Working It Out …

by Zoë Sharp

First of all, I’ll start with an apology. I’ve been kinda quiet these last couple of weeks. (Oh, so you hadn’t noticed I was missing …?) Put it down partly to rushing about the country, going to Harrogate, and Caerleon, and partly down to needing some time to reflect on a lot of things. One of which is how we deal with people, and therefore how our characters interact and deal with each other.

Every now and again, somebody explains a theory to me and it just clicks. A little light bulb comes on in the brain and some abstract concept finally takes shape and form. So it’s been this week with something called Transactional Analysis. Not something I’d come across before, but once I had, I realised I was seeing it everywhere.

Now, I know it doesn’t exactly sound enthralling, but stick with me on this. Transactional Analysis, known as TA for short (although that still means Territorial Army to me) is a theory of psychology developed in the 1950s to explain how people are put together and how they relate and function in a group. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all psycho-babble on you. (I’m blonde, remember).

TA works on the basis that everyone has three ego-states – Child, Adult, and Parent. These are present regardless of age and actual status as a parent. They govern your reactions to others. Most of us, most of the time, function on an Adult to Adult basis, but it’s very easy to slide into another response, forcing the other person to also alter their stance. Wikipedia gives the following examples.

 

Straightforward Adult to Adult exchange:

A: “Have you been able to write that report?”

B: “Yes – I’m just about to email it to you.”

 

Child to Child would be:

A: “Would you like to skip this meeting and go watch a film with me instead?”

B: “I’d love to – I don’t want to work any more, what should we go and see?”

 

And finally:

A: “You should have your room tidy by now!” (Parent to Child)

B: “Will you stop hassling me? I’ll do it eventually!” (Child to Parent)

These fall into fairly set patterns of behaviour and can go backwards and forwards like a tennis match. The problems occur when people cross from one ego-state to another during an exchange.

 

So, what starts out as an Adult to Adult exchange is altered by the response.

A: “Have you been able to write that report?” (Adult to Adult)

B: “Will you stop hassling me? I’ll do it eventually!” (Child to Parent)

 

and will often force A into a suitable Parent to Child response:

A: “If you don’t change your attitude, you’ll get fired.”

 

Equally, you can break this cycle, so:

A: “Is your room tidy yet?” (Parent to Child)

B: “I’m just about to do it, actually.” (Adult to Adult)

 

Of course, it may not be comfortable for someone who is in a Parent ego-state, and expecting a Parent to Child/Child to Parent reaction.

A: “I can never trust you do to things!” (Parent to Child)

B: “Why don’t you believe anything I say?” (Adult to Adult)

 

The trick, of course, is to be measured in your response, otherwise what should be reasoned argument comes across as petulance, which is not quite the same thing.

Of course, within these ego-states are other sub-states. Parent has the controlling aspect, and the nurturing aspect, which can both be negative and positive. Everyone wants to be encouraged and praised when they do well, but sometimes this can turn to smothering. Everyone wants to be guided, but not to the point of oppression, or being lectured to.

Likewise, the Child ego-state is either adaptive or free. Everyone needs, at some time or another, to follow instructions and do as they’re told, but being too adaptive can lead to submission, and too much freedom goes beyond confident, outside-the-box thinking into just plain rebelliousness and displays of temperament.

The more I think about these automatic underlying responses to the behaviour of others, the more sense it makes. For example, have you ever been in the situation where you’ve watched the reactions of a colleague, boss or friend towards another person, and thought, ‘If I’d said that to my colleague/boss/friend, they would have bitten my head off …’? If this is the case, perhaps that other person is not allowing your colleague/boss/friend to force them into playing the Child to Parent role, and your colleague/boss/friend is reacting accordingly by going for the straight Adult to Adult response. It’s probably completely subconscious rather than directed at you personally, and you have to react very carefully to turn this around and not head instantly for rebellious Child mode.

TA reasons that everyone’s psyche has these three ego-states and we naturally slide between them in all our dealings with other people. The problem comes when the balance becomes upset, either because you feel you’re being bullied by another person – constantly falling into the Parent to Child mode – or even because you feel you have to bully someone to get them to respond as you believe they should.

The answer depends on your temperament and self-confidence, to a certain extent. If you feel lectured by someone close to you – as often happens in a relationship where one partner Always Knows Best – then making a gentle joke of it is often the best way forwards, so they recognise what they’re doing and it’s not being pointed out to them in such a way as to provoke an angry response.

In a business relationship, sitting down and calmly explaining to the person that you have a problem with them and asking how best to solve it is the only way forwards – forcing an Adult to Adult exchange and not letting it degenerate into a Child to Parent slanging match. (Cue cries of “It’s SO unfair!”)

Anyway I found all this stuff fascinating, because it gives me plenty of food for thought about the way my characters interact with each other. And as I’m just planning the next book where Charlie has to bodyguard an immature girl, there will be plenty of scope for Parent to Child interactions.

So, my questions are, does this make any sense whatsoever? Have you ever felt yourself reacting to others in the ways described and not been aware of it? Do you think this is a useful character-building tool from a creative writing point of view?

OK, lesson over, now to have some fun!

I came across these pix this week, wonderful examples of creative stupidity or ingenious bodges, all of them, and I thought you might enjoy them.

 

 

 

 

This week’s Word of the Week is suppedaneum, which is the support under the foot of a crucified person. I’m not sure what bothers me most about this – the fact that such a footrest was devised to prolong the agonies of crucifixion, or that it has a special name.

 

34 thoughts on “Working It Out …

  1. Dana King

    Interesting timing. I recently had to get together with my daughter and my ex to work out how The Sole Heir’s living expenses would be paid while she’s in college. I dreaded it, as her mother and I do not have a good track record in such conversations, since she tends to view our relationship in terms of management and labor. (Which explains a lot about the "ex" part.)

    I decided to be a little proactive and sent emails to explain why we needed to get together sooner rather than later, and lay out the parameters of what needed to be discussed. I had to work some to get agreement to the meeting, and heard through the grapevine that "Mommy really doesn’t want to have this discussion." When we got together, I took the lead, but worked hard to make it a discussion among equals and we had everything worked out in an hour or so with never a raised voice. You could have knocked me over with a moist towelette.

    I see now that what I did was remove myself from the child part of a parent-child discussion and create the framework for an adult to adult (to adult) discussion. it worked great. I hadn’t thought of it in these terms, but that’s exactly what happened.

    Reply
  2. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dana

    Yup, most of us manage to do this without thinking about the rules. It’s only useful to start looking deeper when we find we CAN’T work things out, or we know there’s a difficult confrontation coming up that we don’t want to get out of control.

    But congratulations – it sounds like you handled the whole thing brilliantly!

    Reply
  3. toni mcgee causey

    I love reading your posts, Zoë. They always illuminate angles into character and story in ways I had not seen.

    It’s interesting about the dynamics of the parent/child communication and how that occurs between adults. I’ve seen people who aren’t normally bossy move into that parent mode just because they are physically larger than the person they’re speaking to, when that’s not their normal dynamic. Or the "division of labor" Dana illustrated above, with a management/labor sort of relationship because person A is used to being in charge in the office (for example) and they turn that responsibility into a communication style. It forces the receiving person to work harder to break the pattern and move them back to an adult/adult conversation… if they have the awareness of what is going on and why… which is fascinating in fiction. Great food for thought!

    Reply
  4. Louise Ure

    TA was all the rage here in the70’s and 80’s. Thankfully I missed most of it. It’s logical, but too simplistic for me.

    But oh my! Those pictures! Can we count how many things are wrong?

    And your "word of the day" continues to surprise (and sadden) me.

    Reply
  5. JT Ellison

    Man, do I ever get TA. I feel like most of my exchanges lately are parent to child, with the child reacting. Me playing the role of the child here, BTW. : )

    Another instance of how you view the world differently and it shows in your fiction, Z. Nicely said.

    Reply
  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi RJ

    "By the way, Z, where do I get one of those really cool idea light bulbs?"

    Well, first you need a really, really good idea …

    … failing that, Google images

    Reply
  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi RK

    I’m feeling left out that nearly everyone is going by initials these days. Glad the TA gave you food for thought. There’s a whole bunch of other stuff connected with life scripts and patterns of behaviour that are set in childhood, but my brain was starting to leak out of my ears by that point, so I thought I’d better cut it short.

    Reply
  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    It’s very interesting, and I’ve already found myself using it during a recent conversation with someone who tends to ride roughshod over me (Parent to Child) and I was able to turn the conversation round much more towards Adult to Adult.

    And for developing character relationships, it has endless uses, of course ;-]

    Reply
  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    I’m aware that TA fell out of favour, and some aspects of the rest of the theory do leave me a bit cold, I must admit, but this basic layout of communication does have its uses, as I’ve already found.

    I think my favourite of the pictures are the guys in the pool with the electrical outlet balances on two flip flops. How long did they last, do you reckon? Prime candidates for the Darwin Awards if ever I saw them ;-]

    And I just love strange words, even if you never actually get to use them in normal conversation!

    Reply
  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    I know that one, because the natural reaction if you feel you’re being lectured at is to get snarky or upset. Or possibly both.

    I like to look at things a little sideways, even if it does put me out of step with just about everyone else …

    Reply
  11. Rob Gregory Browne

    Ha. I remember TA from my teen years. Had lots of friends who were into it.

    Never got into it myself.

    And as a writer, I kind of like the idea of people not thinking or measuring their responses before they speak. Gives me a lot more to work with…

    Reply
  12. Zoë Sharp

    This is what I like about writers, Rob – they all work in different ways. If it was a one-size-fits-all deal, we’d be a pretty boring bunch, wouldn’t we?

    Reply
  13. Pepper Smith

    The picture in the pool is pretty scary, actually. What’s scarier than the fact that the electrical outlets are floating on the flipflops is that the guys actually look proud of themselves for having thought of the idea. I’m wondering if there isn’t a picture they didn’t show, the one where the outlet fell in the water and electrocuted them all.

    Of course, they all put themselves in line for being the Child part of the Parent/Child exchange, don’t they?

    Reply
  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pepper

    Erm, if you believe in letting children do stupid things on the grounds that it will be ‘a valuable life lesson’ ;-]

    Yeah, not only do they look terribly pleased, but they’re proud enough of their jury-rigged apparatus to let someone take a photograph of it. I’m betting the food was well poached that night …

    Reply
  15. pari noskin taichert

    Actually, Zoe,
    I can think of many examples. Probably the most important was when I started relating to my mother as an adult.
    Once I got a taste of not reacting but slowing the communication down and forcing it toward the adult spectrum, my mother and I actually got along much better. It took a while though. She was really into the child thing. (Not a criticism, merely fact.)

    Reply
  16. Judy Wirzberger

    Enlightenment is always a wonderful thing. It is great to extend the TA even further than conversation – into actions A "mothering" wife always fixing the husband’s collar, asking if he has his sweater…a controller always double checking the obvious – checking to make sure the wife turned off the oven — a wife hiding shopping receipts from her husband. Makes for great fodder for character arc.

    Reply
  17. Judy Wirzberger

    Enlightenment is always a wonderful thing. It is great to extend the TA even further than conversation – into actions A "mothering" wife always fixing the husband’s collar, asking if he has his sweater…a controller always double checking the obvious – checking to make sure the wife turned off the oven — a wife hiding shopping receipts from her husband. Makes for great fodder for character arc.

    Reply
  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    There are lots of examples where I can think of parents taking on the Child role, and children becoming the Parent. It may be simplistic, as Louise pointed out, but advice often is, and if it helps someone recognise and deal with a difficult relationship, the simple approach can often be the best ;-]

    Besides – parents, eh? You bring them up properly, you take them out, and look what happens …

    Reply
  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Judy

    The examples you give are great. I, too, thought TA had great potential for character building within a creative writing framework, which is the reason for doing this post about it. Rather than thinking through or measuring their responses before they speak or act, as Rob comments, it seems that people’s behaviour is often instinctive but governed by certain deep-seated behavioural traits.

    As is always the way with these things – if it works for your writing, use it. If it doesn’t, chuck it out ;-]

    Reply
  20. TeenDad

    I’m now 19 and experiencing being a dad. I must say although it feels good it’s still hard. I knew it wouldn’t be easy but to be honest, the hard part is having to balance time. My daughter is great and makes managing her never dreadful. -Teen dad

    Reply
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