December 2, 2021

Transactional Analysis: What Are Transactions?

By Doxa Zannou

Identity Development

Last post, we discussed the three ego states in which we function: The Child, The Adult, and The Parent. This month, we will explore how these ego states affect our relationships. Namely,  how we relate to others through a series of ‘transactions’ that can be healthy or unhealthy, all depending on which ego state is involved in the transaction. 

What are Transactions

In a transaction, person A gives person B a, “stroke,” and person B responds to person’s A ‘stroke’ by another ‘stroke.’ A stroke is a, “unit of recognition,” in which one person acknowledges the other using verbal or non-verbal communication, which can be positive or negative. Examples of strokes or transactions include hugs, smiles, praise, criticism, and more. 

So, transactions occur when one of person A’s ego states interacts with one of person B’s ego states. When person A initiates the transaction, it is called “the stimulus.” Person B’s reaction is called “the response.” Person A can initiate the transaction from either their Adult, Parent, or Child ego state, and person B can respond from either their Adult, Parent or Child ego state as well. 

Complementary Transactions

In a complementary transaction, the strokes given and received lead to positive and effective communication where each person feels seen and heard. For instance, if Person A’s adult speaks to person B’s Adult and says, “I appreciate your hard work today, and person B responds from his Adult state with a, “thank you,” this is a complementary transaction (as seen in drawing). 

Another example is if Person A’s parent speaks to Person B’s child and tells them, “don’t forget to call me when you come home from your date,” and Person B responds from their Child state by saying, “yes, I will text you as soon as I get home!”

In essence, if Person A directs a unit of recognition to Person B’s Child, Parent or Adult, Person B must respond from the ego state that was initially addressed. The diagram above shows two common examples of complementary, transactional communication, but more examples abound. For instance, Person A’s Child could speak to Person B’s Adult, and it would be complementary as long as Person B’s Adult responds back to person A’s Child. Person A’s Parent could speak to Person B’s Parent, and it would be complementary as long as Person B’s parent responds back to Person A’s parent, etc. 

Crossed Transactions

Unfortunately, many of us communicate in ways that are unhealthy as well. These unhealthy communications are called, “crossed transactions,” wherein communication breaks down and each party no longer feels seen, heard, or understood. 

In the above example, Person A’s adult gave a stroke to Person B’s adult by saying, “I appreciate your hard work today,” but Person B responded from their child state to Person B’s Parent state, by saying: “Why are you being condescending? You sound just like my Dad!” In a complementary transaction, Person B’s adult would have responded in the ‘here-and-now’ with a rational adult-like response (ie: “thank you”). But in a crossed transaction, Person B’s child state flares up and feels targeted, even though Person A was giving a genuine compliment. 

Person B could also respond from their Parent ego state, to Person A’s child state (see above diagram), by saying, “Don’t tell me how hard I’ve been working! I am very much aware of my contribution to this household!” Other forms of crossed transaction can be seen when Person A’s Child addresses Person B’s (Adult) and Person B responds from their child state to Person A’s parent state. Or again, Person A’s Parent state addresses Person B’s child state, and person B’s parent responds to Person A’s Child state. There are multiple combinations for crossed transactions, but they all maintain a similar feature: communication breaks down because Person A directs a stroke or unit of recognition to Person B’s state, and Person B does not respond from this anticipated ego state. In order for communication to be restored, the transactions must once again be complementary so that there is a mutual understanding on both sides. 

While this can be very complex to understand, you have probably experienced these forms of crossed transactions in your close relationships. For instance, if you are in a relationship, you may find yourself speaking to your partner from your Adult state, but your partner responds from their Child state and attacks your Parent state. Or your partner may respond from their Parent state and criticize your child state. Usually, this happens when one partner feels triggered and reacts from their past experiences, as opposed to remaining present in the here-and-now. 

One partner’s adult state may address the other’s adult state and say, “I need you to pull your weight in this relationship when it comes to chores.” If the other partner was responding from their respective adult state, they would say something along the lines of, “I hear you. How can we make things more equal?” However, if the partner was responding from their child state, they may say, “You always criticize me and I’m never enough!” Or again, they could respond from their parent state and say, “I’m tired of you telling me what to do. I pull my fair share in this house!”

Ulterior Transactions

Ulterior transactions are even more complicated because there is an overt message and a covert message that is communicated simultaneously. The overt transaction is what is audibly spoken, but the covert transaction is the psychological message that is actually being communicated. In essence, it is when people say one thing, but mean another. We all do it, and we can all recall situations where this was done to us. 

For instance, in the above diagram, a salesperson may tell you “this object is very expensive.” This is their adult state verbally speaking to your adult state. However, the nonverbal communication of, “You can’t afford this,” is addressed to your child state (see dotted line).  A salesperson will do this if they have a client who is afraid of ‘seeming cheap.’ They will appeal to their child state, using this sort of ulterior transaction so that the child state can respond impulsively and say something along the lines of, “No, I can afford it! In fact, I’m buying it right now!” 

Flirtatious communications also tend to involve a considerable amount of ulterior transactions. For instance, after a new date (see diagram above) Person A’s adult state may tell person B’s adult state, “it’s dark, let me walk you to your car,” and Person B’s adult state may respond with, “thank you, I was getting a bit worried.” On the surface, this is a reasonable exchange, but the psychological communication is quite different (see dotted line).  At the subliminal level, person A’s child may actually be saying “I’m going to protect you like a real superhero!” and Person B’s child state may be responding with, “please do, my knight in shining armor!” (I admit, this is a bit dramatized). 

Nonetheless, we are always communicating using verbal and non-verbal signs and messages. You probably have heard, “communication is the key to a successful relationship” but it can be very hard to actually implement this dictum in our daily lives. So, if you resonate with, or have experienced any of these types of transactions, and would like to understand how they show up in your life, therapy would be a great place to start! Together we can explore how you shift through these ego states, and how your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors change towards yourself and others depending on which state you are operating in. In therapy, we can work on recognizing and changing the unhealthy communication patterns in your relationships, so you can experience meaningful connections. Ultimately,  every transaction should allow each person involved to be heard and understood. 

If you recognize that you may need help in this area, I would love to connect with you so we can begin this process together. Please give us a call to schedule an appointment!


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