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Why are some work conversations so uncomfortable?

Management for softies

We all know that effective communication is crucial at work. When conversations are easy and free flowing, we work easily with others, solve problems and have fun. But some conversations are less straight-forward. These conversations can make us uncomfortable and put us on edge. They make us worry about what the other person really thinks about us.

To understand these different conversations, we can learn a lot from social psychology. Transactional analysis is a theory developed by Dr. Eric Berne and explained in his book The Games People Play (1964). Despite there being over 60 years since Berne developed his theory, the logic still stands and is used across the globe in a variety of settings. In this article, we summarise the theory and how applying it can help make your conversations at work more effective.

The Theory

Transactional analysis says that we communicate through three states: parent, child and adult.

Transactional Analysis

When communicating in a Parent state we share our concern for other people. We act as a caring parent, wanting to nurture others and check they are ok. Or we can take a more critical parent approach, sharing expectations or standards and criticising others for not following these rules!

In the Adult state, we talk much more rationally and unemotionally. We are calm, organised and analytical. We try to understand where we are and make a practical plan moving forward.

By contrast, communications in a Child state are very emotional. In adapted child we get upset that we haven’t done the right thing. Or we feel anxious about our skills and work. We want to do the right thing and feel bad if we feel we’re not achieving our best. In wild child we are spontaneous, impulsive and energetic. This can manifest itself as creativity and fun. Or as a tantrum if we think something isn’t fair. The final child communication state is the little professor where we can prove that every problem is someone else’s fault, never ours!

All of these communication states are entirely normal, and they can all be appropriate, depending on the circumstances. We learn them throughout life and repeat them naturally, moving between states without noticing.

Effortless conversations

Some conversations we have at work are effortless. We instinctively know what the other person really means and that makes us feel secure and confident. This is when the interactions between states are complimentary. For example:

  • When we are working something through logically, we want others to solve the problem with us (adult to adult).
  • Sometimes we want to have fun with others, joke, create new ideas and build off each other’s energy (wild child to wild child)
  • When we point out to someone that they have been repeatedly late for a meeting (critical parent) and they apologise and say it won’t happen again (adapted child)
  • When we are upset about a problem at work (adapted child) we want others to notice that we care and to be supportive (caring parent).

Because our colleagues respond from a state we expect, the conversation is natural and easy.

Difficult conversations

Some conversations at work are much more difficult than others. In this case the other person’s responses can make us feel uncomfortable or unsure where we stand. This can happen when the interactions between states become crossed – the other person uses a state we weren’t expecting. For example:

  • The colleague who asks us for new creative ideas (wild child) but then finds fault with every suggestion (critical parent)
  • When you sensibly highlight an improvement that could be made to a report (adult) and the other person complains “Why are you always criticising my work?” (wild child)
  • When you need input to solve a problem (adult) and others play the blame game, “it’s all their fault”, “they won’t let us” – shifting responsibility to you or another group (little professor)

Within all of these interactions, it’s not just the words but also the tone and body language that are unsettling, because it’s not what we expected to hear.

So how do we make difficult conversations easier?

The first step is to recognise the communication states being used and try to not take it personally. The second step is to carefully encourage the other person to move to adult. Let’s look at some examples:

“We need to make improvements to the way we work, but my colleagues won’t engage with this. Instead they blame everyone else for the problems we face.”

If your colleagues are playing the blame game as little professors, your instinct might be to push back with the critical parent state. But push too far and they will stay stuck in a child state.

If they can’t solve problems because they are blaming everyone else, you may need to lightly respond as critical parent and then try and move them quickly to adult:

Critical parent “In this situation we can’t control the actions of everyone else, but we can try to do the right thing, so……”
Adult “what ideas could we come up with, things that we could do, to move this forward?”

Tone here is crucial. The tone in the adult part of that sentence needs to be even, open and encouraging. If your colleagues view that sentence as a judgement, they might not join you in adult.

My team member gets upset every time I give feedback. I end up reassuring them rather than solving the original concern.

It is worth considering why your team member is responding with adapted child. It could be that they are interpreting your feedback as critical parent. Consider the words and tone that you use, reflect on your body language too. Make sure the feedback is factual not personal.

Alternatively, it could be that your feedback is fine, but your team member has a tendency to move to adapted child under pressure. Think about encounters they have with other people – is this a pattern there too?

When your team member uses adapted child, your instinct is quite rightly to reassure with caring parent. But if you stay too long in that state, your team member will stay stuck in a child state.

At work many line management relationships are based on parent child communications and this is understandable. Managers are in a position of authority (parent) and team members may want to please or in some cases to rebel (child). However, this is not healthy or productive. When conversations are difficult, we need to be able to communicate with others in calm and rational adult states.

Next time you give feedback, if your team member gets upset, you may need to lightly respond first as caring parent and then try and move them quickly to adult:

Caring parent “I can see this is upsetting you, but I know we can come up with a way forward, so……”
Adult “what could you do now to resolve the issue, what do you think might work?”

Again, tone of voice is important. It should shift from warm and caring to even and open. This will support your team member to join you in adult.

Three steps to improving communications

  1. The first stage of using transactional analysis to improve interactions at work is to become aware of the communication states you You may find that whilst you think you are firmly in adult mode, you may in fact be using parent instead. You don’t have to stay in adult all the time, but you can ensure you are using the appropriate approach for different situations.
  2. Once you’ve clocked your own preferences, start noticing your colleagues’ communication states. Do they move freely from one state to another? Do some of your colleagues use one state more than others?
  3. When conversations become uncomfortable, take a moment to try and recognise why this is. Is your colleague responding from a different state to the one you expected? Have they interpreted your message in a way you didn’t mean? The key thing here is to not allow their response to shift you to an unhealthy state. Instead try to move to adult-adult communication, where you each take the time to really listen and talk to each other openly and respectfully.

What’s next?

If you’d like to understand more about what makes conversations difficult and how you can gain confidence in having them, join us for our Handling Difficult Conversations training programme.

Of course if you’d like to speak to a consultant about a particular challenge you’re facing in this area, contact us online or call us on 020 7978 1516.

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Charlotte Scott

About Charlie Scott

Charlie specialises in leadership development, team facilitation and strategy development. Charlie worked for over 20 years in the not-for-profit sector. Before joining =mc ten years ago, she created and...