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Updated: May 8, 2021

An introduction to Transactional Analysis

Understanding Transactional Analysis (TA) is a potential area of development that sits behind the blue door: although it is widely used in counselling and therapy, it is extensively used in business and education since it encapsulates a valuable ‘applied model of communication’. It is an integral part of the RESOLVE model and approach, both with regards to contracting and, the manner in which all those involved in managing the difficult conversation communicate with one another.

Transactional Analysis is principally a tool for positive change and growth. It can be used either in 1-1 therapy or in a more general sense for problem-solving in everyday life. As a theory, TA represents a useful framework for analysing and understanding the behaviour of both ourselves and other people; it further supports greater awareness of how different behavioural styles impact on relationships between people.

Transactional Analysis has depth, width and rigour, making it a weighty subject in its own right. From a personal development perspective, awareness, and some understanding of its key principles and core themes, can quickly make a significant difference to how effectively a person can communicate internally with themselves, and with other people in their lives – at work, socially, within the family etc.

TA has been evolving constantly ever since the approach was first defined and developed by Dr Eric Berne. There are now several well established concepts which are in everyday use, although their original source may not be so well known.

I’m OK – You’re OK

“I’m OK – You’re OK” is probably one of the best-known expressions associated with transactional analysis: It establishes and reinforces the position that acknowledges the value and worth of every person. Anyone using transactional analysis regards other people as basically “OK and views them as being capable of change, growth, and healthy interactions. This approach is widely recognised as underpinning successful teaching, which is why TA is used so extensively within education.

EGO States

Berne’s initial premise was that there are three quite clearly distinguishable sets of attitudes and behaviours which exist in every person: he referred to these as ego states. These states are a reflection of a person’s current state of mind and are easily recognisable by the words they say and the manner in which they say them – body language gestures and mannerisms etc. He labelled the three states Parent, Adult and Child:

TA involves using this knowledge, and particular skills, to recognise whether the communication – which he referred to as a transaction – is being effective, or has become ‘crossed’ leading to a misunderstanding.

The theory is based upon the idea that on any occasion when a person is communicating, verbally or in writing, the way in which they are doing so can be attributed to one of the three frames of mind – Parent, Adult and Child; it is always possible to identify which one is being used at a particular time. There are no ‘rights or wrongs’ about this, and that the’ states’ have nothing to do with age: a child can be in the Adult state, and an 80 year old adult can be in a Child frame of mind. The significant issue is that understanding and recognising the state provides an opportunity to adopt an appropriate frame of mind and to choose a response so that the transaction proceeds in an effective way.

The Parent frame of mind:

This contains patterns of behaviour that reflect significant authority figures that have been present in our lives, parents, carers, teachers etc. and include values and morals, perceptions of acceptable and unacceptable forms of behaviour.

The Parent state can be further represented by the Nurturing Parent or the Critical Parent

The Adult frame of mind:

Represents the state of mind when we are thinking clearly, and when we are rational, supportive and assertive. This state is often associated with analysing and dealing with the reality of the present, and when we are trying to solve a problem or process information.

The Child frame of mind:

The word ‘Child’ often leads people to associate behaviour in this stage as childish. This is wrong. In this context it does not mean behaving childishly but relates to behaviour and feelings that a person would have experienced in childhood. These include anything from being spontaneous, fun loving and carefree to being rebellious, argumentative, manipulative etc.

The “Child” is further represented by the Natural Child, Adapted Child and Rebellious


Transactions refer to the communication exchanges between people. It is the process of considering which ego state in one person is interacting with which ego state in another person. Understanding how this works allows individuals to choose how to intervene in an exchange in order to improve the quality and effectiveness of communication.

Berne identified three types of transactions and three corresponding “rules of communication”.

A complementary transaction is when the ego state addressed is the ego state which responds – from adult to adult, parent to child, or child to parent. The lines or vectors are parallel. E.g. my adult speaks to your child state, your child state responds to my adult state.

The rule is that in a complementary transaction the exchange will go on indefinitely.

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). In a crossed transaction the transactional response is addressed to an ego state different from the one which started the stimulus. Crossed transactions are important because they disrupt communication. This is useful to know because it helps understand how and why communication is disrupted.

The accepted rule is: a crossed transaction will lead to a break in communication – a disruption.

For example, my parent speaks to your child, however if your response comes from your adult and speaks to my adult, the transaction is crossed.

The third type of transaction is ulterior. These transactions are slightly more complex. They always involve two or more ego states operating in parallel at the same time. One portion of the transaction is generally verbal and the other an unspoken psychological transaction. For example, if a teacher tells a student, “this is a really puzzling maths problem, but it might be too hard for you.” The words of this message could be heard by the student’s adult (I don’t have the knowledge to cope with this problem) or the nonverbal content could be picked up the by the student’s child (I am not good enough so I will do it and show him), since the child has perceived a difference between what was said and what was meant.

Ulterior transactions are essentially manipulative and risk of communication failure and conflict. A more effective approach would be to take an honest approach and to break the conversation down into a set of complementary transactions making clear the meaning of each step in the conversation. From a RESOLVE point of view, this could be seen as lacking authenticity: very often people will see through this very easily and underpins the process of managing a difficult conversation effectively.

Strokes Berne observed that in order to survive and thrive people need strokes: units of interpersonal recognition. A major part work in transactional analysis involves understanding how people give and receive positive and negative strokes and how to change unhealthy patterns of stroking.

Games People Play

Berne recognised that people often set up and demonstrated familiar pattern of behaviour where the outcome was predictable. He used the term games to describe several identifiable repetitive, and recognised that they were devious transactions which were principally intended to obtain strokes. However, in fact they often reinforced negative feelings and self-concepts, and failed to allow for direct and clear expression of thoughts and emotions. In his book, Games People Play, Berne defined these socially dysfunctional behaviours with instantly recognizable names such as “Why Don’t You, Yes But,” “Now I’ve Got You, and “I’m Only Trying to Help You.

Within the concept of managing a difficult conversation, ‘Game Play’ is always a potential part of the process. The skill required from the manager, leader, or supervisor is to recognise when a game is being played, to acknowledge it and ensure it does not derail the conversation.

Life Script

The concept of a script within TA is a life plan, which was formulate during our growth and adolescent years; in effect it is like being given the lines of a play. We read the lines and decide what will happen in each act and how the play will end. The direction that script takes is influenced and developed by the decisions we took during our early life experience, although we are not aware of this at the time.

Eric Berne proposed that dysfunctional behaviour is the result of any self-limiting decisions that we made in childhood, often in the interest of survival. Such decisions culminate in what Berne called the “life script,” the pre-conscious life plan that governs the way we live out our life.


The concept of contracting is a fundamental aspect of Transactional Analysis. It assumes that TA is being used in a therapeutic context and the contract is a specific agreement between a therapist and a client to accomplish clearly stated goals. However, many of the principles that underpin contracting are relevant to the use of TA within an educational or business setting. Within the RESOLVE model and approach, it underpins the Explain element – setting out the purpose of the meeting and how it will run.

Berne proposed that a contract is “an explicit bilateral commitment to a well-defined course of action”; in addition, he saw a contract as an Adult commitment to one’s self and/or someone else to make a change”.

There are various kinds of contracts used in TA practice, which clarify the pragmatic ‘business arrangements, the focus of any TA intervention or the ‘treatment’ and the working agreements, or ground rules.

This means that all parties need to agree:

  • who they are

  • why they want to do something, how will it be of benefit

  • what they are going to do

  • by when will they do it

  • what does success mean – look like, or what outcomes will be achieved,

  • any exchanges for payment

Since our minds tend to focus on the negative which encourages failure, TA contracts focus on needs being expressed in positive words, towards things we want, as opposed to things we don’t want e.g. not I don’t want to smoke anymore, to – I want to feel healthy and be able to run again.

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?

TA contracts then can be quite informal, but they have structural rigour. They need to be: measurable, manageable and motivational. Any goals will be need to be specific, behavioural and clearly defined. The contract will also need to be manageable and feasible for all those concerned.

This represents a significant area of learning for those intent on mastering the RESOLVE

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