Transactional Analysis Explained - Quick & Easy

Transactional Analysis (TA) is a psychological method and initially reminds many people of bank transactions. But the technical-sounding word says exactly what it's all about: Transactional Analysis focuses on transactions of communication units. It's about conversation transactions when two people talk. Already after reading this text, you might get an idea of why communication sometimes goes wrong and how you can change that.

When you engage in contact with a human being, the smallest communication components (transactions) are transferred back and forth. Those who can analyze these transactions can draw conclusions about psychological processes in humans, namely:

  1. about the personality of other
  2. about your own personality
  3. about the dynamics of your relationship

You meet me - I react to that - this is a transaction. These transactions can be analyzed: Transactional Analysis!

A transaction consists of the back and forth of communication - called "stimulus and reaction"

TA was developed in the mid 20th century by psychiatrist Eric Berne (1910-1970). Its models are constantly evolving.

Transactional Analysis is a collection of concepts that can help you better understand yourself and others. With it you can improve your communication skills. For example, to better resolve a conflict. With its comprehensible concepts and tools, it gives you opportunities to lead a more self-determined life.

TA offers suitable concepts for different personalities, circumstances and situations. Let's name a few. See below for a first explanation or click on the link to get a detailed description of the concept:

What exactly is a concept?

Concepts can be seen as maps. Maps depict important information of reality. There are roads that lead to our destination. They serve as orientation. When moving around as a stranger in unfamiliar surroundings, it is good to have helpful information for orientation. Depending on the situation, it seems reasonable to have different maps. A map for hiking, cycling, motorways or a map for mountain hiking. This is no different in Transactional Analysis. The individual concepts are like road maps for social situations. What should be done to avoid conflicts? How can I avoid misunderstandings? How can goals be achieved in a fair way? These kinds of mental maps are offered Transactional Analysis.

By the way: If you want to learn more about Transactional Analysis, have a look over here!


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1. Summary: Transactional Analysis Explained in Short

  • TA was developed in the mid 20th century by Eric Berne
  • I (Steffen) describe TA as follows: "Transactional Analysis (TA) makes human connections describable, understandable and shapable. It becomes clear what is going on 1. in one self, 2. in others, and 3. in communication, and how one can develop each of these three areas. It gives orientation with its clear objective for human development (autonomy). In this way, it becomes clear what your development status is and where your potential can still be raised. Through its positive image of humanity, it promotes honest cooperation and motivating development.
  • Find Eric Berne's definition on Transactional Analysis here
  • Key concepts: Ego stated, transactions
  • Other concepts: Psychological games, life scripts, emotions, psychological needs, drivers, passivity concept and many more
  • TA is mainly used in the following four areas: 
  1. Psychotherapy
  2. Counselling
  3. Adult/further education
  4. Organisation

Here is a general overview of the most important Transactional Analysis concepts. The Transactional Analysis is constantly evolving. That's why it's almost impossible to list all the concepts. In addition, each area of application has its own TA concepts.

By the way:

You can start your first Transactional Analysis training here, completely online and time-independent. With the basic course Transactional Analysis. It is particularly suitable for people who have little time and still want to get a deeper insight into TA. Look here:

2. What is a Transaction? Finally Understand Communication

Transactions are a core concept of TA. Its name is also derived from them. They can help you understand communication better.

But first let's give you an example: A friend comes into the room and asks you, "What time is it?" You answer: "It's just after seven o'clock." (As the words are spoken, there are other levels of perception to exchange - posture, facial expressions, gestures, voice modulation, voice coloring ...)

There is a back and forth of communication.

At that moment, you have completed a transaction. It takes place when a person exchanges information and perceptions with another person. These can be interpreted in different ways depending on the condition in which the person is. Often there is a difference between the wording and the non-linguistic perceptions. When communicating, the non-linguistic parts (psychological effectiveness) create the most impact. A wink or a searching look are more effective than many words. Simply put: "The tone makes the music."

Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, saw in this back and forth of communication the basic units of all social interaction.

To analyze transactions, the ego-states-model is used as the basis:

The ego-states-model of Transactional Analysis consists of three ego states.

As a matter of fact one same person can be in very different states depending on various circumstances. We all know these changes in states from our own experience:

  • “Why are you so irritated?”
  • “Oh, now I am positively surprised!”
  • “This information makes me sad.”
  • “Now that I see you, I feel a lot better.”

Sometimes we change our state in an instant: most of the time this happens unconsciously. Can you understand how a particular song could change your mood from one moment to another? Your condition is changing - you are not the same as before. Transactional Analysis says that you have changed your "ego-state".

Memories and experiences (and the combination of both) invoke the most different ego states in you. You constantly change your states. Transactional Analysis describes how your perception is altered by the different ego states. Likewise conclusions on the mental processes and on the relationship design are possible.

In order to make the many states of a person reasonably manageable, they were summarized in three superordinate forms of state.

  1. Parent ego state
  2. Adult ego state
  3. Child ego state

To analyze transactions, the ego-states-model is used. It shows three circles. These symbolize the three states from which a person can act.

Each person can act from three different ego states: parent, adult and child ego state.

To analyze communications we need a counterpart. Therefore, a so-called transaction diagram consists of two ego state models. One for each person.

The two ego state models face each other. Each embodies one person.

By using arrows to represent the back and forth, you can see what is happening when communicating. With this, it becomes possible to psychologically classify communication in the form of transactions (back and forth) between the three ego states. There are several ways in which transactions can proceed. There are:

  1. Complementary transactions (also called parallel transactions)
  2. Not-complementary transactions (or crossed transaction)
  3. Hidden transactions (or duplex transactions)

Example for the three kinds of transactions

3. This is How Transactional Analysis Helps You

Can you see something in the picture? Recently my colleague Bernd Taglieber sent me this picture. I had no Idea.

Bernd said, "You do not have a pattern or blueprint in the back of your head in order to recognize it, but when I tell you what's in the picture, you'll recognize it right away."

He was right.

After telling me what to look for, I realized what was in the picture.

This is exactly the effect of Transactional Analysis. It shows you patterns in communication and in the personality of people. Without these patterns you cannot recognize the bigger picture. You stay virtually blind and cannot deal with a lot of information. As in the picture above.

Transactional Analysis makes communication visible and understandable. This gives you the possibility to break new ground in terms of communication. Ways to help you reach your goals. Without harming others:

  1. On the mental level
  2. On the emotional level
  3. On the action level

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4. The 5 Basic Beliefs and 8 Concepts of Transactional Analysis

Basic beliefs in Transactional Analysis:

These are attitudes/beliefs with which Transactional Analysts look at a situation.

  1. People are okay: This represents the belief that all people are good persons. This is true from birth. It is about the effort to meet at eye level. First of all, there is the value of perceiving a person as a human being and not seeing him/her as his/her behavior, achievements or abilities. Surprisingly, many people understand this principle better when it comes to animals. A puppy does not have to do anything to be seen as okay. It's good by nature, the way it is. Transactional Analysts train this attitude of the so-called unconditional "okay" also in humans.
  2. Communication is free and open: TA promotes direct and respectful communication. For example, when expressing needs. Talking about the bush is not a typical trait of TA. Simple words, clear and direct statements with appreciation - that is lived TA.
  3. Every human being has the ability to think: TA promotes self-determined thinking and action. Self-determined thinking is the opposite of accepted and adapted thinking from the pool of unconscious memories. It is rather validated thinking. But you can only check what has actually entered your consciousness. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the influence of the unconscious. Independent and unconsious thoughts are those that we simply adopt in childhood. For example: "He who works hard will succeed." The ability to think describes questioning such an accepted idea and aligning it with one's own truth: one might conclude that construction workers and garbage workers work hard, but certainly do not belong to the upper income classes. A resulting own thought could be: "Hard work alone is not necessarily enough to be successful ...".
  4. The model is decision-oriented: Deciding is one thing you can learn and constantly improve. We can make decisions, think them over, and make new decisions at any time. Transactional Analysis helps you learn from past decisions and make smarter decisions in the future.
  5. Every work is based on a contract / agreement: This does not necessarily mean a written contract. Transactional Analysis uses accords to create clarity and avoid misunderstandings. Contract work can be a simple arrangement. For example, to meet at a certain time at a certain place. But it can also be the agreement on what you expect from each other in a working relationship or how you want to spend your holidays together. This belief is particularly helpful because people tend to make too few arrangements and sometimes wonder why things go wrong.

These attitudes are the invisible centerpiece behind Transactional Analysis concepts. Long-term Transactional Analysts are no longer just dealing with concrete concepts. Rather, they work to integrate these basic beliefs into their daily lives.

Concepts of Transactional Analysis:

They are the concrete tool Transactional Analysts work with.

Ego states: Are a central component of the Transactional Analysis. With their help, you can understand why you are the way you are. They consist of the combination of thinking, feeling and behavior. TA distinguishes three states:

  1. Parent ego state: Here you think, feel, and behave the way your loved ones have done in your childhood (from the past and passed on). In the parent-ego, assessments, norms and values are stored.
  2. Adult ego state: Here you think, feel and behave adequately to the situation, logically, reflectively and in the here and now. In this state, you have good access to your resources and therefore many options for action.
  3. Child ego state: Here you think, feel, and behave the way you did as a child (in the past and self developed). The child-ego is also the seat of feelings, creativity and spontaneity.

Knowing which ego state you and your opponent are in at a certain moment here and now can help you respond appropriately to a situation. Or, in order to take measures yourself, to decide to communicate from another state.

Transactions: Make it clear what happens when communicating. A transaction consists of the "back and forth" of the words and the mimic and vocal "accompanying music" involving the ego states.

For example, during a non-complementary transaction (or crossed transaction):

A person puts on a dog puppy look and says to a Transactional Analyst, "I cannot do that." The Transactional Analyst assesses the situation and decides to reject the invitation to help. She does not answer helpfully from the parent-self. Instead, she encourages the person to use her adult self by asking, "What do you need to do to do it yourself?"

In addition to the non-complementary transactions, there are complementary and hidden transactions (see above).

With your knowledge of transactions, you can actively design conversations.

Psychological needs: They show what vital psychological needs each person has and how to satisfy them in a good way. For example, the need for recognition. Everyone needs recognition. Only how it is achieved can be very different: behavioral problems in children, show off with big cars, high performance or just calling a friend. All this can be the expression of the need for attention.

Life Script: This is a kind of screenplay of your life. It remains hidden to most people. It's a concept that makes your unconscious life plan that you created in your childhood visible. It may be that as an adult, you live just after this unconscious screenplay. But you can make it conscious and change it with new decisions. The Transactional Analysis shows you how to do that. An example of an expression of the life script could be: "I will die lonely."

Psychological Games: Are patterns in conversations that are controlled by unconscious motives. They always run according to certain rules and always end in at least bad feelings, in conflict or in the courtroom. People who play games make it difficult to develop their relationships positively. Some couples and some working relationships suffer from psychological games for years. Although they always run in the same way and the participants suffer, they usually remain unconscious. For relationships, it is a real benefit to uncover these unconscious patterns and get out of psychological games.

Feelings: Are for many people like a maze. Transactional Analysis can offer you a map for the maze so you can understand and clarify your feelings. For example, it can happen that you pile up feelings or develop so-called substitute feelings instead of the original one. For example, that it was not well accepted  when you were angry as a child. Then you may start crying as an adult instead.

The concept of emotions helps you to understand, clarify and develop your own emotional world.

Passivity concept: This concept shows what it going on inside people and what they do unconsciously, so that they do not reach a target. People should act solution-oriented to achieve goals. The passivity concept reveals blockages that prevent solutions and how you can solve these blockages. 

Drivers: Inner drivers are harmful behaviors that rob you of energy and put you under stress. The Transactional Analysis knows five: Be perfect! Hurry up! Be strong! Give your best! Please others!

The trickiest thing about the drivers is that they are linked to an inner compulsion that limits our personal freedom. Using Transactional Analysis, you can identify your inner drivers and dissolve their harmful effects.

5. Don't Feel Like Reading? Videos: What is Transactional Analysis

Here are some explanatory videos if you do not feel like reading this article. They build on each other.

Video 1: Introduction to Transactional Analysis

Video 2: Concepts of Transactional Analysis

Video 3: Connecting the concepts of Transactional Analysis

You can use the Transactional Analysis at work and also privately. You can to learn the models and concepts at your own pace with the help of an online course. So that your communication and your life can be self-determined:

If you have questions about Transactional Analysis or just want to give us some praise, then leave us a comment. We appreciate if you recognize our work with a few nice words. (The Transactional Analyst would say we ask you for a positive acknowledgement.)

Warm regards,

Your Steffen Raebricht and Bernd Taglieber

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