Since May 2016, I have been using Transactional Analysis (TA) theory to help my clients develop self-concept and agency in service of living their lives more effectively.
A client (call her Angela), came to me with debilitating levels of anxiety and low self-esteem, who has found the language and concept of TA strengthening. Instead of just ‘talking to herself’ her Adult now talks to her Child, or to her Parent. The fearful frightened Child can be nurtured by her caring Parent freeing the spontaneous fun loving child to take risks and enjoy life. Angela’s Adult is the medium through which she can manage the dual nature of her ego states, keeping negative characteristics at bay while drawing on the positives. She is now able to associate some of the negative patterns of thoughts and behaviours with imprints created in her memory from early childhood and seminal experiences during her schooling. It gives Angela power and a sense of agency to know that through her Adult she can control the impact of the responses triggered by certain events in ways that free her to ‘be herself’.
So what is TA, and how does its key concepts, theory and practice transfer across from therapy into coaching?
TA was developed by Eric Berne, who founded and developed it as a form of therapy based around observable behaviours he divided into three ego states, Parent, Adult and Child, (PAC). It is important to note here that the terms Parent, Adult and Child have a different meaning within the theoretical context than they do in normal, day to day language.
Contemporary Adaptations of the Model
More recently, Transactional Analysis has developed beyond Berne's early theories. The original Parent and Child components were divided to form a new model. This development introduces Controlling and Nurturing aspects of the Parent, and the Adapted and Free aspects of the Child. Parent and Child ego states are recognised as having both negative and positive characteristics.
Ego State Contamination
What I find really interesting and useful about this theory is in the area of ego state contamination which occurs when we respond to adult behaviour in others from our negative Parent or Child ego states. Here are some of the physical and verbal signs of the Parent or Child in our every day behaviour:
An example from work with another client might help bring this to life. A leader, let’s call him Andy, came for coaching after a promotion took him in into unknown territory for which he had been ill prepared. The resultant ‘car crash’ left him feeling bruised, low in self-confidence and with a sense of personal and professional failure. I used Socratic questioning to dispute the negative narrative he had built up around himself as a result of the experience which was locking him into low mood/depression.
In our first session he began with his head down, speaking from behind his hand, shoulders slumped. Voice quiet and hesitant. His language was full of lack of certainty, negations and lack of accountability. The key question I asked that began to turn this around drew on the experience of success he had before the promotion. I asked: “When you felt successful what were the conditions you created that led to your success? His answer was that he had clarity, and confidence based on a clear sense of purpose. ‘What were you doing then that gave you a sense of clarity, confidence and sense of purpose?” From this we developed a strategy for talking to his new line manager, for regaining his sense of agency and taking back accountability in the new environment.
His body language by the end of the session was transformed. He was sitting upright, looking me in the eye, speaking from an open and fully visible face with his hands resting in his lap.
I showed him the following diagram:
Source: The Complete Handbook of Coaching, Bachkirova & Clutterbuck, chap 12 Transactional Analysis and Coaching, Nappiar & Newton, 2014.
Each of these states belong to the Child. He had become stuck in the ‘I’m not ‘OK, You’re not OK’ state; a prisoner of his wounded pride, dented self-esteem and surrendered sense of efficacy. The process of coaching helped him to regain access to his whole self. More fully resourced he was once again able to make decisions and regain some control. Move from prisoner to participant, from freeze to flow.
Integrating aspects of TA into my coaching has had powerful impacts for my clients. It provides yet another ‘eye’ into the complexity of human psychology and another way of making sense of our experiences. How we use the insights we gain is up to us, but evidence from my work suggests that the impacts of working with PAC concepts are transformational.
And here is the Prezi version!