Transactional Analysis

See also: Negotiation Skills

Understanding Transactions and Creating Win-Win Situations

When interacting with other people, one of the most important skills is to be able to create win-win situations, that is where both those involved have genuinely gained from the transaction.

Almost everyone knows how to ‘win’ by playing games, beating others and creating a ‘win-lose’ situation, but making sure that both of you ‘win’ is much harder.

To start to consider how to do this, we need to discuss a bit of psychology, and in particular, Transactional Analysis. Thomas Harris’s book ‘I’m OK – You’re OK’ is the fundamental text, written very much from a clinical perspective. However, the thinking works for all transactions.

Transactions are the everyday currency of human interaction. In its most simple form, a transaction is ‘I do something to you and you do something back’, where ‘doing’ may include speaking.

Transactional Analysis is based on the understanding that everyone has three parts, Parent, Adult and Child.

  • The Parent is the learned element, and is basically the unfiltered recordings of the first five years of your life. It can be thought of as what your parents taught you, consciously or unconsciously, in that time. It may include safety information (“Don’t run across the road!”), beliefs (religious or ‘life’ systems), and rules for life.
  • The Child is the ‘felt experience’, or the remembered responses of the ‘little person’ to the adult world, again in the first five years. In general, the Child is about emotion and feelings, as these are the predominant response in small children.
  • The Adult is the thinking or reasoning element who examines the Parent and Child data and decides whether it is right or not based on reality and experience.

Transactional Analysis Skills

The basis of Transactional Analysis is to identify which of the three parts, Parent, Adult or Child, is involved in the transaction, and then take appropriate action.

How does the identification work?

  • When the Parent is involved, there are some give-aways in the language used, with common phrases being ‘never’, ‘always’, ‘should’, and ‘ought’, especially when these are used without considering whether the position is sensible. There may also be gestures such as finger-wagging and head-shaking.

  • The Child often manifests in a very emotional response. Verbal clues include use of childish words and phrases such as ‘I wish’, ‘gonna’, ‘don’t want’, and ‘won’t’.

  • The Adult manifests through fact-finding. The basic language of the Adult is a series of questions: who, what, why, where, how?

With this is mind, you can start to identify who is involved in your day-to-day transactions, and you can also start to see how you might change the world, at least a little.

Consider someone complaining about the level of service they have received.

Suppose they say "It’s just not good enough. Something must be done!" This is probably their Parent talking, because it’s very indignant.

The person on the end of the complaint has a choice about who responds:

  • Child: It’s not my fault, I had nothing to do with it. It’s no good telling me.
  • Parent: It’s disgraceful, isn’t it? It’s the computer, you know.
  • Adult: I do see your problem. What can I do to help to put it right?

The Child response is likely to lead to more Parental criticism, and possible shouting, as the complainant tries to make clear that they don’t care whose fault it is, they just want something done!

The Parent response is unlikely to be very helpful in terms of getting something done or the complainant moving away swiftly. In the best case, the two will find themselves agreeing that it is awful, and something really ought to be done about it, probably at considerable length.

The Adult response, on the other hand, moves the complainant to an Adult position. It quickly ascertains what will solve the problem and make them happy again.

Life Positions

The next part of Transactional Analysis is the identification of life positions.

Harris believes that from a very early age, a child accepts the position that their parents are ‘OK’. Parents spend a lot of time telling children not to do things, as a normal part of helping them grow up into a civilised and functioning adult.

The 'Adult' in a child logically decides that he or she must be ‘Not OK’.

So the basic position for most people from childhood is ‘You’re OK – I’m not OK’. Harris stresses that this is not about whether you had a happy or unhappy childhood: this is a life position which everyone reaches. It leads the child to do things to please the ‘OK’ people, so that they will earn praise and rewards, and feel better about themselves.

Many people never move beyond this basic life position. They continue, all their life, to seek out rewards and praise from those who are bigger or more important than them, to validate themselves, and make themselves feel more ‘OK’. However, their fundamental position does not change: they still feel, deep down, that they are ‘Not OK’.

Harris believes that it is possible to decide to move to a new position, that is, to ‘I’m OK – You’re OK’, by the use of the Adult. Only the Adult can decide on and maintain this position. This means that if your Child or Parent get ‘hooked’ by something, you may well find that you have returned to the old position of ‘I’m not OK’, and will need to consciously engage your Adult to get you out of it.

Using Transactional Analysis to Create Win-Win Situations

It is hopefully clear that in order to want to create true ‘win-win’ situations, that is where both of you have genuinely gained from the transaction, you need to start from a position of ‘I’m OK – You’re OK’. If you’re starting from ‘I’m not OK’, then you probably want to either:

  • Score points off other people so that you win and they lose and you feel more ‘OK’


  • Lose yourself, so as to confirm your ‘Not OK’ position.

This is where Transactional Analysis is really useful in practical terms. If you can identify that your own or someone else’s Child or Parent is involved, you can engage the Adult instead, and return to the ‘I’m OK – You’re OK’ position again.

In the example above, for instance, if the person dealing with the complaint had given the Child response, the complainant could have replied as Adult, and said ‘I understand that it’s not your fault [responding to and reassuring the Child], but is there anything that you can do to help me?’ Thus inviting the other to say ‘Yes, I can give you a discount on a future purchase’, or ‘What would you like me to do?’ or even ‘No, I’m afraid not, I have no discretion over this, but I can get someone more senior to talk to you if you like’.

In each case, the Adult invites an Adult response from the recipient, once the Child has been reassured that they have been heard.

Whether or not you choose to adopt ‘I’m OK – You’re OK’ as a life philosophy, Transactional Analysis can be a useful tool for thinking about interactions in a slightly different way. If introduced to a whole team, group or family, it can also provide a common language, which often helps to facilitate relationships in itself. It also provides some practical ideas for approaching difficult situations and relationships.

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