Communication sounds simple. Yet, do we communicate with one another with respect, thoughtfulness, and clarity? How often are we misunderstood? Miscommunication leads to less effectiveness. Why? Because, in a nutshell, communication problems inevitably lead to challenges in the workplace. Transactional Analysis, (TA) developed in the 1950s by Dr. Eric Berne, is a school of thought in psychology aimed to remedy miscommunication.

TA theorizes that people use three different ego states (ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving) in their interactions with one another: Parent, Child, and Adult… First, the Parent ego state is characterized by “authority” which can be nurturing, controlling, or both. Second, the Child ego represents “dependence” which can be cooperative and spontaneous, resistant and immature or both. Third, the Adult ego state is described in terms of, “responsibility and maturity”.1

In the workplace, let’s replace Parent with Supervisor and Child with Subordinate. For example, when Sally speaks to Bill (regardless of the reporting structure), Sally and Bill can treat each other with respect and be Adult/Adult. Let’s look at another scenario. For example, if Sally says something to Bill and it triggers something emotional for Bill, he can then perceive Sally as the “Supervisor” and himself as the “Subordinate”. It is when this equilibrium is out of balance that miscommunication occurs. For example, if our colleague engages us in conversation, and we hear supporting and encouraging words, our interaction is likely to be warm, enjoyable, and positive (effective). On the other hand, if our colleague comes across harshly, and we hear words that are critical or demeaning, our exchange is likely to become accusatory, defensive, and negative (ineffective). We all operate out of our inner Supervisor, Subordinate, or Adult at various times, for different reasons. Using TA to help us recognize how and why we do so, enables us to improve the way we communicate with others. And what a difference this can make! Figure 1 depicts the effective and ineffective modes of communication. In most cases, productive conversation requires speaking kindly, honestly, and directly. In our interactions with others, we all operate out of the Supervisor, Subordinate, and Adult ego states, possibly moving back and forth between them during a single conversation. When we operate out of the negative manifestations of our Supervisor or Subordinate ego states, our ability to communicate with others compromises. The most effective interactions take place when we express the “authority” of our Supervisor ego state positively – in a nurturing manner rather than a controlling one. The same is true when we express the “dependence” of our Subordinate ego state positively – spontaneously, collaboratively, and cooperatively rather than in a resistant or immature manner.


And, of course, the maturity, responsibility, and directness inherent to our Adult ego state will typically contribute in a positive way to our interactions with other people as well. When we are operating at the Adult level, we are better able to recognize communication breakdowns and to work through them by talking, listening, and problem-solving. When a person uses an authoritative tone, this may evoke an adverse reaction in the other person, even when that person is unaware of it. This response can create a relationship in which one person feels and acts superior to the other. And, if the other person believes this and suffers from low self-esteem, this can exacerbate the disharmony of the relationship. Treating someone with condescension and disrespect is not okay. Saying hurtful words is not okay. Disagreements are healthy and expected. We may not like everything our colleague say; yet, take time to talk through conflict or opposing views.

In summary, I recommend that you proceed cautiously when you are in a conversation. You do not know what the other person is bringing to the conversation. It may very well be a conversation (from a totally different person) that is completely irrelevant to the current topic of your conversation. Allow space in the conversation to clarify any points that may be confusing. Even when you need to deliver negative information speak with kindness and respect. We all are human and we all deserve respect.

Ruth E. Walton, BA, MPA
Director of Career Services at
the University of the Ozarks | Writer

1 Eric Berne M.D. (d.). Creator of Transactional Analysis and Author of Games People Play taken from

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