The illusion of communication

August 5, 2022

By Matthew Dashper-Hughes 

“The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place” – George Bernard Shaw. 

This is probably my favourite quote. 

It’s witty. It’s elegant. And above all, it’s painfully accurate. 

If ‘communication’ is defined as ‘achieving a shared understanding between two or more parties’ then it’s fair to say that ‘communication’ happens a lot less often than we think. 
 
There are several models that serve to illustrate how challenges and dysfunctions arise in communication, and the most helpful (in my opinion) is ‘Transactional Analysis’. 

It’s a workable and easy-to-comprehend model of the human psyche and it explains in a practical manner some ways that we can mitigate miscommunication, avoid drama, and turn dysfunctional argument into constructive challenge. 
 
A bit of background and explanation… 

The father of Transactional Analysis theory is Eric Berne who, in his 1964 book ‘Games People Play’, described how different human beings interact with each other.  

To understand Transactional Analysis, it is perhaps easiest to start with a metaphor.  

Think about your desktop computer.  

It has the potential do a lot of clever things, but it needs software to make it run.  

When your computer is first built it’s just a piece of hardware. This hardware has an interface that makes it ready to work with software.  

This is either the BIOS (which older computers use, which is the Basic Input Output System), or the UEFI, which is the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface.  
 
In simple terms, this is the thing that allows the Operating System (“OS”) of the computer to talk to the hardware.  

Imagine that the brain of a newborn baby is like a computer with a BIOS or UEFI already in place, but no OS.  

The first five to seven years of life is when the newborn starts to take in information … for the purposes of the metaphor, this is ‘installing the operating system’.  

The operating system can’t be changed once it is installed. It’s there for life and it dictates how your brain is going to work and how you’re going to interact with the world for the rest of your time on this planet.  

That operating system is installed over the earliest years of your childhood through the things that you soak up from the world around you:  

  • The way in which your parents behave;  
  • The way in which any significant adults in your life behave;  
  • The way in which older siblings behave;  
  • The way authority figures that are important to you behave; 
  • How you feel about those things.  

In these early formative years one part of your brain is taking on the way in which you should behave in certain circumstances. It learns scripts, giving you the ways in which you ‘should’ talk, and even the things you should say, if you are in a circumstance where you must be the ‘grown up’ or must be the authority figure.  

This means that every time an authority figure in your life speaks to you when you are a young child, you not only hear what they’re saying but also you internalise it, you learn the tone of their voice, you learn their stance, their body language, and you unconsciously draw upon it when you, in your turn, must be the authority figure.  

When they are criticising you or telling you off, you soak up messages about how one should behave when one is telling somebody off.  

When they are looking after you and being nurturing, you soak up the messages about the way in which one should behave and talk when one is nurturing somebody.  

At the same time, you’re also taking on lessons about how this stuff all feels, and how those feelings translate into behaviours.  

What this means is that, by the time you hit the age of six or seven, you’ve got three fully formed ego states within your within your operational matrix.  

These are the Parent, the Adult, and the Child.  

The Parent ego state is split into the Critical Parent and the Nurturing Parent. These are distinct voices and have their own individual scripts.  

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The Critical Parent voice comes out when you are regurgitating all of those childhood scripts you learned when you saw how to behave when you are sitting in judgement, or you are admonishing somebody.  

The Nurturing Parent voice comes out when you regurgitate all those childhood scripts about how to look after somebody to nurture them, and to help them.  

Sometimes this ‘nurturing’ is positive (when it empowers somebody and lifts them up and helps them to be the best person that they can be) but on other occasions it can be less positive (where it becomes mollycoddling, permissive, and maybe even smothering).  

The Adult ego state is really the logical part of you – the part of yourself that is not emotionally driven, that continually learns, that changes and develops throughout your life. This is a constantly changing script, and one that you write for yourself.  

The Child ego state, like the Parent, has subdivisions and different iterations.  

The Natural Child is your raw unalloyed emotions, joy, fear, pain, sensuality sexuality, excitement, all the things that we’ve talked about in previous chapters. It’s also where your curiosity and your creativity live.  

The Adapted Child is the part of your Child ego state that has learned how to feel and react in certain situations. So, for example, when a Critical Parent voice speaks to you, it’s very often an Adapted Child feeling that will drive the response, because that Adapted Child has learned how to feel when a critical parent is talking to them.  

When a Nurturing Parent speaks to you, either a different form of the Adapted child that very often talks to them or even the Natural Child will respond.  

The Adapted Child is very often the compliant voice that says or does what it thinks you want it to hear or do.  

Then again, it might be the Rebellious Child that responds and might, effectively, say, “Nope! I’m doing it my way!”  

Also, in the Child ego state you have the Little Professor who is this clever (maybe too clever for its own good) voice.  

This is the slightly manipulative Child ego state that is always trying to find a way around the system, always trying to find ‘clever’ solutions, always trying to be the smartest one in the room.  

When you understand how these different voices talk to each other, and that we always have all three of these voices in us and that we switch between them constantly and unconsciously, it starts to make an awful lot of sense of interactions between human beings.  

Transactional Analysis is named as such because each interaction between a human being is a ‘transaction’.  

A sender sends a message. A receiver receives that message. This simple interaction is a ‘transaction’. It is a packet of communication; an interaction between two ego states.  

For example, I might say something in my adult ego state and a receiver replies from their adult ego state.  

I might ask, “What is the time?”  

This is a perfectly logical, rational, emotionless question. It might be that the other person’s Adult hears that question and responds by saying, “it is 10:50am”, which is a perfectly rational, logical, emotionless response.  

This complementary communication is the best-case scenario. It might be that, whilst I’m communicating from the Adult ego state and asking without any emotion, the receiver may make an attribution error.  

Maybe their Adapted child hears my Adult question, because they think I am being a Critical Parent and that my innocent question is, in fact, implying a critical judgement of them.  

They have heard an inflection that just doesn’t exist, and instead of responding ‘Adult to Adult’, they cue up their own Critical Parent and respond angrily, “Why? What do you mean by that? I’m not late! How dare you! You’re the one who’s always late!”  

When that critical parent tone kicks in my Adapted child automatically wants to respond saying, “I’m very sorry. No, it wasn’t my intention. I didn’t mean it that way”.  

And if I do that, the chances are it will close off the transaction and then I can start a new transaction again from the Adult point of view, saying, “I really did just mean the question what’s the time?”  

And in this way communication that could have become dysfunctional can get back on track.  

However, if also responded with anger I could have gone to my Rebellious child, or even gone to my own Critical parent scripts, saying something like, “Well actually you are late. It’s blatantly rude and you’re always late”.  

Cross communications like this can easily end up in a cycle of justification and blame, rather than genuine conversation.  

Dr Stephen Karpman, who was a student of Eric Berne, had an interest in acting and used Transactional Analysis to describe dramatic interactions. His work was extraordinarily useful in describing some of these dysfunctional communications.  

Karpman’s Drama Triangle, based on Transactional Analysis, is one of the most practically useful models of dysfunctional interaction you will ever encounter. In the Drama Triangle you can see and understand how the more unhelpful iterations of these ego states go to work in undermining our day-to-day communication.  

Imagine a triangle. At each of three points respectively you see the words ‘Victim’, ‘Persecutor’ and ‘Rescuer’. These are the roles that people typically adopt when in an unhealthy and dysfunctional interaction.  

It’s easy to cross reference how these roles sound to the Transactional Analysis ego states that give rise to them.  

The ‘Victim’ voice comes from the Adapted child, being needy and wanting attention at all costs.  

It’s sounds like, “Oh, woe is me! Nobody understands me. Feel sorry for me. It’s not fair. It’s not right. The whole world is against me”.  

The ‘Persecutor’ comes from the Critical Parent voice saying things like, “Well, it’s your own fault. You shouldn’t have done that. You’re running around like a herd of elephants. You shouldn’t have spilled it; you’re clumsy. You’re an idiot. You’re a bad person”.  

Then we have the ‘Rescuer’, which is really some of the more unhelpful, mollycoddling, and smothering iterations of the Nurturing Parent ego state. This can sound like, “There, there darling – let me kiss it better. It’s not your fault. Let me wrap you up in cotton wool. Let me do it for you. Let me protect you. Let me be your champion. Let me be your hero. Let me be your rescuer”.  

These ego states are the enemy of healthy interaction. 
 
And we all do it. We are all subject to the vagaries of these ego states.  

If you want to see examples of it, simply switch on a reality TV show and watch how the programme makers encourage dysfunctional bust ups between the participants. Alternatively, go onto social media and scroll down your feed and stop as soon as you see someone complaining about something (victim), or saying something like “are you okay hun?” (rescuer), or criticising someone (persecutor).  
 
You will not have to scroll very far before you find something!  

Here’s the bitter pill we all have to swallow: 
 
The common element in every dysfunctional interaction you have ever had is you.  
 
As such, you have start by accepting that you are a fallible, imperfect, being. You must own, accept, and hold yourself accountable for 100% of your half of every interaction that has gone wrong in your life.  

Whenever we find ourselves slipping into one of these roles, either criticising somebody else or playing the victim, or even reaching out to rescue somebody and save them, we are potentially being sucked into playing one of these three unhealthy roles.  

Left unchecked this will lead to a dysfunctional interaction that is based on justification, rather than conversation; focus on blame, rather than creating a solution; and rescuing somebody, rather than empowering them to be able to resolve things for themselves.  
 
This is not good for personal growth on either side.  

The secret to pulling yourself out of the Drama Triangle is self-awareness and self-esteem.  

Self-awareness  

You must recognise your own behaviours when you are starting to play these roles. The very act of this recognition comes from the logical, Adult, ego state.  

The Adult ego state is objective.  

It can be a ‘controlling mind’ that allows you to take a step back and realise that you are about to be sucked into a dysfunctional interaction.  

Breathe deeply. Count to ten in your mind. Pause long enough to think, to be sure that you are responding not merely reacting.  

Self-esteem  

If you are comfortable with your internal intrinsic value, then you will find this next step much easier than someone who has low self-esteem.  

This is because the next step is to be humble, vulnerable, and to channel your own (positive) Nurturing Parent voice. Whilst this may, superficially, sound like an act of weakness, in fact showing vulnerability is an act of profound strength, and it allows you to be assertive without ever being aggressive.  

In this mode you will be nurturing without being smothering, and you will play to some of the healthier and more helpful elements of the different ego states described within Transactional Analysis.  

In this way you will changes the roles within the Drama Triangle into healthy and productive ones. You will, instead, enter the Empowerment Triangle.  

Rather than being the ‘Victim’ you can become the creator – the architect of a solution.  

Instead of being the victim, saying, “it’s not fair, the traffic was against me. It’s always against me. The world is against me” you would channel your ‘Adult’ voice and say, “Hmm, traffic was not good this morning. Whilst I suspect that tomorrow might be different. I’m just going to set my alarm 10 minutes earlier. That way, I can make sure that, even if the traffic is bad, I’ve compensated for it and I’m not late again”.  

You become the architect of a solution rather than somebody who’s simply moaning about a problem and externalising blame.  

Instead of being the ‘Persecutor’, you would curb your critical parent voice, and become more of a positive ‘challenger’, using your Nurturing Parent voice. Ask questions, rather than point fingers.  

Instead of being the Rescuer, you can become a Coach. Again, you can ask questions like an empowering Nurturing Parent, but do so with the Natural Child’s genuine curiosity and openness. You are seeking to truly hear and understand the other person, with absolute empathy, to go to where they are emotionally and feel what they feel so that they know that they are seen, heard, and genuinely understood.  

Coaching is about helping people to be the best version of who they can be – to hold somebody by the hand whilst also holding them to account.  

Importantly, if you do it from a position of condescension then you are coming from a place of judgement, which is the Critical Parent voice.  
 
This will unavoidably come through in your tone and your body language. It will leak out and it will cause resentment.  

To be a coach in a way that truly empowers the other person to learn more about themselves and the ways in which they can be healthy and proactive and productive, you must come from a place of total humility and vulnerability. Leave your ego at the door.  

Once again, this is hard to do at the best of times, and almost impossible to do if you have low self-esteem.  

To start to work on your own self-esteem it is helpful to recognise a key distinction between what is a part of you, and what is apart from you.  

  • A Part of You – your values, what you stand for, your intentions – this is not conditional on any external factor whatsoever;  
  • Apart from You – your roles, how you perform on any given day or in any given moment – this can be conditional on multiple factors, including how you feel about yourself.  

A key thing to remember is that failure to achieve something, poor performance in a task or in a role, does not make you a bad person intrinsically. Failure is an inevitable part of the human condition. Far from being the opposite of success, failure is a necessary step on the road towards success.  

Here’s the deal … if you are brave, operate outside your comfort zone, and try new things then, almost guaranteed, you will mess up many, many things in your life. But you will get better every time you try. 
 
This series of flawed attempts is a pre-requisite for growth, and realising and accepting that is incredibly liberating.  

When you accept that the things that you do are not who you are, and that (because of that realisation) you are free to improve, to learn, and do better next time. You are on the road to recognising that your self-worth should not be measured in terms of external events, or other people’s opinions of you.  

This takes time and it takes practice but avoiding the Drama Triangle is essential to achieve healthier and more functional day-to-day interactions.  

Here are some of the things that live in the Drama Triangle:  

  • Ego  
  • Hero Complex  
  • Externalised blame  
  • Emotionally driven  
  • Dysfunction and inefficiency  
  • Being emotionally attached to a particular outcome  
  • Distrust  
  • Erosion of self-esteem  
  • Learned helplessness  
  • Justification (not conversation)  
  • Living in the past or future (hope, wish & pray)  

When you leave the Drama Triangle and enter the Empowerment Triangle, where you are vulnerable and nurturing (without being permissive or rescuing), you have:  

  • Authenticity and candour  
  • Vulnerability  
  • Genuine accountability and acceptance of responsibility  
  • Emotional objectivity  
  • Productivity  
  • Non-attachment  
  • Trust  
  • High self-esteem  
  • Empowerment  
  • Conversation (not justification)  
  • Living in the present (realistic, pragmatic)  

To finish this blog, here is a key way in which you can spot whether or not you’re being sucked into the Drama Triangle.  

Do you find yourself in justification mode? Do you find yourself saying things like, “yes but…”?  

‘Yes but’ are arguably the two most dangerous words the English language. Those two words contain the seeds of a dysfunctional interaction.  

The words ‘Yes, but’ mean that you are justifying something. Even if you don’t say them out loud, if you think them to yourself then your body language, your tone of voice, and your non-verbal cues will be screaming messages of defensiveness – maybe even adversarial confrontation and disagreement.  

This is not to say that you should roll over and have your belly tickled; you can (and should) plant your feet, and be assertive, but do so in a nurturing way that maintains conversation and avoids justification.  
 
As mentioned earlier – we are all 100% responsible for our half of every interaction. We can only control our behaviours and our responses. The path to effective management of human interaction is through self-management.