Transactional Analysis – Rules of communication

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Transactional Analysis – Three rules of communication

Learning about Transactions helps us understand the Three rules of communication.

Rule 1: So long as transactions remain complementary, communication can continue indefinitely.

For instance:
Marianna and her friend continue talking about men.

Marianna: “You can never trust a man! How stupid I was.”
Friend: “Yeah, they are all the same…”
Marianna: “They are all such losers.”
Friend: “Yes, you can never rely on them to do anything. Take my husband..” (etc. etc.)

Both friends are in their Parent ego-state and the conversation can continue indefinitely.

Rule 2: When a transaction is crossed, a break in communication results and one or both individuals will need to shift ego-states in order for communication to be re-established.

Kevin’s boss comes up to him and starts shouting: “I have asked you to bring that report to me two days ago! What is going on? How many times do I have to ask?”

He is in his Parent ego-state and is inviting Kevin to get into his Child and start apologising. Instead, Kevin sits up straight, looks confidently at his boss and calmly replies: “I will get it to you in half an hour”, which he then does.

Here Kevin has chosen to access his Adult ego-state and crossed the transaction. Communication stops.

To understand the Third rule of communication, we first need to learn about Ulterior transaction.

In an Ulterior transaction, two messages are conveyed at the same time. One of these is overt social level message. The other – the covert psychological level message.

Kevin comes home late. His mother greets him at the door: “Do you know what time it is?” Overtly, it is a question from an Adult position. But covertly, mother has hooked Kevin’s Child. So he starts apologizing: “I lost my watch, I did not know what time it was…”.

Rule 3: The behavioural outcome of an ulterior transaction is determined at the psychological and not at the social level.


When you and I transact, I signal recognition of you and you return that recognition. In TA language, a unit of recognition is called a stroke.

People need strokes to maintain their physical and psychological wellbeing. There are different kinds of strokes: Positive or negative, conditional or unconditional.

For example: Boss is praising Kevin for the job well done. This is a positive conditional stroke.

Marianna tells Kevin: “Kevin, I love you!” This is a positive unconditional stroke.

Marianna’s friend Tania tells her: “You look fat in this dress.”

This is a negative conditional stroke.

Kevin’s sister tells him: “I hate you!” This is a negative unconditional stroke.

Receiving negative strokes is better than not getting any strokes at all. We need recognition in order to survive. That is why children often misbehave in order to be shouted at – at least this way they are certain that their parents have noticed them! If we did not get enough positive strokes as children, we might have figured out ways of getting negative strokes instead. As grown ups, we might repeat this strategy by unconsciously seeking out negative strokes.

For instance, Kevin can set himself up to be repeatedly fired from different jobs.

We will talk about why this is happening when we discuss the concept of ‘Games’.


Before we talk about the concept of Games, we need to learn about Rackets.

As young children, we notice that in our family, certain feelings are encouraged while others are prohibited. For instance, in Kevin’s family, it was OK to get angry, shout or fight, but it was not OK to cry or express sadness in any other way.

To get our strokes, we might decide to feel only the permitted feelings. This decision is made without conscious awareness. In grown up life, we keep substituting real feelings with the one feeling that was OK to experience. These substitute feelings are known as Racket feelings.

For example: Kevin is damped by a girl. She tells him that she does not want to see him any more. Kevin is really sad about being abandoned. But sadness was a forbidden feeling in Kevin’s family, so he feels angry instead. He swears and calls the girl a bitch.

You can find out what is your own Racket feeling, by doing the following exercise: Imagine, you are in a supermarket. It is the last day before public holiday and the shop is going to close in an hour. You need to buy groceries to last you for three days of a holiday period. 5 minutes before the closing time you come up to the till with the trolley full of groceries. You are about to pay, when you discover you wallet is missing. What do you feel?


Every time we experience a Racket feeling we are said to be saving a Stamp.

I can “cash it in” straight away by, for example, having a fight or bursting into tears. Or I can store it, in which case I am “saving a stamp”.

For example: Kevin’s boss criticises him. Kevin feels angry but does not show it. Kevin’s mother asks him to drive her across the city after work to do some shopping. Kevin feels angry, but is afraid to say no. Kevin is driving home and another car overtakes him, forcing Kevin to break sharply. The car is gone before Kevin could express his anger.

Kevin is having a drink after work. Somebody elbows him, pushing past him to the bar. Kevin gets really angry and pushes the man to the floor. He gets into a fight and ends up in a hospital. Kevin has «cashed in» his stamps.


In order to experience our Racket Feeling we sometimes set up Games.

A Game is a repetitive sequence of transactions in which both parties end up experiencing Racket Feelings. We play Games to confirm our view of the world and ignore the aspects of reality that do not fit in. There is an infinite variety of Games that people set up. If you are interested in this concept, I would recommend you to read a great book by Eric Berne ‘Games People Play’.

Usually we unconsciously look for people, who would be willing to play our particular type of Game. Game always includes a Switch – a moment, when players experience that something unexpected and uncomfortable has happened. People play Games outside awareness.

For example: Marianna’s and her friend Sarah’s favourite game is “Why don’t you?” “Yes, but…”

Marianna is complaining about her job. Her friend, Sarah, wants to be helpful.

Sarah: “Why don’t you look for a better paid job?”
Marianna: “I could, but I need to be better qualified to find something worth applying for.”
Sarah: “Why don’t you enrol on an Open University course?”
Marianna: “I guess, I could, but I am always so busy!”
Sarah: “Well, before you find time to do that, why don’t you start looking anyway?”
Marianna: “Yes, but now, with credit crunch happening, it is not really a good time to look for a job.”

In the end, Sarah starts feeling irritated and gets angry at Marianna for rejecting her offers to help. Marianna, in turn, experiences her Racket feeling of being misunderstood.

Anna Storey Counsellor Life CoachAbout The Author

Anna Storey is a Transactional Analysis Counsellor working from Thame and drawing clients from surrounding counties of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire.

For more information and contact details visit Anna’s therapy page here

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