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How Transactional Analysis Can Help You Communicate Better

Eric Berne.

Eric Berne.

Communication Gone Wrong

Father: “Why the hell did you do that?”

Teenager: “It's got nothing to do with you.”

Mother: “What on earth possessed you?”

Teenager: “I don't have to listen to you,” as he/she turns to walk away.

Father: “Where the hell do you think you're going?”

I'm sure most people have heard conversations like this, perhaps even been participants–those dead-end interchanges which leave both parties feeling exhausted and a bit depressed. Such interchanges usually end badly for both parties.

How do they happen and why do they leave us so frustrated and unfulfilled? Psychiatrist Eric Berne studied in depth what he called “transactional units” to try to explain such communication with the objective of helping people communicate more effectively. His findings have been used in communication training programmes to improve the communication skills of people in business, caring professions, and in parenting. I will take an in depth look at Berne's method in this article.

Who Was Eric Berne?

Eric Berne MD was born in Montreal, Canada, on 10 May 1910, as Eric Lennard Bernstein. He graduated with his MD from McGill University in 1935, and moved to Yale to study psychoanalysis with Dr Paul Federn. He became a US citizen in 1939, a year after completing his psychoanalytic training, then served in the US Army Medical Corps until the end of the Second World War. He moved to San Francisco to study under Erik Erikson, later becoming a group therapist attached to several hospitals in the San Francisco region.

While working in San Francisco, he became fascinated by intuition, which led to his formulation of the key concepts of transactional analysis (TA).

Berne married three times and had four children. In the late 60s, he and his third wife moved to Carmel, California, where he died suddenly of a heart attack in July 1970.

Berne wrote eight books and many essays and scholarly articles. His best known books are: Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy (1961), which laid the foundations of TA; Games People Play (1964); and What Do You Say After You Say Hello (published in 1975, after his death).

What Is Transactional Analysis?

According to the International Transactional Analysis Association (ITAA), founded in 1964, transactional analysis can be defined as:

1. An easily understandable yet sophisticated psychological theory about people's thinking, feelings and behaviour and,

2. a contemporary and effective system of psychotherapy, education, organizational and socio-cultural analysis and social psychiatry.

While working with therapy groups in the San Francisco area in the 1950s and early 1960s, Berne built on the Freudian concepts of ego, super-ego and id, which he saw as limited in their practical application. These concepts were, in his view, theoretical states which he replaced with the “phenomenological realities” of what he termed the three “ego states” of Parent, Adult and Child (these words are always capitalised in TA literature when they refer to the ego states, as opposed to the real biological roles).

The theory of TA can operate in three ways. As a:

  1. Personality theory
  2. Communication model
  3. Method of studying repetitive behaviour

It is important to keep in mind that what TA offers is a model of personality, a map of transactions, and that the model and the map are not reality, but merely convenient ways to understand reality.

The ego states.

The ego states.

The Ego States

The theoretical basis of TA is a development of Freudian theory, but with the essential difference that, for pragmatic reasons, the focus shifts from the inner life of the client, to the way in which clients interact with the counsellor or each other. To help people understand this, Berne developed the P-A-C diagram with which a transaction can be graphically illustrated.

What is important in the model is that every time we communicate, we communicate from an ego state. It is important to note that the Parent, Adult and Child ego states do not correspond with the Freudian concepts of id, ego and super-ego. They are, in fact, manifestations of the Freudian ego, hence the term “ego states.”

With such an understanding, we can start to choose our communications. If we have no awareness of our ego state, we could respond inappropriately, which might lead to frustrated or unhealthy transactions.

For example, a few days ago I was at my favourite park, Zita Park, with my daughter and some friends. There were some children in the splash pool causing a little unpleasantness, nothing major, but irritating. Children will do that, we know. It just so happened that the children doing the teasing and being a bit irresponsible were black. I heard a white women say something along the lines of, “They should stay where they belong,” at which point, being acutely aware of the apartheid past, but perhaps not so aware of my ego state, I angrily accused her of being racist. Now, I'm not proud of my response, and on reflection realised that I reacted out of my Child to her Parent. I certainly would have responded more appropriately and helpfully had I been more aware of my ego state, or the ego state the woman was bringing out of me.

It might be useful to examine the three ego states in more detail at this point, so as to understand what I am talking about here.

The Parent

This is the ego state learned by the individual from parents and other authority figures in the first six or so years of life. It is the ego state of introjected values and fixed ideas of how things should be. It is like a tape-recorder in that anything the individual has heard or experienced is stored in the form of a code for living. This code is pre-judged and prejudiced, and a person in this ego state will behave exactly as their parents did in like circumstances. The Parent can be either nurturing (positive) or critical (negative). This ego state is sometimes described as the state of the “taught concept.”

The Adult

This ego state is the most independent of the ego states, the part that is able to think things out and make rationally-derived decisions based on facts. This is our primarily intellectual ego state. The adult can be “contaminated” by aspects of the Parent and the Child. It is sometimes described as the state of the “learned concept.”

The Child

This is the emotional part of our being. Here, playfulness and spontaneity arise, but also vengefulness, despair and depression. The Child is called the “Natural Child” when it is being spontaneous and playful, the “Little Professor” when it is being thoughtful, creative or imaginative, and the “Adapted Child” when it is feeling ashamed, guilty or fearful. This is sometimes described as the state of the “felt concept.”

The Parent and the Child ego states are relatively stable. In other words, they don't change easily. If we want to change either the Parent or the Child, we have to do it through the Adult. The Adult changes itself by adapting to changed circumstances and new information.

Example of a complimentary transaction.

Example of a complimentary transaction.

Example of a crossed transaction.

Example of a crossed transaction.

In his book Transactional Analysis and Psychotherapy, Berne described what stimulated the development of the structural model. In a session with one of his clients, a “successful court-room lawyer of high repute," this client said, “I'm not really a lawyer, I'm just a little boy.” As his therapy progressed, the client's parents and, finally, the adult part of him, were all manifested. This, together with his experiences with other clients, suggested the model to Berne.

With regard to communication and the possibility of gaining better outcomes from transactions, the model helped to map the way a transaction progressed.

Berne developed the PAC diagram to assist understanding of what is happening in any transaction. This diagram consists of three stacked circles labeled, from top to bottom: “P” for Parent, “A” for adult and “C” for Child.

A transaction is started by someone, called the “Agent," and the person to whom the transaction is directed, called the “Respondent.” As stated before, these communications arise in the ego states of the Agent and the Respondent. Lines from the appropriate circle in the Agent diagram lead to the appropriate circle in the Respondent diagram.

The theory says that if the Agent, for example, communicates from the “P”, he or she is addressing the Respondent's “C”. If the Respondent responds from his or her “C,” then the transaction is termed “complimentary," meaning it is likely to be smooth. If, however, the Respondent responds from their “P," they are addressing the “C” of the Agent, resulting in a “crossed” transaction, which is likely to be heated and have negative consequences. The accompanying diagrams show examples of this.

© 2010 Tony McGregor


Dr Maharaja SivaSubramanian N on December 06, 2013:

Wonderful article. I have also written something on the topic of transactional analysis and our daily life and success. Do have a look and give me your comments.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 09, 2011:

TKI - thanks for stopping by and for the very kind words. I really appreciate that.

Love and peace


toknowinfo on March 02, 2011:

Transactional Analysis is cool stuff. You did a great job of explaining it, and I never get tired of reading about it, because it is so applicable. Loved your hub. Rated up and awesome.

TINA V on January 18, 2010:

I am a believer of the Transactional Analysis by Eric Berne. Actually, this is included in my list of articles to write for Hubpages. I used this in my training programs for our Managers and Supervisors. I hope that others will read this hub. It will help them in their personal relationship.

Laurel Rogers from Bishop, Ca on January 10, 2010:

Tonymac-I have just started studying TA, even though it was very 'in' during my generation's heyday. I find it fascinating.


amillar from Scotland, UK on January 10, 2010:

This could be useful - if I ever get to understand it. I was never too good at diplomacy.

liswilliams from South Africa on January 10, 2010:

much needed topic, Tony thanks

sarovai on January 10, 2010:

Thank u tonymac for the TA explanation. I use to hear this from my dad. Very much needed subject in this competitive world to understand the human mind.

Timothy Donnelly from Ontario, Canada on January 09, 2010:

Hello TonyMac04, this is Timothy Donnelly, and I am now another on of your followers. I sort of like one of your Profile quotes - the one you have indicated is by Albert Camus. So, with the mutual benefit of the doubt, I would like to ask you a question regarding this TA model you have started to write about.

First a setting is necessary. Suppose, for example I am talking with someone I respect (and love and esteem). We are both adults - one is my Dad. At this point in our lives, we have had the fortune of the “freedom for the task” [sic] to be able to spend considerable time together. Our conversations are mutually engaging, respectful, informative, and educating, even though in reality he is an erudite and I am not. Looking at this TA model you have so far presented, would you say that he is communicating with me at a lower level (and me vice-versa), or that we are simply communicating both as adults? I would be interested to know what “slot” this “recognised” model put us in.

BTW, my written style of communication is generally more concise than my spoken. I have studied Social Psychology, Psychiatry, and Humanities at a beginner level years ago, and these learnings are found reflected in some of my Hubs. Thank you for publishing this useful information.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on January 09, 2010:

Alek - thanks for the comment - I think synchronicity is real!

Ralwus - my first introduction to TA was on a management development programme back in about 1976 or thereabouts.

Nancy - yes I agree about overdoing it.

Shinkicker - don't kick mine, please! Analyse that!

Thanks for dropping by everyone and for the comments which I appreciate very much.

Love and peace


Shinkicker from Scotland on January 09, 2010:

Excellent article Tony, very well written and easy to understand for the layperson. I have been on TA training before and it's a fascinating subject.


Nancy's Niche on January 09, 2010:

Excellent article and research Tony thanks for sharing…One has to be careful not to “over psycho analyze” conversations and situations too.

ralwus on January 09, 2010:

He helped me to become a good manager(certified) through a course I took for two years at YSU. Great stuff.

Nancy Hinchliff from Essex Junction, Vermont on January 09, 2010:

Interesting that you posted this at this time. I was just trying to explain this perspective to someone a day or two ago. I studied it thoroughly years ago and still fall back on it whenever I feel one of my responses is inappropriate. It's actually very helpful. Good job on the hub. Another useful perspective is one by Thomas Harris, who wrote "I'm ok-you're ok, also based on TA.

I have an assistant, at my B&B who, when I speak to her from my adult, always answers me from her child. It's a little exasperating at times, so I've introduced her to TA. I think it's helping.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on January 09, 2010:

Thanks for your interesting comment, Tatjana-Mihaela! TA is an amazing tool for helping us understand that kind of situation. I love the concept of "Grandma software" and "Mum software." Crazy beautiful stuff!

Love and peace


Tatjana-Mihaela from Zadar, CROATIA on January 09, 2010:

Thanks for this article Tony. I am also familiar with TA. The way we communicate explains so many things about us.

I like to compare "Parent" to the software in the brain.

While arguing with one my friend, some time ago, we recognized that actually "his Grandma software" was arguing with "my Mum software". During the whole argument, we did not do it consciously, like somebody pushed our buttons, and we just used our old "Parent-Parent" softwares to fight...there was not real us in that.

As soon as we realized that "some other people programms" are arguing through us, we stopped and started with cooperation.

Thank you again,

Peace and light.