that we can become more conscious of our thoughts and behaviours, leading to more constructive transactions with our colleagues. 

  • The Parent ego state (rooted in the past; taught) takes us back to the attitudes, feelings and behaviours we remember from our parents. When we’re in this state, our transactions mirror what our parents would have said, how they might have felt or acted. We might either be a:

Nurturing Parent: loving, helpful, caring encouraging, or a 

Critical Parent: patronising, criticising, censoring, punishing. 

  • The Adult ego state (rooted in the present; thought) is the only one based in the present, and represents our ability to think and act in the here and now. It reflects the ability we develop as we grow up to make sense of, and separate, what we see in the moment from what we may have observed a Parent doing or simply felt as a Child. 

​The kinds of routine transactions at work that are straightforward and fail to trigger other ego states indicate that we’re operating from our Adult state. 

  • The Child ego state (rooted in the past; felt) takes us back to the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours we experienced as a child. We might be either a: 

Natural Child: curious, creative, open, loving, or an

Adaptive Child: guilty, afraid, anxious, attention-seeking people-pleasing.

Unsurprisingly, the adaptive child is one of the more difficult parts of our personality, leading to transactions that can be difficult for ourselves, and for others. 

Every person’s Parent and Child ego states are different, and we react in different ways if and when that state is triggered. 

Understanding our own roles in transactions

For Berne, every transaction we have with another person involves an ‘exchange of strokes’ and has three parts: what we say, the response we expect, and the response we receive. 

TA also identifies three kinds of transaction: 

  • complementary 
  • crossed
  • ulterior

Complementary

In a complementary transaction, the communicators’ ego states are aligned or sympathetic and the response received is as expected; for example, in an Adult to Adult or Parent to Child transaction. 

Individual A (Adult state): “Why didn’t you turn on your camera for our video call?”

Individual B (Adult state): “I had poor bandwidth, so I stuck to audio this time.” 

Individual A (Parent state): “Do you need help sorting out your IT issues for video calls?”

Individual B (Child state): “Oh, yes please! I hate technology.”

Crossed

Where a transaction is crossed, and the ego state being addressed is not the one that responds (and is not complementary), problems arise; for example, in Adult to Child and Child to Adult interactions. 

Individual A (Child state): “I hate technology! I’m going to keep my camera turned off during video calls!”

Individual B: (Adult state): “It would be more professional if you ensured it was on.”

Individual A (Adult state): “It would be helpful if you kept your camera on during video calls.”

Individual B (Child state): “Why are you nagging me about it? You know I hate technology!”

In these cases, there is no meeting of minds. The person initiating as an Adult may feel they are merely stating a fact and are expecting a response in the Adult state but, instead, they’ve triggered an Adaptive Child response. The person initiating as a Child clearly feels a bit overwhelmed by technology and is looking for a Nurturing Parent response they don’t get - because the person they’re talking to is in Adult state. 

It’s easy to see how, according to TA, most communication breakdowns are the result of crossed transactions. 

Ulterior

Transactions are ulterior when we convey two messages at once: an overt (usually verbal) message and a covert psychological message, the latter usually manifesting as Parent to Child or Child to Parent. These boil down to ‘what we say versus what we mean’ and can cause discomfort, confusion and misunderstandings. Consider, for example, the situation when somebody might tell us they’re happy about our job promotion, but in a tone that suggests the opposite. It’s easy to see how ulterior transactions might result in strained relationships and mistrust.

Incongruent messages tend to have roots in early childhood where a child did not feel it was acceptable to express himself or herself freely. If we can acknowledge this is something we are prone to, we can practice congruence to help us to overcome it.

Influencing transactions: knowing ourselves

The ideal workplace transaction is Adult to Adult, an ego state that renders both parties attentive, interested, non-threatening and non-threatened, their communication characterised by reasoned statements, genuine curiosity and calm body language. Championing Adult communication involves recognising our own states, and what activates them. It demands consciously defaulting to ‘Adult’ when initiating interactions with others, and correcting our course where we feel ourselves regressing.

There are exceptions, though. We need to be attuned to what’s happening in a conversation and the needs of each person in the transaction. At times, for example, we might need to deploy our Nurturing Parent to help build the trust for more Adult to Adult transactions down the line, or to support a colleague who has been having a difficult time. But, in these cases, we shouldn’t stay in Parent-Child mode for too long; leadership demands that we model the right Adult behaviours to move the relationship on/back to an Adult to Adult default.

There can also be a tendency for leaders slip into a Critical Parent role, triggering a childlike response in their subordinates: for a perfect example of how not to communicate in the boardroom, try watching an episode of The Apprentice, where Lord Sugar’s Critical Parent induces a toddler-like state in all his would-be business partners. If we find ourselves on the receiving end of a Critical Parent, a complementary response (becoming an Adaptive Child) might keep the peace, but it’s not a long-term solution. We need to muster our best Adult state to look to re-calibrate the relationship. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum, defaulting to the Child state as a leader may undermine our ability to give firm direction or constructive feedback when we need to. It’s hard to have a grown-up conversation when no-one else perceives us in that way. 

By identifying the characteristics of our own (unique) ego states – and the influencers behind them – we can become more conscious of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and use this to have more constructive interactions with others. 

Tackling crossed communication: knowing others

Work relationships that can’t move on from routinely crossed transactions are doomed to fail. When we’re in the middle of a crossed transaction, the only way to get it back to a more effective transaction is for one, or both of us, to shift ego states. As leaders, it’s generally incumbent on us to have the awareness and experience to make the change.

Addressing Child or Parent responses from others can be challenging. But while we cannot directly change the behaviour of others, we can influence it. By initiating conversations in the Adult state, we are more likely to receive an Adult response; by learning to read the ‘tells’ of other people’s ego states, we can guide people back to a more Adult interaction, without falling prey to our own triggers. 

Recognising an ego state involves paying attention to tone of voice, choice of words, gestures, body language and emotional state. For example, a Child response made in a whiny tone, or peppered with baby talk or superlatives; a Critical Parent response characterised by judgemental words and patronising gestures.

We can also use our new-found awareness of how the roles work to deploy them in particular situations.

For example: 

If passions are running high, or we’re facing a Critical Parent, an Adult state, where facts prevail, can help to diffuse the tension or re-set the relationship: Ask questions; focus on facts, and ask the other person for their view (i.e. encourage them to act like an Adult too).  

If it helps to appeal to someone’s Nurturing Parent, bring out your Nurturing Parent too: ask for their help, advice or opinion; communicate your own fears and worries. 

Lighten the mood with your Natural Child: be yourself; be enthusiastic; show an unconventional way of looking at things. 

We can also use TA to help us plan transactions, based on:

  • What we have to say: consider which ego state most matches what we have to say – but be prepared to shift if the reply implies a crossed transaction. 
  • Our recipient: think about the recipient’s default ego state and then decide if communication in that ego state would be appropriate. It’s not always, but it may help to create some common ground. 

Remember that we’re in control of our ego states and we can pick one or switch to help our messages to be heard and understood. 

Strokes and games

Leaders and managers can also create productive environments and relationships by giving their people constant positive ‘strokes’ in the form of praise or good feedback, and staying alert to transactional workplace games’These are recurring transactions between two or more people that progress to a well-defined, predictable outcome, where one participant obtains a ‘pay-off’ or goal. They can quickly become dysfunctional, as in the dreaded Drama Triangle; vigilance is recommended. (LINK to drama triangle nutshell)

As a speechwriter for five US Presidents, James C Humes might be considered to have known a thing or two about communication. For Humes, “The art of communication is the language of leadership”. As leaders, we know that communication matters. We also know that it can be both messy and tricky. By increasing our own awareness of ego states and changing our own behaviour, we can help change others’, altering the way we relate to other people, and they to us, and making workplace communication clearer, smoother and more effective. 

 

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