We humans, the games we play:Transactional Analysis

Transactional Analysis is built on the theory that there are three areas or states of the human personality and these are represented in diagrams and text books by three vertical circles. The top circle is the parent, the middle the adult and the bottom one is the child. A Transaction is an exchange between people – a person says or does something and the other person says or does something back. A simple Transaction between adults might be:

First person `Good morning, it’s a lovely day`

Second person` Yes, they say it will be nice all week`.

It is said that all of us are three persons in one. Sometimes we are the child that we once were. Other times the parent with attitudes and influences absorbed from our own parents and then another time we are the adult that navigates their way through this busy and ever changing world.

So far this may sound simple but where it begins to get complicated is when we realise that transactions can come from any one of the three states in ourselves and get a response in another person from any of their three states and vice versa. For example I may make an observation from my Adult state to my neighbour and get a reply from his Child state. This is likely to feel unsatisfactory.

So simply put, Transactional Analysis is the study of people’s interactions together, the states they come from and where they are directed to in the other person.

All of us at one time or another play games with each other, not so much physical games like cricket or football but mind games. An expert in this field was Eric Berne (1910–1970) who wrote `Games People Play – The Psychology of Human Relationships`. In this brilliant book Berne explains Transactional Analysis, the definition of `Games ‘and the `payoff` that always goes with them. Although written for professionals the book took off and became a bestseller. The book clearly presents common examples of the ways in which humans are caught up in the games they play. Berne gave these games superb titles such as `Now I've got you, you son of a bitch` and `Let's you and him fight. `

In my work as a counsellor I have experienced many mind games and relate a generalised version of one of them below. I call it `Look how busy I am`

Therapist. Shall I book you in for next week?

Client. Thursday again?

Therapist. Yes.

Client. Good, I’m glad it’s Thursday again because I’m seeing my Mother on Friday.

Therapist. So Thursday’s ok?

Client. Had you said Wednesday, I would have to have said no because it’s my Yoga class.

Therapist. I’ll put you down for Thursday then?

Client. Tuesday’s no better either because I help in the charity shop and always go shopping afterwards and I can’t change that.

Therapist. So, it’s Thursday then?

Client. I can never do Monday, so don’t ask me, clearing up after the weekend, washing and ironing.

Therapist. I wasn’t going to offer you Monday.

Client. Do you see clients on Saturday?

Therapist. No.

Client. Good, because that’s the weekend and I’m always busy then.

`Look how busy I am` is a game of power which is designed to show how busy the client is. She wants to see the therapist but only on her terms. It assumes the therapist is less busy than her.

The games must include all the activities the client does and all the days she is busy. The game wouldn’t work if she accepted the Thursday appointment straight away, although that is all that is required in an adult to adult exchange.

A useful prop in this game is a diary or a phone with an organiser on it. The process of consulting this is often slow and reinforces how much the client is in demand and how she is squeezing the other person into her busy agenda.

The payoff could be two fold – firstly the client will enjoy displaying her busy life and how much she is in demand. Secondly the payoff could be seeing the therapist squeezed into a tight time slot and unable to move. The game could only be improved if the therapist was unable to do Thursday for some reason, then another game, probably called `The end of the world` or `Disaster` would be played out.

Another popular game `Now I suppose you want some money – the horror of it`.

The subject of our second example of a game has a service done for them, maybe a washing machine repair, car service or a delivery of shopping from the supermarket. Our subject knows very well that this must be paid for, however when the point of payment arrives he makes no attempt to pay. Instead, time wasting delaying tactics are used like idle conversation or questions about further services that may be available. When it’s clear our subject cannot put off paying any longer he will say `Now I suppose you want some money?`

The poor tradesman is forced to agree and show some appreciation for the long awaited money he is owed. A look of horror may appear on our subject’s face at this time, maybe because he believes the honour of serving him should be enough and he is mortified this upstart wants money as well. The next tactic our subject uses is to look for his wallet/purse/cheque book. Much delving and searching eventually produces the necessary and if its cash, long methodical counting follows or if a cheque slow meticulous writing and scrutiny will ensue.

Our subject may pretend to not want to let go of the payment, holding on to it with a tight thumb and finger hold. Doubtless Freud would say that this apparent bit of fun subconsciously is no joke but a real desire to keep it. He believed our subconscious reveals itself in many ways including through our jokes and humour. This teasing may show a need by our subject to make our tradesman almost beg like a dog for a biscuit.

The payoff for this game is partly about control, he who pays the piper calls the tune and in this case our subject holds the purse strings. It’s clear our subject does not want to pay for the service that has been provided but tries to cover this up with the long drawn out conversation, the difficulty in finding his wallet and the attempt at a joke. In here somewhere are status issues also, calling the tune, being in charge, expecting gratitude, the threat of the working classes rising above their station by being paid and the knowledge that the head of our nation does not actually carry money herself.

So in it’s simplest form Transactional Analysis is a study of the interactions between two people. In it’s more complex structure it’s intriguing mind games on a par with world class chess. If you found this piece interesting I would recommend you look at the actual work of Eric Berne, the flavour of which we have briefly touched on here.

© David Trott 2013

Taunton Somerset Counselling David Trott

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