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Transactional Analysis : Ego States & Basic Transactions



Transactional Analysis : Ego States & Basic Transactions


transactional analysis

Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis – TA theory development and explanation

Please note: The technical content of this article has been authored/provided by different experts in Transactional Analysis, notably Anita Mountain and Chris Davidson of Mountain Associates. Authors/originators are indicated throughout the article. Where you use these materials please reference the authorship accordingly. See the copyright and attribution notice at the foot of this webpage.

transactional analysis – modern usage – introduction

(Transactional Analysis early history)

Transactional Analysis is a theory developed by Dr. Eric Berne in the 1950s. Originally trained in psychoanalysis, Berne wanted a theory which could be understood and available to everyone and began to develop what came to be called Transactional Analysis (TA). Transactional Analysis is a social psychology and a method to improve communication. The theory outlines how we have developed and treat ourselves, how we relate and communicate with others, and offers suggestions and interventions which will enable us to change and grow. Transactional Analysis is underpinned by the philosophy that:

  • people can change
  • we all have a right to be in the world and be accepted

Initially criticised by some as a simplistic model, Transactional Analysis is now gathering worldwide attention. It originally suffered much from the popularised writings in the 1960s. Also, summarised explanations, such as this, which can only touch on some of the concepts in Transactional Analysis, led their readers to believe that there was very little to it. Many did not appreciate the duration and complexity of the training.

Today there is greater understanding of Transactional Analysis. More and more people are taking the four to five year part-time training courses to qualify, and increasingly universities are accrediting these courses for masters degrees. Those taking training include psychiatrists, organizational and management consultants, teachers, social workers, designers, engineers and the clergy.

Today Transactional Analysis is used in psychotherapy, organisations, educational and religious settings. Books have been written for all ages, from children through to adults, by people all over the world. Transactional Analysis is truly an international theory relating to a diverse range of cultures.

Theoretical concepts within the Transactional Analysis world are constantly being challenged and developed making it a rich dynamic process. Berne died in July 1970 at the age of 60. However, Transactional Analysis has not stood still and continues to develop and change, paralleling the processes we encourage in ourselves and others.

The key concepts in Transactional Analysis are outlined below in the form of introductory information.

transactional analysis – contracting

Transactional Analysis is a contractual approach. A contract is “an explicit bilateral commitment to a well-defined course of action” Berne E. (1966). Which means that all parties need to agree:

  • why they want to do something
  • with whom
  • what they are going to do
  • by when
  • any fees, payment or exchanges there will be

For example, we want the outside of our house painted, we need to find a person who will paint it and who will give us a quote for doing it. If we agree the quote, and we like him or her enough, we will no doubt employ them. We will agree a date and time, perhaps check they are insured, and choose the colour of the paint and off they go.

Sometimes contracts will be multi-handed with all parties to the contract having their own expectations. If these expectations are all congruent then fine, if not then discussing everyone’s expectations will lead to greater understanding and therefore to a clear contract.

Contracts need to be outlined in positive words i.e. what is wanted, rather than what is not wanted. Our minds tend to focus on the negative and so this encourages failure. For example, how many times do we look round when someone says to us “Don’t look now but…….” , the same is true when we set up contracts which start “I don’t want to do ………….. anymore”.

We have contracts about employment, how much will we be paid and when, what holidays we are due, what deductions there will be etc. In order to ensure placements are effective then different, but similar, details are required. Naturally, these details will vary dependent on the setting in which we work.

All parties need to state what are they are prepared to do. Are they able and willing to undertake what is being asked, is this appropriate? Does it fit within any statements of purpose and function? Is it legal? Do they have the competence to deliver this? Do they want to? What does each party want of the others?

In summary contracts need to be: measurable, manageable and motivational. Measurable means that the goals need to be tangible. That each party involved in the contract will be able to say in advance how they will know when the goal has been achieved. The goal will be specific and behavioural and clearly defined. The contract will also need to be manageable and feasible for all those concerned.

‘Contracting’ in Transactional Analysis, and indeed many other aspects of TA, provide a helpful way to understand the Psychological Contract in employment and similar organizational relationships.

transactional analysis – ego states

Transactional Analysis first order structural model

Berne devised the concept of ego states to help explain how we are made up, and how we relate to others. These are drawn as three stacked circles and they are one of the building blocks of Transactional Analysis. They categorise the ways we think, feel and behave and are called Parent, Adult, and Child. Each ego state is given a capital letter to denote the difference between actual parents, adults and children.

transactional analysis parent adult child ego states

Parent ego state

This is a set of feelings, thinking and behaviour that we have copied from our parents and significant others.

As we grow up we take in ideas, beliefs, feelings and behaviours from our parents and caretakers. If we live in an extended family then there are more people to learn and take in from. When we do this, it is called introjecting and it is just as if we take in the whole of the care giver. For example, we may notice that we are saying things just as our father, mother, grandmother may have done, even though, consciously, we don’t want to. We do this as we have lived with this person so long that we automatically reproduce certain things that were said to us, or treat others as we might have been treated.

Adult ego state

The Adult ego state is about direct responses to the here and now. We deal with things that are going on today in ways that are not unhealthily influenced by our past.

The Adult ego state is about being spontaneous and aware with the capacity for intimacy. When in our Adult we are able to see people as they are, rather than what we project onto them. We ask for information rather than stay scared and rather than make assumptions. Taking the best from the past and using it appropriately in the present is an integration of the positive aspects of both our Parent and Child ego states. So this can be called the Integrating Adult. Integrating means that we are constantly updating ourselves through our every day experiences and using this to inform us.

In this structural model, the Integrating Adult ego state circle is placed in the middle to show how it needs to orchestrate between the Parent and the Child ego states. For example, the internal Parent ego state may beat up on the internal Child, saying “You are no good, look at what you did wrong again, you are useless”. The Child may then respond with “I am no good, look how useless I am, I never get anything right”. Many people hardly hear this kind of internal dialogue as it goes on so much they might just believe life is this way. An effective Integrating Adult ego state can intervene between the Parent and Child ego states. This might be done by stating that this kind of parenting is not helpful and asking if it is prepared to learn another way. Alternatively, the Integrating Adult ego state can just stop any negative dialogue and decide to develop another positive Parent ego state perhaps taken in from other people they have met over the years.

Child ego state

The Child ego state is a set of behaviours, thoughts and feelings which are replayed from our own childhood.

Perhaps the boss calls us into his or her office, we may immediately get a churning in our stomach and wonder what we have done wrong. If this were explored we might remember the time the head teacher called us in to tell us off. Of course, not everything in the Child ego state is negative. We might go into someone’s house and smell a lovely smell and remember our grandmother’s house when we were little, and all the same warm feelings we had at six year’s of age may come flooding back.

Both the Parent and Child ego states are constantly being updated. For example, we may meet someone who gives us the permission we needed as a child, and did not get, to be fun and joyous. We may well use that person in our imagination when we are stressed to counteract our old ways of thinking that we must work longer and longer hours to keep up with everything. We might ask ourselves “I wonder what X would say now”. Then on hearing the new permissions to relax and take some time out, do just that and then return to the work renewed and ready for the challenge. Subsequently, rather than beating up on ourselves for what we did or did not do, what tends to happen is we automatically start to give ourselves new permissions and take care of ourselves.

Alternatively, we might have had a traumatic experience yesterday which goes into the Child ego state as an archaic memory that hampers our growth. Positive experiences will also go into the Child ego state as archaic memories. The positive experiences can then be drawn on to remind us that positive things do happen.

The process of analysing personality in terms of ego states is called structural analysis. It is important to remember that ego states do not have an existence of their own, they are concepts to enable understanding. Therefore it is important to say “I want some fun” rather than “My Child wants some fun”. We may be in our Child ego state when we say this, but saying “I” reminds us to take responsibility for our actions.

contamination of the Adult ego state

The word contamination for many conjures up the idea of disease. For instance, we tend to use the word for when bacteria has gone into milk. Well, this is similar to the case with the contaminated Integrating Adult ego state. This occurs when we talk as if something is a fact or a reality when really this is a belief. Racism is an example of this. The Integrating Adult ego state is contaminated in this case by the Parent ego state. If we are white we might have lived with parents or significant others who said such things as “Black people take our jobs”. Growing up it is likely, that having no real experience to go by, we believed this. We might also have been told that Black people are aggressive. In our Child ego state may well lodge some scared feelings about Black people and in this ego state we may start to believe “All Black people are scary”. This would mean that there would be a double contamination of the Integrating Adult ego state. However, we would think that such statements were facts rather than beliefs and when this happens we say that this is Integrating Adult ego syntonic. That is, they fit with the Integrating Adult ego state and only those people outside of our situation and sometimes outside of our peer group or culture can see that, objectively, such beliefs are just that and therefore they can be changed.

Parent contamination

transational analysis parent contamination

Child contamination

transactional analysis child contamination

double contamination (Parent and Child)

transactional analysis parent child double contamination

transactional analysis – descriptive model (revised 2011)

Below is a modern interpretation of the Transactional Analysis descriptive model – called the Transactional Analysis OK Modes Model.

The OK Modes Model is a relatively recent (2010/11) development of the concept, and is a more sophisticated and usable representation of the traditional PAC Transactional Analysis model.

The concept and diagram are particularly helpful tools for understanding what happens in human communications – essentially one-to-one – and what makes these communications constructive or destructive; effective or ineffective.

The Transactional Analysis OK Modes Model has been developed by leading TA practitioners and thinkers Mountain Associates (of Desford, UK) and I am grateful for the help of Mountain Associates’ Anita Mountain and Chris Davidson in featuring their model in this article.

Transactional Analysis OK Modes Model

The OK Modes Model of Transactional Analysis shows how we communicate and/or behave with others.

The model consists of ten ‘Modes’ with a central ‘Mindful Process’.

The word Mode is used to differentiate the categories of behaviour from the structural ego state model mentioned previously.

In this context the term Mode dates back to 1975, notably in an article in the Transactional Analysis Journal by Nancy Porter (now Nancy Porter-Steele).

The Mountain Associates OK Modes Model provides a visual way of representing how we behave and interact with other people. The diagram below illustrates the concept.

The OK Modes Model is easier to understand when you see the OK Corral model after the OK Modes Model explanation below.

Miniature ‘OK Corral’ grids are incorporated into the diagram to emphasise that:

  • ineffective Modes reflect and invite a ‘Not OK’ response, and
  • the four effective Modes reflect and invite an ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ response.

Of the ten different communication behaviour Modes:

  • four are effective – (prompted by the process of Mindfulness, i.e., taking account of current reality and acting accordingly)
  • six are ineffective.
Read further here –

Please note: The technical content of this article has been authored/provided by different experts in Transactional Analysis, notably Anita Mountain and Chris Davidson of Mountain Associates.