Transactional Analysis

Learning the Games People Play

Transactional Analysis - Learning the Secret Games People Play

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Transactional analysis can make interactions more balanced.

Have you ever experienced a conversation like this?

Manager: Hey, did you finish that report yet? I have to turn it in to the executive team tomorrow, and I'd like a chance to read it over first.

Worker: Why are you always reminding me? I said I'd get it done, and I'll get it done!

Manager: Look, I really need it, so make it happen. And by the way, that kind of attitude is completely unnecessary.

Worker: (frowning and looking down) Well, you'll have it this afternoon, I guess, but I'll need to put a lot of other stuff on hold, so.

Sounds a bit familiar, right? This can not only be frustrating, but also make people feel that the lines of communication have broken down somewhere. Does the worker sound like a misbehaving child? And does the manager sound like a frustrated parent? You might be surprised to learn that this isn't too far from the truth!

This is where Transactional Analysis – the study of human interactions – can help. In this article, we'll introduce you to the concept of Transactional Analysis, and we'll show you how to use it to identify which roles you and your co-workers are using at any given time. We'll also go into some of the games that people can play when they use these roles.

All of this will help you be a better leader, colleague, and communicator. It's also an approach you can use with your team to help eliminate poor communication and unproductive relationships.

What Is Transactional Analysis?

Transactional Analysis is a form of psychotherapy that was developed by psychiatrist Eric Berne in the late 1950s and afterward. It looks at how we speak and respond to others, and at the roles we play. Its goal is to improve these interactions so they become healthy and balanced.

In observing human transactions, Dr Berne identified three ego states, or roles, that everyone has: the Child, the Parent, and the Adult.

  • The Child state is when we go back to feelings and actions that we would have engaged in when we were children. This state isn't always negative. According to Berne, our creativity, spontaneous actions, and wonder come from here. But it's also the home of other actions and feelings – like sulking, brooding, pouting, showing displeasure, or sudden anger.
  • The Parent state is when we play, often unconsciously, a "parent type" role – we imitate what our parents would have done in a situation. These can be things like criticizing, scolding, advising, nurturing, and caring actions.
  • The Adult state is the most objective of the three. It's stable, reasonable, and able to observe what's going on in the moment to make a rational decision. The goal of Transactional Analysis is to help people understand that each role has its place and importance, but that, in most situations, people should play the Adult role.

Types of Human Transactions

Individuals in these roles interact through two types of transactions: complementary transactions and crossed transactions.

  • Complementary transactions occur when two people communicate with each other in the same role:

    Person A: Did you finish that staff review yet? I really need it. (Adult role)

    Person B: Yes. Actually, I was about to send you the results. (Adult role)


    Person A: Hey, would you like to leave work a bit early and go for a bike ride by the river? (Child role)

    Person B: Yeah! I don't have a lot going on, so leaving early sounds great. (Child role)

    These conversations were clear because both people were communicating in the same roles. Problems occur, however, with crossed transactions.

  • Crossed transactions take place when two people communicate with each other in different roles:

    Person A: Did you finish that staff review yet? I really need it. (Adult role)

    Person B: Why are you always reminding me? I said I would finish it, and I'll get to it when I have time. (Child role)


    Person A: Hey, would you like to leave work a bit early and go for a bike ride by the river? (Child role)

    Person B: You really need to act more responsibly. Next time you ask me to do something like this, I'm going to tell the boss, and you'll get in trouble. (Parent role)

As you can see, when people communicate on the same level – such as Adult to Adult or Child to Child – communication is often easy. Nothing is misunderstood, and no frustration occurs.

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However, when people communicate on different levels – such as Adult to Child or Child to Parent – then true communication often breaks down. This can lead to feelings of frustration, anger, or inadequacy, and it can damage relationships.

So, what does all of this mean for you? By learning the different roles that you, or your team, use to communicate, you can learn to communicate more effectively.

Games We Play

Now that we understand the different roles, let's consider the games that people often play while acting in these roles.

Eric Berne identified dozens of games that take place during human interaction. "Games" refer to human transactions that are predictable and have an ulterior, or hidden, motive – usually a payoff of some kind (such as sympathy or admiration) – for one or more of the players.

For example, if Jane clearly asks Dennis for help and gets it, this is not a game – it's what Dr Berne calls an "operation." But if Jane asks Dennis questions in an indirect way, without clearly seeking help – such as asking Dennis what he's doing and if he's busy, and then complaining about how much work she has – then this is the beginning of a game. Jane is trying to maneuver or manipulate Dennis into offering to help her.

Games are commonly used to get attention. Because the game's outcome is often dramatic, the initiator usually wants – and gets – attention.

To demonstrate our point, here are some examples of games.

"Why don't you.? Yes, but."

Consider this conversation:

Person A: I sure wish I had the time to finish all my work. It never ends!

Person B: Why don't you stay late to get it done?

Person A: Yes, but I have to pick up my kids after school.

Person B: Well, why don't you hire an assistant?

Person A: Yes, but that would be too expensive, and my boss wouldn't approve.

Person B: Why don't you come in on Saturday?

Person A: Yes, but I'm so busy on the weekends I wouldn't have time.

At this point, Person B has thought of several solutions and is out of ideas. There's silence. Person A has "won."

It's important to realize that this can look like an Adult-Adult interaction (two reasonable people trying to solve a problem). However, it's actually Child-Parent. Person A is the "helpless child," while Person B takes on the "wise parent" role.

What's the goal of this game? Well, although Person A might not realize it on a conscious level, she plays the game because it makes everyone else feel as if they are the ones who are inadequate. They can't find solutions to her problem – and deep down, she gets secret pleasure from turning down their suggestions.


This is another common game in organizations. It often occurs when there's a new hire, or when someone gets a promotion to lead a team. In this game, the players feel comfortable only after they've identified someone else's blemishes or faults. They "pick apart" and criticize the outsider, looking for "bad" things:

  • He may have an Ivy League degree, but those people never have great people skills.
  • She probably got that promotion because her brother is in politics.
  • He probably really had to flatter the boss to get that job.

And so it goes. Blemish is a negative game that players use to feel superior and gain reassurance about themselves. Because they focus on the outsider, they don't discuss their own blemishes and faults. Most of the time, it's played from a Parent role, but with the enjoyment of a Child.

Using Transactional Analysis

To make the most of Transactional Analysis, analyze which roles you and your colleagues play. Try to be aware of this in all of your interactions, but particularly in any situation where communication is difficult.

Once you understand the roles, you can judge whether this makes your interaction a complementary or crossed transaction. You can then determine whether there's a risk that you're leading each other in the wrong direction (Child-Child complementary transactions) or responding inappropriately (when you're being a Child, or even a Parent, in a crossed transaction). When you pay extra attention to what you say, you're better able to respond as an Adult.

It's also important to recognize when someone else is playing a game. There are so many different types of games that we can't cover them all here, but you can find more examples in Dr Berne's book "Games People Play."

Refusing to play games with others is a way to separate yourself from the unpleasant consequences of those games – and establish yourself in the role of a rational Adult.

Refusing to play can also have a powerful impact on the initiators of the games. They may become depressed, angry, confused, or frustrated – and they might even increase their efforts to involve you. Without your validation and acceptance, however, they often don't know what to do. If you remain firm and act as the Adult, they might follow your lead.


There is some debate concerning the validity of Transaction Analysis, with some commentators regarding it as a form of pseudoscience. We include it within Mind Tools because, in our experience, it gives practical and useful insights into the sometimes strange ways in which people can behave in the workplace.

Key Points

Interacting with others can often be frustrating. You might say one thing, but they hear something completely different and respond inappropriately. Transactional Analysis can help you identify the roles your co-workers play, and what they're really saying "between the lines."

Be aware of games that others may play. Almost all games have negative intentions (albeit, often, subconscious) and consequences, because there's usually a hidden motive. If you remain the Adult and don't participate in these games, you may not only stop those who are playing games, but also show them that you're not willing to validate what they're doing.


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