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4 de noviembre de 2012

Games People Play



Should we Project Managers learn some Psychology? That wouldn’t do any harm. Following I will try to describe a psychological theory I have put into practice with good results. It allows me to explain “why people argue”. Even better, when it’s me the one involved in the argument, it allows me to take distance from emotion: I think there are situational patterns and common solutions. What happen to me has happened to much more people before. 

According Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne, who developed the theory known as Transactional Analysis, published in 1964 within his famous book Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships, when people communicate, they basically interact from three ego-states: the parent “me”, the adult “me”, and the child “me”. 

When I draw these three ego-states with circles one above the other, the figure reminds me of a snowman:

  • The parent “me” represents norms rules and attitudes. All the opinions about right and wrong, how we should behave and how we should act are represented here, along with all the “musts” and “nos”, praise and encouragement. We take our parental self from our childhood so it is linked strongly to the environment we grew up in. The parental “me” can be divided into two parts. There is a critical, authoritarian side which sets limits and gives warnings (critical parent –KP-). The other part is the caring side which encourages and helps (caring parent –CP-).
  • The adult “me” contains our ability to think independently, without being affected by our adult or child selves other tan to receive information from them. The adult self makes rational decisions, collects information, analyses, refines and assesses probability. This self is logical, objective and free of prejudice. Another way of describing this “me” is to call it your computer.
  • The child “me” contains our feelings and needs. When we are little we act spontaneously (spontaneous child –SC-) and emotionally (adaptive child –AC-) to get what we want and need. Our creativity resides in the child self, along with our ability to laugh, cry, love and hate. If we are unhappy the cause can usually be found in the child “me” in the form of repressed or unsatisfied needs and emotions.

According to Transactional Analysis, when people communicate, the message sender uses one of his “me” to head the receiver “me”: that is a transaction. When receiver responds, that is another transaction:
  • True communication occurs when transactions are parallel. Parallel transaction builds agreement. It can continue, in principle, indefinitely. Example: One person criticizes other (KP->AC) and the other responds admitting the critic and apologizing (AC->KP).
  • There is an argument when transactions are crossed. A crossed transaction is based on the fact that you are in different “me” states and communication is broken. Example: One person criticizes other (KP->AC) and the other responds backfiring (KP->AC).
  • It will be difficult to resolve a crossed transaction constructively unless one of the parties changes its communication mode. Usually, the one who wins the transactional game is the one who gets into his adult “me” to head the adult “me” of the other (A->A).


Let’s illustrate the theory by setting some examples. Let’s imagine two people waiting in the cinema line:
  • This is typical! Long queues and no service. No-one cares about the customer anymore!
  • You are absolutely right! And that’s not all…
There is no argument in this case. Instead, they will probably continue talking animatedly until the movie starts.

Now imagine an employee asking for advice to her boss:
  • Do you have any comments or opinions about my work?
  • I think there are quite a few things that could improve. What about…
Here we are two people talking respectfully in a professional way. They are not likely to have an argument.


Boss and employee don’t have an argument neither in this sequence:
  • Help! I cannot manage. I feel useless.
  • Here, let me do it for you. You need rest.



Now the opposite example in which there is an argument. It’s me coming home asking something to my wife:

  • What’s for dinner?
  • So typical of you getting home late and making me hurry! Do you want me to start preparing dinner right now? I was about to take a break from kids… 


Oops! Now I better resolve the transaction constructively to win the transactional game (I recalled A->A):

  • I’m sorry, darling. I just asked to give a hand. I didn’t know you were taking a break. Did you have a hard day with the children? Did they misbehave?
  • Yes, they did. It’s been a long day. Let me take a break, please. Meanwhile, you could prepare the salad...

Do you see how the theory works? It’s not about manipulating people. It’s just about to know how to communicate effectively. Knowing there are theories explaining what happen to us is useful to take distance from emotions, which is really necessary sometimes.

Click here to read the Spanish version of this article. 
Click the label English to see the other articles written in English.