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How to improve a difficult relationship?


Well I’m back from my lockdown-easing trip overseas (Isle of Wight) feeling relaxed and invigorated for the summer.  I’m fortunate enough to get along well with my “other half” so spending five solid days in each other’s company, following rather a lot of time together in recent months, was enjoyable.  If only all relationships were that easy!

They say that “you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family”.  How about “you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose (all) your work colleagues”.  For many people that aren’t happy at work, this discontentment can often be pinpointed to a difficult relationship.

When I talk to my clients about these difficult relationships at work, they can frequently be explained, and therefore improved, by understanding a concept that goes by the name of Transactional Analysis (TA).  TA is a huge area of study for psychologists and coaches but I find that my clients can make big improvements to their working relationships by understanding some of the basic dynamics that are at play here.  I’d like to share some of these with you and, as it’s a big subject, it’s going to span two blogs.  So, Part II next week!

Part I: Parent – Adult – Child
This concept was developed by the psychologist Eric Berne.  It’s main tenet is that people switch between these three different “ego states” at different points in their day and even in one conversation.

We are said to be in Child state when we are thinking, feeling, and acting like we did when we were a child (think your pre-7-year-old self).  This child can be intuitive, creative, and spontaneous.  It can also be rebellious and obstinate.  Sound familiar?

The Parent state reflects the influence of our parents and other figures of authority in our earlier lives and we unconsciously mirror their behaviours.  The parent can be loving and protective but can also be strict and overly critical.  Still sounding familiar?

Both the Child state and the Parent state are emotional states.

The Adult state is where we hope to be as adults.  It is our adult selves, dealing with the vicissitudes of everyday life.  It is a logical state.  It also has the function of regulating the activities of the Parent and Child and mediating between them.  Hopefully, this one also sounds familiar!

Remember, you are not permanently in one of these states, you switch between them many times during the day.

The important thing for us to understand is that these three ego states try to communicate with each other all the time.  These are what are called Transactions.  They can go any which way with all sorts of different results.

For example, you in Child state could be trying to communicate with me in Child state.  We might get creative and even a bit silly as we go through this Transaction.  Or seeing me in my Child state might “trigger” your Parent state and you might start being a bit severe with me and telling me to stop messing about.

You can probably guess by now that there are some interesting dynamics that can go on in the workplace.  Perhaps your line manager assumes Parent state when they’re communicating with you.  If their Parent state is reminiscent of your “parents”, this might well trigger your Child state.  Do you ever feel petulant about a task someone has asked you to do?  Or maybe you become very compliant with your line manager and relinquish all your decision making and problem-solving control to them?  That is your Child state being triggered.

We can trigger each other into different states all the time and that is where the difficulty arises.  Particularly if we are staying in the “emotional” states of Parent and Child.

An example
I should caveat this article by saying that these ego states are not bad or good.  We all experience them all of the time and they can be very useful.  But they can also be very unhelpful like the example below.

I worked with a client recently who had a very difficult working relationship with a peer.  He was describing to me a heated discussion he had recently had with this individual.  His anecdote was littered with phrases like: “Who do they think they are to speak to me like that?” in Child state; “I’ll show them that they can’t get away with that – there are consequences” in Parent state; “I’m going to go and tell the CEO how they’re behaving” Child; “Why don’t they like me?” Child.

From his description of this exchange, the other person was also flipping from Parent to Child and back again.  Both with high emotion and no resolution.

So, how can you change these difficult emotional dynamics in your relationships?  You may have noticed that, so far, we’ve only been discussing two ego states.

The clue to resolving these difficult dynamics lies in the third ego state, the Adult, which is more based on logic than emotion.

This we will explore more next week.  For this week, try and pay attention to your ego states and what or who triggers them:
Notice when you’re in Parent state – When is it useful?  When is it unhelpful?  What triggers it?
Notice when you’re in Child state – When is it useful?  When is it unhelpful?  What triggers it?
Notice when you’re in Adult state – What is happening here?

I hope that’s given you enough to pique your interest for next week’s blog when we’ll talk about how to effectively step into Adult and resolve some of these tricky dynamics.

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