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My favourite relationship theory

Updated: Sep 6, 2018

I have come across this theory a few times in my life before, but for some reason it has not resonated until recently. It needed to sink in, find me at the right time. But after having studied Eric Berne's Transactional Analysis as part of my coaching diploma, I can now hand on heart say that for me it's the most universally useful behavioural theory I have come across.

According to Berne, we show up in either the Child, Parent or Adult ego state in our interactions

I use this in my own life all the time when reflecting on how I am with others, and how others show up in my presence. If you are ever asking yourself questions like:

"I want my team to be more accountable. How come they never take initiative unless I tell them what to do?"

"Why on earth the interactions with my mother in law are always like this?"

"How come working with this client is so frustrating?"

You may find this theory helpful. Here is my take on it, adapted for the workplace. Here it goes...

When we act, we are either:

consciously choosing the best way to act


acting instinctively / reacting in the moment

At the centre of Berne's theory there are the Parent, Child and Adult ego states. When we react instinctively, from a trigger, we are either in the Parent or the Child Ego states.

The Parent is all about judgement, values and obligations. The way in which we are being critical or smothering in the Parent state stems (according to Berne) from the memories of how our parents or other significant adults interacted with us when we were children.

The Child ego state is when we are being instinctively rebellious or immature. The Child is about tactics, behaviours and feelings replayed from childhood.

In contrast, in the third, Adult, ego state we are consciously deciding how to act once we considered options available to us. Adult is rooted in awareness, and approaching relationships from an equal perspective. In the Adult state, we may choose to pick the positive side of the Parent approach - be nurturing and provide structure. In the same way, we can access the positive side of the Child: cooperation and spontaneity.

In Transactional Analysis, each piece of communication is a transaction. Complementary transactions occur when both people are in the same ego state (Parent talking to Parent, or Parent talking to Child). For example, in a complementary Parent - Child transaction one person may be instinctively critical (Parent) and the other either sulking in response (Child). These interactions are often repeated in patterns, and, needless to say, unpleasant.

In Crossed transactions each person is talking to a different level. This communication is likely to break down. If one of the people engaged in a transaction decides to switch their ego state to Adult, the unpleasant interaction is likely to stop. The optimal line of communication is the conscious and rational Adult-Adult relationship, where the interaction is ruled by equal perspectives rather than instinctive negative patterns.

It has really helped me notice my own instinctive behaviour patterns that, shall we say, don't exactly reflect how I want to show up in the world.

Ok, but why does this matter for your work life?

Let's look at leadership. It's not hard to figure out that the best position to lead from is the Adult. A leader in an Adult state lets his/her employees think independently and gives them a chance to perform, even if the leader knows better.

But as leaders, we can instinctively fall into one of the Parent or Child ego states. This is often as a result of our internal fears and beliefs.

If you find the lack of initiative and accountability in your team frustrating, it may be because you are interacting with them from the negative, controlling side of the Parent ego state. By doing so, you are inviting the other person into a Child state.

Take Kate, who was responsible for the relationship with a key client at her firm. Her client engaged them in a major project and Tom, the PMO, was in charge of the delivery. From the beginning of the project Kate was very protective of the client relationship. She didn't let Tom interact with the client team on his own, worried that he will undermine the great relationship she's built with the client. This was a classical Critical Parent ego state at play, fuelled by Kate's fears.

It's not hard to imagine that as a consequence the project suffered. Tom defaulted to his adaptive Child mode, feeling he needed Kate's approval before every move. Ultimately his lack of independence caused him to be frustrated and uncreative. And Kate wondered why Tom didn't live up to his brilliant reputation on her client's project.

In another example, let's look at how the Smothering Parent can show up at the workplace. Have you ever had / been the type of boss who everyone complains to? The type of a boss who assures his people that he will take care of things, and that everything will be alright? I raise my hand to say that I fell in this trap in my first managerial position in my 20s. This invites your team to step into their immature Child, which may mean irrational behaviour and a spiral of complaints for you to deal with.

A leader can also be in immature Child. I had a boss like this once. He was a visionary, roaming free and dreaming up ideas for product enhancements which had no roots in reality. As in there was no budget or capacity in our already stretched development team. As the person on the receiving end of his ideas, I defaulted to a Parent state. Sometimes structuring, when I was trying to create boundaries, but often also critical of his suggestions.

Does any of it sound familiar? It has been a revelation for me in both my working and my personal life. As always, developing self awareness is a great starting point.

I'm keeping myself in check for when I'm acting instinctively. Sometimes I'm able to stop myself in the moment and choose to switch to Adult. But sometimes it's hard, especially where these patterns are old habits, repeated over and over again.

I'm trying to be kind to myself as I work on these.

A few self reflection questions to take away:

How can you approach your team in an Adult - Adult dynamic, recognising each individual's potential and right to take control?

Which parts of your working environment encourage the Parent - Child interaction and can be replaced with a more empowering model?

How can you raise awareness of when you are being triggered into a Parent or a Child ego state? Can you put your finger on what is the underlying driver?



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