Leadership Development Tools: Using Transactional Analysis (TA) for Cultivating Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

Transactional Analysis: Parent-Adult-Child Model

Many students and practitioners of leadership are often on alert for the latest concept, tool, or tip to cultivate greater emotional intelligence (EQ). However, on our search for the latest and greatest, we may be missing out on the nuggets offered by longer standing conceptual frameworks and tools. For example, Transactional Analysis or TA is one such framework that continues to offer leaders support for greater self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and social management (the four dimensions of EQ).

TA originated in the 1950s by Eric Berne, a Canadian born psychiatrist trained in Freudian psychoanalysis. While this training greatly influenced and informed his work, it did not define it. Unlike Freudian psychoanalysis, TA also focuses on observable communication and behavioral interactions (or transactions) as a means of healing and development. The four basic elements of TA include:

  • The theory of personality or ego-state model
  • The theory of communication or communication model
  • The theory of script
  • The theory of games

Personally, and professionally, I find the first two elements of TA, the theory of personality and the theory of communication, most helpful as leadership development tools for cultivating greater EQ. The primary reasons for this are the simplicity and accessibility of these two aspects of TA. The TA theory of personality with the Parent-Adult-Child (P-A-C) model proposes that we live in and out of three basic inner states, childlike, adult, or parental. The TA theory of communication postulates that we communicate and behave in accord with our inner state.

Four Elements of Emotional Intelligence

With increasing self-awareness (please see my other essays on the importance of meditation and self-observation practices), leaders can recognize (with nonjudgmental acceptance) when they are in a parental or childlike state, refrain from speaking and acting from that state, release the attachment to the patterned reaction, reorient toward the desired adult: adult state and communication style, and replace the habituated (and often destructive or at least unproductive) pattern with a more constructive pattern of relating. Ideally, over time, adult leaders cultivate an increasing capacity for conscious communication.

The parental state and style arise from collective memories or permanent recordings of unprocessed life experiences of interactions with parents and other parental figures, primarily from one to five years of age. One’s basic sense of rules to live by (do’s and don’ts) reside here and cannot be erased (keep reading because our Adult can turn it off!). However, if/when there is disharmony between the parent figures, the impact is greatly reduced. The Parent state and style are often recognizable by absolutes of “should,” “ought,”   “must,” “never,” and “always.”       

The childlike state and communication style arise from one’s subjective (mainly feelings) childhood experiences primarily from one to five years of age. This state and style are often recognizable by strong feelings of both delight and despair.

The Adult state and style arise from life experiences from 10 months onward that challenge the external parental messages and the internal child feelings with direct lived experiences and thought formations. The Adult gains increasing capacity to recognize the parental tapes and challenge the merit and helpfulness of them while also discerning which feelings are appropriate to express and how to do so.

The Adult is recognizable by the growing capacity to assess the validity or rightness of the information (incoming and Child-Parent tapes) and respond accordingly. While there may be times when a Child or Parent state and style might be a leader’s conscious choice in professional settings, Adult: Adult relationships are the aim. 

TA, an oldie but goodie as far as leadership development goes, particularly for cultivating EQ. So, dust off that old copy of “I’m OK, You’re OK” and reread it! You and your colleagues (and loved ones) will be glad you did!

Head, Heart, Hands, and Will: Beyond Personality to an Integrative Approach to Leader Development

From DISC to Insight Discovery to Meyers Briggs, personality typologies are frequently used as tools for leader development. However, after years of exploring and utilizing such tools, personally and professionally, I’ve come to realize that while they can be extremely helpful, when misused (and sadly, they often are misused), they can stifle development and maturation.

Stunted development and maturation of potential leaders, particularly those who have care and concern for life on earth, are NOT what the world needs now! Therefore, to maximize the developmental utility of personality theories, it is imperative to use them as springboards into the developmental journey and not the destination. In other words, to know one’s personality type or temperament is the beginning and not the destination or aim of the leader development journey. Ideally, the aim of leader development is a fully integrated, mature, and whole human being in service to a better world.

Thus, a more optimal use of temperament or personality models is to inform an integrative leader developmental plan and approach that incorporates and balances the head, heart, hands, and will or the four basic temperaments that form the foundation of many personality typologies (e.g., Insight Discovery—Cool Blue, Earth Green, Sunshine Yellow, and Fiery Red).

There are certainly developmental benefits from using personality typing tools to include the increase of self-awareness (including shadow), and greater self-management.  Enhanced self-awareness and self-management are no small feat of course and it’s truly empowering and liberating to grow in these areas! The potential for ongoing growth here continues throughout one’s life. As we discover tendencies toward limiting expressions, we are more able to relax the habitual reactions and consider different perspectives and behavioral responses—truly transformational on the individual, interpersonal, and collective levels!

However, while greater self-awareness and self-management are highly desirable and deeply beneficial, if leaders stop there, they may solidify their identity around their personality type or temperament. This type of solidification of personality can be referred to as overidentification which occurs when we orient our entire identity around a descriptive quality or characteristic such as personality type. Overidentification leads to rigidity, defensiveness, hyper-sensitivity, and hyper-competitiveness as if one’s life were on the line because, in a state of overidentification, it is!  Consequently, this internal state significantly limits growth, maturation, and wholeness, because it blocks, refuses, or destroys any impressions that contradict the solidified identity.

To overcome these potential pitfalls, leaders can use their understanding of their personality type to inform an integrative or holistic developmental plan that fosters growth in underdeveloped areas. For example, a will-oriented personality (e.g., Fiery Red in the Insight Discovery typology) can engage in transformative practices that cultivate the heart (e.g. lovingkindness meditation), the head (e.g., reading and studying), and/or the hands (e.g., service and activism).

While leaders can certainly work on one area at a time, approaching leader development from an integrative or holistic approach can greatly accelerate development and propel us toward self-actualization (see Ken Wilber’s or George Leonard’s & Michael Murphy’s work on this topic). Of course, the developmental journey does not end here as there are higher peaks available to those willing to engage in the lifelong dynamic dance of stillness and action while also surrendering to the ultimate mystery of personal transformation, Divine love and grace.

Note: Leaders interested in exploring an integrative developmental approach and coaches interested in offering a more holistic approach to their leadership coaching may contact me at denise.frizzell@dafrizzell.com.  

Words of Caution for the Inner Journey of Self-Transformation

The three systems of self-transformation outlined in my book and recent blog essays offer examples of comprehensive psychospiritual approaches to the inner journey of self-transformation. The transformative practices highlighted throughout my book and essays are elements of these three and other systems of self-transformation. Thus, by themselves and isolated from the system or school of which they are part, transformative practices are limited and potentially harmful for numerous reasons.

Caution sign citation–By Fry1989 eh? – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20449676

Transformative practices isolated from the systems or schools in which they are embedded are limited and potentially harmful because the psychospiritual frameworks in which they are part provide the container for sensemaking and integration of potentially disruptive experiences that may arise from the use of these powerful practices. Remember, the purpose of these practices is inner transformation. Thus, disruption of one’s inner and, most likely, outer life is highly likely and desirable from the perspective of fulfilling this purpose. However, although such disruption is uncomfortable, the degree of discomfort must not exceed the capacities of aspirants to integrate the experiences into life in a way that allows them to function in the world. Thus, unrooted transformative practices have little developmental value and may cause harm.

Additional dangers often referred to as spiritual emergencies, include obsession with mystical experiences rather than disciplined attention to steady incremental inner shifts occurring over time through the difficult and often emotionally painful work of consistent and persistent self-observation and work with transformative practices. This lure is so seductive and persuasive that American psychologist and spiritual teacher, John Welwood coined the term, “spiritual bypassing” to warn contemporary seekers of this potential pitfall. 

Furthermore, people may be in danger of ego-inflation and self-aggrandizement arising from exhilarating experiences when using transformative practices. It is critical to note that proper motivation (i.e., desire for development for constructive, preferably virtuous, reasons), humility, and a commitment to ethical living are essential elements of the three systems of self-transformation outlined, as well as the ancient-wisdom traditions highlighted in Chapter 5, and the mindfulness-based interventions and Buddhism discussed in Chapters 1 and 2. In addition, the potential for self-inflation and other forms of self-deception significantly diminish with the assistance of a spiritual friend, coach, director, or community.

The literature on spiritual emergencies also warns of the potential for physical symptoms such as uncontrollable shaking. Accompanying the growing field of transpersonal psychology is increasing awareness and understanding of these types of phenomenon such that more therapists can help clients integrate these experiences in a healthy and productive manner that facilitates growth and does not hinder it. After all, ideally, “spiritual experience is viewed as desirable and spiritual seeking is seen as natural, healthy, and in the final analysis, the only truly fulfilling answer to the challenge of existence” (Cortright, 1997, p. 158) This is certainly the case when the experience builds slowly and incrementally over time, or a sudden powerful experience arises after a solid practice and support foundation is in place to facilitate healthy integration.

Another word of caution is that if you join a psycho-spiritual group associated with any of the three contemporary systems outlined in Chapter 5 or others and the group promotes exclusion or intolerance of people outside the group, leave that group immediately and find one that does not. Exclusion or intolerance toward people outside the group is a flashing warning light of cultish tendencies. All aspirants need to avoid such groups as they are highly inconsistent with the inner journey to self-actualization and Self-realization. Also, if affiliation with a psychospiritual group or community places sexual expectations, excessive financial demands, or attempts to control the personal freedom of its members in any way, quickly move on and out!

Furthermore, while these three systems work with the psychological and spiritual dimensions of the human experience, they emphasize the psychological dimension of the spectrum. Consequently, at some point along the journey, albeit different for everyone, typically after many years of consistent practice, it may become helpful, perhaps necessary, to pick a defined spiritual path (i.e., root oneself in an established religion). I acknowledge that for many 21st-century seekers, perhaps those of us who identify as “spiritual not religious” (an inner struggle of which I am quite familiar) may reject the previous statement. This is quite understandable given the painful failings of our religious institutions over the years. However, I have come to realize that I have no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and I invite you to consider this as well.  

As highlighted, many, if not all the world’s great religions have inner (esoteric) traditions as well as outer (exoteric) traditions. Most of us are familiar with the exoteric versions of the world religions, which typically emphasize rituals, beliefs, morals, doctrines, and creeds. In contrast, the inner traditions emphasize self-transformation and ultimately the realization of unity with and love of all life and one’s supreme identity and union with God/Spirit/Light. Others may be more at home on an interspiritual or multifaith path which emphasizes the sharing of transformative or union experiences across the religious traditions.

Whether one takes an interspiritual, an esoteric religious, or universal and nonreligious psychospiritual path, it is important to emphasize that they are all maps for the journey of self-transformation; they are not the territory. The territory is one’s life, lived and experienced such that one’s direct experiences of increasing awareness, maturity, and compassion become the barometer of the rightness of one’s chosen path as depicted by the 10 developmental themes of mindful leaders presented in Chapter Four.

However, the purpose of this book is not to provide an overview of the inner traditions of the great religions, which I am not equipped to do; rather I offer a cautionary note as it relates to the inner journey of self-transformation. If the reader would like to explore any or all of the inner traditions mentioned here, I offer a few possible references in the Additional Resources section along with resources for The Fourth Way, Psychosynthesis, Integral Life Practice, and Mindfulness.

I humbly acknowledge that while the inner journey to wholeness takes consistent and persistence “right effort” as emphasized throughout this book, there is a mysterious dimension of the journey that is completely beyond human effort. While there are different names for this mysterious dimension, I will simply call it grace as taught in the Christian tradition. Grace invites surrender, patience, humility, and detachment as it has little to nothing to do with human effort and more to do with God’s/Spirit’s/Light’s infinite love for us and all creation (see Figure).

Source: Frizzell, Denise (2018). Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders

Note: This essay is an adapted excerpt from my 2018 book, “Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders.”

This Week’s Inspirational Offering from “Ten Developmental Themes of Mindful Leaders”

Image source: Dr. Anna Storck, @interkultura, retrieved from  http://www.interculture.co.nz/intercultural-competence-training-new-zealand/. Used with permission.

Greater Tolerance for Ambiguity: A Developmental Theme of Mindful Leaders