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This may help us all communicate better…

Communication is good when we are an adult talking to another adult and, both people present, are not mired in childishness, shame, guilt, anger etc, Just two people talking, with no agenda, no attempts at ‘winning’ the conversation but both open and essentially both listening. How often does this happen? How often is there blame or comparison of self (I need to prove I am good enough) underlying that conversation?

Eric Berne describes the above situations in conversations as transactions- and those transactions are conducted between people who are in different ‘modes’ when they communicate, they are in child, adult, or parent mode. So, if I am being a controlling parent I might be chiding, correcting or in some way telling the person I am speaking to what they should do (irrespective of whether I am their actual parent and also including those older than me).

By contrast if in the same conversation my conversational partner is looking at the ground, feeling sheepish and swinging their feet back and forward as they sit being lectured, they may be in adapted child and finally where I am not dealing so much with emotions but stating facts clearly and calmly then I am likely to be in adult. These states have nothing to do with the physical age of the person who is talking as these are ‘ego states’, as Berne described them, and they stick with people for life. I am reminded of an arguing couple I once spent the evening with, both in their thirties, and at one point the wife, who was furious with her partner, thrust herself towards her husband and stuck her tongue out in an act of defiance. It was a little funny/disturbing, as she was not making a joke but was intentionally and genuinely showing her annoyance at him... this is a clear representation of our inner child but is often much better hidden in others i.e., still present (as evidenced by their words, and expressions) but without the tongue…

So a great idea is to think about this when we are communicating, not as a tool to criticise others and there faults! but as a way of noticing what the man/woman in the mirror is doing… Fear, shame, guilt and anger can paralyse us and mean we are less likely to respond as an adult, but noticing this might help you step back, if you feel the board meeting is not really the place to reveal your inner child…

Another way of looking at communication, and in a very similar way, is to consider psychiatrist Steve Peters' chimp model and the notion that when are communicating with fear, anxiety, anger, shame etc. it will usually be the part of us that is innate and harks directly back to the early days of our evolution many millennia ago. Other parts to our brain/mind include a ‘human’ who is more likely to communicate with logic and facts and focus on reason (once the chimp has been calmed or feels less threatened).

So, a good question to ask ourselves is ‘do I like this feeling I am having?’ when the answer comes back ‘no’ it will indicate being in the child mode described by Berne or else Peter’s chimp; and the antidote, at least in part, is simply to become aware of which mode you are in at a given time. Try to think of a difficult, uncomfortable encounter or recent conversation and analyse who was in which ego state, were you/they: in chimp/child mode or adult/human?

It is not that a ‘free child’ inside you or a chimp is always a bad thing they are neither good or bad they are just there and part of you- but how often do you pay attention to them? My experience has been people often have problems with the way they are feeling, but the inner child/inner chimp has not been acknowledged, so we travel around feeling somewhat erratic! And fair enough we are a little erratic, and no wonder when we all have opposing parts to our minds which need managing; Acknowledging that our ego states exist and we all respond, at times, as a child or human or via our inner chimp is a good start.

You can’t help having an ‘adapted child’ (the inner child who has developed through your life experiences, as well as the way you were treated as a child) or an inner chimp. You can’t help having them, but you can notice them and help control them. Have you ever had a row, gone away, thought about it and at some point, gone back to the person to rectify things? If at that point you feel you have an apology to make as well as seeking some recognition that you were not totally in the wrong from the other party, this signifies moving back into the human or adult part of your mind and can work well, as you probably know, in terms of rectifying things. (If you go back crawling like a worm, and repeatedly over-apologising this is probably still chimp/child behaviour!!)

Below is some quick detail and a brief exercise my undergraduate students find useful when learning about transactional analysis.

Additional reading/exercise:

Transactional Analysis in a nutshell

Essentially as an extension of Freud's thoughts on the 'ego' Berne defined three clear ego states with the assertion that we, at any given time, communicate predominantly through one or the other of these states.

We have learned these ego states from an early age, and they are affected by our experience.

Ego States a Description:


The parent ego state does not relate to being a parent - it relates to someone who is 5 and someone who is 55. In this state we respond automatically- we may even say things automatically as if it were recorded

The parent state has two distinct parts:

1. Nurturing: caring, loving, helping

2. Controlling: criticising, punishing, threatening


The adult ego state is one where the person is calmly responding in response to a stimulus in the here and now- this state has nothing to do with how old we are it is about organizing our thoughts logically and responding without emotion.


This state relates to all the impulses we have had since infancy; again, this ego state has two distinct parts to it:

1, The free child: is loving and uninhibited, curious, mischievous, spontaneous.

2. The adapted child: has learned to change in response to the world at large to your experiences and (in all probability) your own parents’ behaviour- guilt, fear, anxiety and envy come from the adapted child- it can be the dark side…

Task 1: take a look at the brief transcript below, these chracters are all in different modes as they communicate, code each character for their ego state.

1. An angry Caroline scolds her sad looking 35 year old husband, Jasper- who is trying not to meet his wife's eye: 'I've told you not to try and fix it and now you've broken it!'

2. 32 year old Michael is swinging his legs back and forth as he sits on the kitchen table and looks at Emma pleadingly: 'I'd really like a cup of tea' and Emma replies: 'what a good idea could you make me one while you're at it?'

3. Jane talks to Sarah at a sales meeting; Jane: 'the figures are not looking so good this month we are about 10% down on last month' Sarah: 'that's bad news I wonder if we are able to pick things up next month when we start the sales?'

4. Client: 'I just don’t know what to do I'm so fed up with this' sobs 'I can’t eat anything' I feel like just giving up' Nutritionist: 'things sound really tough- do you want me to make some suggestions?'

Ego state









Task 2:

Identify a time when you have been in your 'free child' in the last 24 hours:

What is good about the 'free' child?

What could potentially be not be so good?

Task 3:

For you when is it most important to be in an adult ego state?

Task 4:

Which Life position do you occupy most? does it depend/change with your mood?


Berne, E. (1968). Games people play: The psychology of human relationships (Vol. 2768). Penguin Uk.

Harris, T. A. (2012). I'm OK, you're OK. Random House.

Peters, S. (2013). The chimp paradox: The mind management program to help you achieve success, confidence, and happiness. TarcherPerigee.

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