Understanding Transactional Analysis in Coaching

Jan 15, 2020

Transactional Analysis – or TA – was developed by Eric Berne to help understand why we feel, think and act the way we do. The ‘transaction’ is our interaction with others as conversation and other forms of behaviour.

Guiding principles of TA are:

  1. We have 3  ‘ego states’ of Parent, Adult, and Child (called the PAC model)
  2. We engage in transactions with other people, or internally with ourselves
  3. We, generally unconsciously, activate our ego states in our transactions, leading to positive and negative behaviours of collaboration or conflict, empowerment or disempowerment etc. depending on the ego state interactions.

Transactions can be complementary or crossed. All’s well if they are complimentary. Conflicts arise when crossed.

These in turn lead to 4 possible states of:

  • I am ok, You are ok
  • I am ok, You are not ok
  • I am not ok, you are ok
  • I am not ok, You are not ok

People play ‘games’ unconsciously using these transactional models, often becoming habits. An adult to adult transaction, A to A, is generally game free. Adult here means the psychological maturity and awareness state not the physical age. If both parties are fully aware and engage in a meaningful conversation it’s productive. If one person is blaming the other, and or defending, it’s no longer an adult conversation. An adult conversation would be logical, disengaged from emotions, non judgmental and focused on an outcome that is mutually beneficial. A coaching conversation should always be A to A, both parties equal, respectful, aware and complementary. Even if the client is in a Child state, the coach’s responsibility would be to deal with the client as an adult, leading to adult behaviour, and not as a child.

Often, our interactions are quite at variance with the A to A model. One person may be behaving as an adult and the other as  a parent or child, or both assuming parent and child positions. These then lead to the following combinations.

Adult to Parent or Child

In such cases, the Adult can take responsibility. A Parent type would be controlling, judgmental, authoritative, telling, blaming from a perspective of I am OK, you’re not, and possibly expecting a compliant response, yes, I am not ok, you are and please tell me how to. The parent can also be nurturing and sometimes spoiling. However, if the Child instead of being compliant and cooperative turns rebellious or resistant, the communication and behaviour can become crossed and turn ugly. Generally the Parent voice is judgmental, cynical, and I am always right. The Child voice can be of fear, guilt, shame, victim etc, seeking to be understood and nurtured, and expecting mostly to be excused, yet in some punished. Both Parent and Child voices arise from conditioned experiences, generally with unconscious incompetencies of insecurity and invalidation.

With one person being Adult, the communication has a chance of being complementary, and reaching a resolution, as long as the Adult is aware of the state the other person  is coming from.

Parent to Child, Parent to Parent and Child to Child are other possibilities where communications can get crossed. However, these are generally outside the coaching space, where we expect the coach to be an Adult.

Some references are herehere and here.

Generally, TA models can be categorised as Transactional, Structural, Game and Script analysis. Most of TA can be linked to psychological models and concepts of Freud, Jung and Adler. Many of these techniques are also complementary to Gestalt, NLP, Positive Psychology etc.

There are several TA terms such as life scriptsgamesstrokes etc. used in very specific senses. Scripts are what we decide early in life a sto what we ought to be, and persevere. Strokes are the validation we expect from others, especially Parent types. Games are what we play repetitively expecting a pay off. Unfortunately when others do not oblige us in supporting us in our life scripts, with strokes. Some more explanations are here.

Projections, Transference and Counter Transference are concept borrowed from Freudian Jungian concepts by many others such as TA. Even qualified psychologists differ on what these mean. In coaching, this is used in Hawkins’ 7 Eyed model as a supervision process. It’s good to know what these mean. I don’t really see a need to use them in coaching as it may lead to exploration of past as in therapy, and one has far more powerful techniques and processes to explore within coaching.

Again a caveat. There may be some ICF approved programs using TA in coaching. However, the coach needs to be very conscious of not moving into therapy as in exploration of the past with TA, as it may easily happen. In terms of coaching ethics, this is unethical.

Ram Ramanathan, MCC
Ram Ramanathan, MCC


Ram is the Founder and a Principal at Coacharya. As the resident Master and mentor coach, Ram oversees and conducts all aspects of coaching and training services offered under the Coacharya banner.

Read Next