Learning how to Play: Analyzing Transactions



When two people communicate, one person initiates a transaction with the transactional stimulus (see the above Transactions Defined section for a definition of the transaction stimulus). The person at whom the stimulus is directed will respond with the transactional response. Simple Transactional Analysis involves identifying which ego state directed the stimulus and which ego state in the other person executed the response.
According to Dr. Berne, the simplest transactions are between Adults ego states. For example, a surgeon will survey the patient, and based upon the data before him/her, his/her Adult decides that the scalpel is the next instrument required. The surgeon’s Adult holds out his/her hand, providing the transactional stimulus to the nurse. The nurse’s Adult looks at the hand, and based upon previous experiences, concludes that the scalpel is needed. The nurse then places the scalpel in the surgeon’s hand.
But not all transactions proceed in this manner. Some transactions involve ego states other than the Adult.

Structural Diagram
This leads us to Parent – Child transactions, which are almost as simple as Adult-Adult transactions. Quoting Dr. Berne in Games People Play: “The fevered child asks for a glass of water, and the nurturing mother brings it.”8 In this, the Child of a small child directs an inquiry to the Parent of his/her mother. The Parent of the mother acknowledges this stimuli, and then gives the water to the child. In this example, the small child’s request is the stimuli, and the parent providing the water is the response. This is nearly as simple as an Adult-Adult transaction.
One of the tools used by a Transactional Analysis practitioner is a structural diagram, as represented on the left. A structural diagram represents the complete personality of any individual. It includes the Parent, Adult, and Child ego states, all separate and distinct from each other. The diagram was developed by Eric Berne before Games People Play when he was developing his theories of Transactional Analysis.

Child interacting with a Parent
Transactional Analysts will then construct a diagram showing the ego states involved in a particular transaction. The transaction to the right shows a Parent – Child transaction, with the Child ego state providing the transactional stimulus, and the Adult responding with the transactional response.
This transaction matches the Parent – Child example listed above, with the fevered child asking his/her mother for a glass of water.
So far, the two transactions described can be considered complementary transactions. In a complementary transaction, the response must go back from the receiving ego state to the sending ego state. For example, a person may initiate a transaction directed towards one ego state of the respondent. The respondent’s ego state detects the stimuli, and then that particular ego state (meaning the ego state to which the stimuli was directed) produces a response. According to Dr. Berne, these transactions are healthy and represent normal human interactions. As Berne says in Games People Play “communication will proceed as long as transactions are complementary.”9

Crossed Transaction
However, not all transactions between humans are healthy or normal. In those cases, the transaction is classified as a crossed transaction. In a crossed transaction, an ego state different than the ego state which received the stimuli is the one that responds. The diagram to the right shows a typical crossed transaction. An example is as follows:
Agent’s Adult: “Do you know where my cuff links are?” (note that this stimuli is directed at the Respondents Adult).
Respondent’s Child: “You always blame me for everything!”10
This is one the classic crossed transactions that occurs in marriage. Instead of the Respondent’s Adult responding with “I think they’re on the desk”, it is the Respondent’s Child that responds back.
It is important to note that when analyzing transactions, one must look beyond what is being said. According to Dr. Berne, one must look at how the words are being delivered (accents on particular words, changes in tone, volume, etc.) as the non-verbal signs accompanying those words (body language, facial expressions, etc.). Transactional Analysts will pay attention to all of these cues when analyzing a transaction and identifying which ego states are involved.
The importance of these non-verbal cues can be understood by considering the work of Dr. Albert Mehrabian. Berne passed away in 1970, before Mehrabian’s seminal work was published. But Mehrabian’s work quantitatively proved the importance of non-verbal cues in communication. According to Dr. Mehrabian, when an individual is speaking, the listener focuses on the following three types of communication:
• Actual Words – 7%
• The Way words are delivered (tone, accents on certain words, etc.) – 38%
• Facial expressions – 55%
In the above statistics, the percentage figure indicates the degree of importance the listener places on that type of communication. One can see that facial expressions play a far more important role in communication (and thus, Transactional Analysis) than the actual words exchanged.
Berne went on to discuss other types of transactions, but those will not be discussed here. Once a reasonable understanding of ego states and Transactional Analysis has been achieved, the games as described in Games People Play can be understood at a whole new level.
Berne went on to refine his theories beyond Games People Play. The classic follow-up to Games is What Do You Say After You Say Hello. In addition, after Berne’s death in 1970, others continued to build upon Transactional Analysis. Some of these works can be seen in the Bibliography

Leave a Reply