Ego states, transactions and communication, Learning at last what to say having said hello!

 Voici la lecture critique (version en anglais) qu’a faite Susannah Temple de mon livre Etats du moi, transactions et communication.
This is an important handbook for promoting emotional literacy. The focus is human communication; understanding how it works, what can interfere with it and what can make it more effective.

Agnès Le Guernic brings great depth of experience as an educator and trainer to bear on this topic. She states clearly her stance as an educational transactional analyst and demonstrates how she weaves the theories and strategies from transactional analysis (TA) with those from other approaches, in particular that from the Palo Alto school of systems analysis with practitioners such as Gregory Bateson and Paul Watzlawick.

The structure of the book is coherent and well organised, enabling the reader to get “the big picture” and also benefit from detailed explanation and examples.

There is a comprehensive ‘contents’ section that gives a bird’s eye view of the whole book making it easy to see not only the range of topics, but also the issues raised in each one and the points made on these issues by the author. There are examples and exercises throughout, with a section at the end in which the exercises, with some possible responses, are discussed.

In the introduction the author sets the scene by pointing out that human communication has certain ingredients and certain rules. She explains how the two main approaches used in the book, TA and Palo Alto systems analysis, illuminate the communication process in quite different ways. She points out, however, that they share an important characteristic, that of an optimistic and positive attitude that is facilitative of change.

In the first section I enjoyed the author’s way of setting out the key aspects of human communication to be considered, showing how the Palo Alto Group would analyse them, then explaining how this strategy would be useful in improving communication. Issues of power and equality in relationships, how communication can be about content or the process, how it can be complementary or conflictual are amongst these key aspects. Vivid examples are offered of how blaming others instead of taking personal responsibility, powerplaying and disrespecting others all cause problems in communication. Strategies such as reframing, reinforcement of the desired behaviour and recognition of good intent are outlined, with illustrations and exercises to clarify ideas.

In order to resolve conflicts and learn how to develop positive ways of relating, what is necessary is a language of metacommunication so that communication about the communication is possible! Both the Palo Alto School and TA provide such language, so that processes can be named, described and explained. Both approaches are psychological rather than linguistic. The Palo Alto School focuses on the relational system by describing properties of relational behaviour in human social systems with prescriptions for interventions to solve problems. Theoretical models are not used, nor is there any collaborative promotion of insights or concern with questions of ‘how’ and ‘why’.

Transactional analysis practice, however, does rest on a collection of interrelated models for describing aspects of human functioning. It does promote insights and encourage participants to engage in exploration of how a relationship is working or not working. Self-understanding is an important outcome of TA practice, in which insight is held to be a springboard for behavioural change. Much the longer part of the book examines how various TA concepts can be used to enhance communication.

The author starts the TA part with presentations of the concepts of ego states and transactions in some detail. An omission here, in my opinion, is that the author does not mention that this is but one way to think about and use the concepts of ego states. This simplified version demonstrates confusion between the idea that a) Parent and Child are “automatic” replays of idiosyncratic past behaviours and that b) they represent certain generalised categories of social behaviour that can be chosen. In other words, through linguistic slippage, sometimes the terms Parent and Child mean ‘ego state’ and sometimes they mean ‘type of behaviour’, see pages 56/7 and 63. Another outcome of using this so-called ‘three-part model’ of ego states, rather than an ‘Integrating Adult model’, is that Adult here appears as a thin sort of construct, even though the author does refer to Adult as the “pilot” of the system. I think that this diminishes the potency of what the author presents as her final key way for using TA to enhance communication, see below.

The next section outlines four ways of relating that create ‘traps’ in communication (symbiotic, dependent, ‘gamey’ and ‘powerplaying’). It includes a range of TA concepts that help to describe and explain the processes of miscommunication and misunderstanding. The final main section demonstrates ways of transforming communication and extending options for enhancing relationships. These include understanding and managing emotions, shifting attitudes to life (life positions), active listening (as propounded by Thomas Gordon) and finally congruent Adult-Adult direct communication.

There is also a short but important discussion about use of informed influence in relationships, about the differences between professional savoir-faire, manipulation and learned strategies. It is pointed out that in fact influence can always be refused!

In the conclusion, Agnès Le Guernic summarises how to use ego state theory, analysis of transactions, stroke theory and the use of contracts, along with understanding of pathological ways of relating and what to do about them in ordinary everyday life. The aim is to give people the means to take responsibility without self-blame for learning what to say after we say “Hello” – and how to say it.

I found this an enjoyable, informative and useful book, which I think should be translated as soon as possible into other languages so that as many people as possible can benefit from its inspiration. Do read it as soon as you can!

Susannah Temple PhD PTTA (Education). March 2005

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