What is TA?

Transactional Analysis and Communication

Transactional analysis or TA is a branch of psychotherapy developed by Eric Berne.  His definition of it is “a theory of personality and a systematic psychotherapy for personal growth and change”.

Knowing about TA can be very useful for improving our communication skills.  TA is about how people are structured psychologically and is both a theory of communication and a theory of child development.

Berne’s model is a three part ego-state model.   An ego state is

  • A consistent pattern of feeling and experience directly related to a corresponding consistent pattern of behaviour”.

There are three ego states in Berne’s model:

  • Parent,
  • Adult,
  • Child.

Ego states are irrespective of age and are capitalised to differentiate from the normal use of the words parent, adult and child.

The Parent and Child ego states are echoes of the past.  The Adult ego state is a response to the here and now when a person is grown up and using grown up responses.

Ego states are ‘things’ not names. They are a set and related; thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Communication between people can be from one ego state to a different one or from one ego state to the same ego state.

Normally communication will be from one ego state either to the same ego state or a different one. The person who first communicates will expect a reply to be from a certain ego state. If communication is from a different ego state to the expected one, then the communication may be ineffective and the message may be lost, not received or disregarded by the person receiving it.

If communication is from Adult to Adult then it is likely to be the most effective communication for most of our communications.

The ‘3 Rules of Communication’ in TA

1st Rule of Communication

  • So long as transactions remain complementary, communication can continue indefinitely.

2nd Rule of Communication

  • When a transaction is crossed, a break in communication results, and one or both individuals will need to shift ego states in order for the communication to be re-established

3rd Rule of Communication

  • The behavioural outcome of an ulterior transaction (one where two messages are sent at the same time; one overt social and one covert psychological) is determined at the psychological level and not at the social level.

Example of Complementary Communication


Example of non complementary communication

Diagram shows Parent ego state – expected reply would have been something like “I’m sorry it won’t happen again” from Adapted Child


“You took your time                “So what, I was busy”

to reply to my call”

The ego states are sub-divided.

Parent ego state is divided into:

  • Parent into Critical Parent  CP – which is negative, unsupportive, critical.
  • Nurturing Parent NP – which is supportive, helpful, nurturing, comforting.

Child ego state is divided into:

  • Free Child FC (sometimes referred to as Natural Child NC) which is spontaneous, free-wheeling, playful, self-indulgent, curious, rebellious.
  • Adapted Child AC – which is toned down behaviour that has been learnt in response to the reactions from other people to us and our behaviour. The learned or adapted responses are more likely to generate a given result from the receiver.

The 3 ego states can be used as a way of analysing transactions (communications) between people.  A transaction is a communication from A to B and the response from B to A.

Examples of Complementary Transactions

Where the message is sent from one ego state and the reply is from the expected ego state. The transaction is complementary.


“The government                                “They are

is making us all                                     it’s really annoying”

criminals by putting

speed cameras everywhere”

Above is example of Critical Parent to Critical Parent.


“what time is                        “It’s due at

the train due?”                     one fifteen”


Above is example of Adult to Adult.


“Oh, I’m really                      “Don’t worry, I’ll

struggling with                     give you a hand

all this painting”                 right now”

Above is example of Adapted Child to Nurturing Parent.


“Oh what the                        “yeah, great idea

hell, let’s have                     make that 2 drinks

another drink and               a pudding, and some

pudding”                               gateaux”


Above is example of Free Child to Free Child.

Examples of Crossed Transactions

When a message is sent from one ego state and the sender expects it to be sent back from the expected ego state: but it’s sent back from a different one. The transaction is crossed; communication is non effective.


“You messed that                               “Rubbish, it’s your fault.

up, it’s full of errors                           It’s you that can’t understand

and typos”                                               or use correct English”

Above is example of Critical Parent expecting reply from Adapted Child but receiving reply from Critical Parent.


“The deadline                      “What do you mean ‘we’.  If

is tomorrow.                         you didn’t always leave

We’ll need to                       things to the last minute”

stay on a final

half hour to give it

another check”

Above is example of Adult expecting reply from Adult but receiving reply from Critical Parent.


“Oh, I’m really                      “Oh, I know what

struggling with                     you mean, it’s really

all this painting”                 difficult isn’t it”

Above is example of        Adapted Child expecting reply from Nurturing Parent but receiving reply from Adapted Child.


“ Oh, I’m really         “So bl***y what.

struggling with         I’ve got enough to

this painting”           do without you

moaning all the time”

Above is example of        Adapted Child expecting reply from Nurturing Parent but receiving reply from Critical Parent

A crossed transaction could lead to argument and loss of effective communication. The message is ‘lost’.

Using TA for effective communication

For effective communication you need to keep the transaction complementary i.e. focus on sender to receiver and receiver to sender where the message is sent to the ego state from which you expect a reply. Using ego states we can look at how others communicate and how we communicate with others.  It’s possible to identify which ego state we are in and which ego state we are expecting a reply from.

We can also use TA to help us plan transactions. For example we can identify which ego state would be most valuable for us to send themessage from and which ego state it would be better for it to be received by. If we receive a reply from the wrong (non expected) ego state then we can either try to shift the other person’s ego state; or if we cannot do this it may be better to stop the communication and try again another time when the person may be in a different ego state.

We can listen to people’s communication to identify if they are habitually in one ego state and then decide if communication to that ego state would be appropriate or not.

TA therefore can be used to elicit the reactions you want from other people (and this will happen consciously or unconsciously).

We can help communication if we need to by trying to shift the other person’s ego state by inviting people to move into a different ego state (they may not always move into it though, particularly if someone is habitually in one ego state). Do this by acknowledging their current ego state (by the appropriate message or response) and then invite them into another ego state by the words (and body language) which you use.

Invite them to move into Adult by:

  • Asking a question
  • Stating a few facts
  • Asking for their opinion
  • Asking for their preference
  • Asking for their view

Invite them to move into Nurturing Parent by:

  • Asking for their help
  • Asking for their advice
  • Asking for their expert opinion
  • Communicating your fears/worries

Invite them to move into Natural Child (Free Child) by:

  • Being one yourself
  • Showing the funny side of the situation
  • Going to nurturing parent
  • Being enthusiastic
  • Showing an unconventional way of looking at things.

TA implies that you can have considerable impact on modifying unsatisfactory behaviour by the way you communicate with others.  You use your Adult ego state to think about what behaviour is appropriate.  The Adult ego state has the capacity to control the other two ego states.

(inviting people to move into a different ego state from by Peter Honey in Improve your People Skills).

Playing Games

In ‘Games People Play’ Berne identified that people habitually adopt certain ego states (not necessarily consciously) and “play games” in the way they communicate with others.   E.g. a  person might say “I’m fat” or “Nobody Loves Me”, they are in Adapted child.    They expect a nurturing parent response of “no you are not” or “yes they do”.  If they received a response of “I know you are” or “You’re right, everybody hates you” then they have received a reply that they didn’t want.  Some people go through life playing a game and people can be in a relationship where one person is the Adapted child and the other the Nurturing parent.

Some people habitually play games and go through life playing games such as:

‘Isn’t life unfair’,

‘Everyone is against me’

‘I am poorly’,

‘I am always right and you are always wrong’

‘It is your fault that I …’

Games typically:

  • Are repetitive
  • Are played without Adult awareness
  • Always end up with players experiencing racket feeling.
  • Games entail an exchange of ulterior transactions between the players
  • Games always include an element of surprise or confusion.

Racket feeling – a familiar emotion, learned and encouraged in childhood, experienced in many different stress situations, and useless as a means of problem solving but frequently carried out E.g. my computer screen freezes, I get stressed and hit it.

Common games include: “oh how I suffer”  “Isn’t it awful”  “victim, persecutor, rescuer”  and “If it weren’t for you”

Strokes – units of recognition

Can be:           verbal or non-verbal

Positive or negative

Conditional or unconditional

A stroke is a unit of recognition.   E.g. you walk down the street and see your neighbour.   As you pass you smile and sayhello”.   They smile and say “yes, great day?”  That’s a positive stroke you’ve given and received.

If your neighbour ignored you then you felt left out or deprived or wonder what you have done to offend them.

Any transaction is an exchange of strokes.   This may be entirely non-verbal.

Positive strokes – the receiver experiences it as being pleasant.

Negative strokes – the receiver experiences it as being painful.

For example if your neighbour replied “It was a nice day until I saw you!” then that’s an example of a negative stroke.   But any kind of stroke is better than no stroke at all.

Stewart and Jones identify that this is supported by work on rats where one group were given electric shocks and the other group were not.   The rats given the shocks developed better – as they were receiving some stimulation.

Conditional strokes relate to what you do.

Unconditional strokes relate to what you are.

E.g. Conditional:       “That was a good piece of work”

                                    “That painting you’ve done is a real mess”

Unconditional:         “Your humour always brightens things up”

                                    “I hate you and all which you represent”

As infants we test out behaviours to find out which give us the strokes we need.  If we receive strokes from a certain behaviour then we are likely to repeat it (and that can be where many of our learnt behaviours come from – albeit unconsciously learnt)

Further Reading

Peter Harvey  Improve Your People Skills  2nd Edition

ISBN 0 85292 708 8  ps 150  – 155

John Stewart and Vann Jones  TA Today: A new Introduction to Transactional Analysis   1999 reprint  ISBN 1870244001  Lifespace Publishing

Eric Berre  Games People Play  Penguin current reprint  (original 1964)

Jangeword D   Everybody wins:   Applying TA to Organisations  1973

TA for Social Workers and Counsellors  Pitman, Routledge 1984