An Introduction to Transactional Analysis

After a recent Twitter discussion about treating adults like children I started thinking about Transactional Analysis (TA) again and how important it was when I learned about it (and it still is). It helped me a lot in the day to day tasks as a Test Manager and in private life as well.

Luckily understanding the basics is pretty easy and with a bit of patience the learnings can be applied quickly, be it in a work environment at home or anywhere else where people communicate.

In TA social transactions are analyzed to determine the ego state of a person as a basis for understanding behavior.

TA uses the PAC ego state model

  • Parent (learned behaviour from own parents or parental figures)
  • Adult (objective appraisal of reality – strengthening the adult is the goal of TA)
  • Child (using behavior from our childhood)


In this example the ego states are easily guessed, the woman in child state and the man in parent ego mode.

We constantly switch subconsciously between ego states but it is helpful to observe the current state not only in oneself but also in the partner of the social transaction. If I know the ego state I’m in I can take a conscious decision to change it. If I also know the ego state of my opposite I can influence it and steer the course of the conversation. Note that there are also substates, for example the parent state could be caring and nurturing or commanding and demanding. I’ll leave out these substates as this would become too complex for this blog.

There are no right or wrong states, it depends on the context. I can tell my son off for not doing his homework putting me in the classic parent mode and him in the child state. Or he can tell me off for being late potentially putting me in the child and him in parent mode. I say potentially because I don’t have to go into child mode, I can choose. Splashing about in a swimming pool we could both be in child mode which would be entirely appropriate in that situation.

Why is this important in the context of software development? When a project manager asks the tester how much longer it takes until testing is finally done in what ego state is he/she?

The PMs question could be a request for information (Adult -> Adult) or it could be a dressing down in waiting (Parent -> Child). Without context we don’t know for sure but the ego state we choose will influence the course of the discussion. Let’s play through this example.

“How much longer” instead of “how long” and “finally” to me indicates a disgruntled parent mode. Unfortunately a common reaction to someone asking in parent mode is to answer in child mode. If that happens the tester may become apologetic addressing the (perceived) hidden aggression in this way; in an adult ego state the tester may give a timeline and also address the perceived aggression and ask if there is dissatisfaction in an attempt to resolve the situation in a peaceful manner; in parent mode the tester may become equally aggressive and just push back.

If I’m aware of this mechanic I can take a step back and choose my ego state. The ego state of the discussion partner is not always clear but can be figured out quickly by asking leading questions. This is a lot easier with people we know better.

A little picture may help visualising the ego states.


In a work situation a Child <-> Parent setup is usually not a healthy discussion, ideally we’d try and move the ego states to Adult <-> Adult.

There can be crossed pathways as well, for example one starts with Adult -> Adult

“Can you please tell me what the time is?”

and the second person responds with Child -> Parent

“I know that I have to hurry, no need to put more pressure on me!”

If there are crossed paths no fruitful discussion can take place.

When we know someone better it’s likely that “Games” are being played. By that I mean ‘repeating sequences of transactions that lead to a result subconsciously agreed to by the parties involved in the game’.

Say an old married couple is going over an old argument where the result of the discussion is known already and the actors and texts (arguments) are defined. These games can be played in a variety of situations and the outcome will only change if one or both actors change their ego state.

This concludes this blog. Experiment with the PAC model next time you have a conversation and see if you can spot the ego states. I’d be happy to discuss further- please leave a comment or get in touch via Twitter, email, Skype.

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