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!