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Reading out-of-context messages

“I am not OK; you’re OK.” “I am not OK; you’re not OK.”

Dr. Eric Berne

Dr. Eric Berne

“I am OK; you’re not OK.” “I am OK; you’re OK.”

According to Canadian-born psychiatrist Dr. Eric Berne (May 10, 1910 – July 15, 1970), these four curt statements tell us of our life positions that refer to our general feeling about life that will describe our daily dyadic (i.e. person-to-person) transactions.

These form part of what we call as Transactional Analysis. Widely known as TA, it tells us vividly how we behave in certain situations or express ourselves psychologically in our daily transactions. Dr. Berne defines “transactions as the flow of communication and, more specifically, the unspoken flow of communication that runs in parallel”. Transactions take place, in a simultaneous fashion, either at the most implicit (psychological) or the most explicit levels, and it is difficult to initiate smooth (often called as parallel) transactions if two persons, who get involved into them, fail to respect the convention of communication, or disregard proper communication channels.

To understand a real message requires within-the-context and outside-the-context reading. When John Doe is overly respectful to his boss, he must have been hiding his being disrespectful. When he has an overly sweet caring voice, beyond his normal way, he must have done it with a sarcastic tone. It could just be that the objects of his supposed disrespect – or the persons he is talking with – are his loved ones, best friends, or boss whose feelings he does not wish to hurt or whose love and affection he does not wish to lose. Behaviorally, we do not squarely deal with our feelings towards others to maintain our so called strong relationship built out of faking goodness. This makes TA relevant to the entire communicational conundrum in the homes or at work.

Transaction Analysis 2More often than not, we are so pathetic about others that we tend to say “I am OK” when we mean “I am not OK” in our daily transactions. Dr. Berne says these are but normal transactions. We may agree with him, but these do not help us. These will instead burn us deep inside.

If you are a boss or a staff, understand – as well as beware of – meta-messages. (Gerard Nierenberg coined meta-messages to describe messages that come through between the lines; they come from the context, the relationship, the timing and purpose.) Examples: (1) Chester calls his manager three times and says: Hi, sir, it’s me again. Do you think we need to submit our report today?” His message is not intended to ask about the date of submittal of the report but to let his boss know he is not yet done with his report. (2) Dani calls Abu Haif for the third time in one day. He says: “Hi, it’s me again.” He responds, “I’m working on my monthly report, and it will be done in an hour.” His message is not to update him with his progress. His words mean: “Why are you bothering me again? I don’t have time to talk now.”

“You’re not OK” with this, but you tend to show “you’re OK.” The reason is simple – to maintain a good work relationship.

Dr. Berne1As a theory of communication, TA makes us understand the significance of “warm fuzzies” or “negative pricklies” (referred to as, in psychological parlance, strokes which means recognition, attention, or responsiveneness mutually given between two persons) when we are dealing with others. Sometimes, though not necessary, just to make others feel good at themselves, we say: “You look so terribly handsome with your outfit today” even if we mean, “You have a terribly bad fashion sense.” Or we say: “You have an excellent report though it is submitted late. Keep it up!” when we just simply want to mean: “Thank you for submitting a good report. We hope you submit it on time.”

This we all do, because it is our intention to make everyone feel OK. It is good to say in the homes or at work, where we are dealing with one another: “I’m OK; you’re OK.” This way we will continue to feel OK in all situations at all times and we will be able to free ourselves from the engulfing here-and-now life (which is, according to Dr. Berne, an echo of childhood suffering, pity-me, among others).

TA, therefore, is an important addition to the company’s communication training program, which should have made as its cross-reference the traditional families’ you’re-not-allowed-to-talk-with-us-adults-as-you’re-still-a-child policy that has yielded several introverts incapable of speaking up or expressing themselves. To some extent, understanding communication gap in the offices should be based on this policy. Through this, we will learn to understand others for their lack of communication skills and we will learn to value others and their totality as a person. Communication is key to understanding others.

Transactional Analysis 2As posited by Dr. Berne, “people are OK; thus, each person has validity, importance, equality of respect, and they decide their story and destiny, and these decisions can be changed.” Their story can be about their being a parent, a child or an adult, as described under the ego-state (P-A-C) model. As a theory of personality, TA tries to explain that “personality is a mixture of behaviors, thoughts and feelings,” and it is manifested in our daily transactions. In our transactions, we consistently use three ego-states: Parent (exteropsyche), Adult (neopsyche) and Child (archaeopsyche). It is, however, the goal of TA for us to learn to strengthen our Adult, which is otherwise known as our Conscience, one that teaches us to make an objective appraisal of the reality – that we were born imperfect; ergo, making mistakes is inevitable.

Whether we play the role of a parent, an adult, or a child is devoid of its relevance when we fail to understand that our daily transactions are aimed at successfully connecting ourselves with others. This must now be one of our best decisions – when we are communicating with others, let us start to read the within-the-context and out-of-the-context messages.

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About Danilo Tao-tuan Naraja

I am an expatriate based in Jubail, Saudi Arabia and work in the Admin and HR Division of an oil and gas company. I am an HR practitioner for more than a decade. I used to work for a Cebu-based local newspaper. I love to write human interest stories and started writing when I was still in high school.

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