Associação Portuguesa de Análise Transaccional









Claude Steiner and Luís Aguilar

John Dusay and Luís Aguilar

Stephen Karpman and Luís Aguilar









Luís Aguilar

All the world's a stage and all the men and women are merely players.
William Shakespeare
In As You Like It

Theatrical scripts are intuitively derived from life scripts,
and a good way to start is to consider the connections and similarities between them.

Eric Berne
In What Do You Say After You Say Hello? 1973, p. 35

Twelve years ago, we began our Transactional Action Laboratory, and have been using role-playing with Eric Berne’s main concepts - ego states, strokes, games, life scripts, existential positions, time-structuring, payoff, drivers, drama triangle, decisions, rackets, permissions, and contracts - for education, counseling, organizational training and management.
The Transactional Action Laboratory is a space, or setting, with very specific characteristics, strict rules and clear objectives. It has a time and a transitional (symbolic) and transactional (relational) place. We shall explain here the format and contents of this personal developmental space-time, where one reflects and rehearses life. Although it requires some stepping back (and must be done in a symbolic way), the exercise is nonetheless real and representative of actual life.

Transactional Action

Eric Berne began his lifelong work by investigating and theorizing about the characteristics that define relations that two or more people establish between themselves. He also identified the ego states that affect the multiple transactions in which people engage every day (hence the name Transactional Analysis, the name he gave to his theory of personality). However, Berne never stopped saying what many transactional analysts seem to have forgotten: action. In his book The Mind in Action Berne (1947) faulted some practitioners for their static execution of the theoretical concepts of TA. Berne and his followers did not define concrete drama tools or methodologies in psychotherapy or training that could show how people might react to inappropriate, or unsatisfactory, transactional behaviors to modify them.

While diagnosing in Transactional Analysis claims to be a strategy for change, personal development and treatment, most attempts to diagnose are forms of labeling (something that Berne himself rejected), and something that many transactional analysts have not been able to avoid. The goal of diagnosis using test data collection, intuitive observations, and mutual contracting for change, is to avoid the labeling trap. Change and/or treatment require concrete actions that maintain a dynamic relationship with the nascent changes a trainee or client seeks and agrees to.

When we want to get across the idea that therapy training activities should focus on personal change via concrete actions, we think Transactional Analysis should be really called Transactional Action. We follow this path so that, in practice, we have tried as much as possible to get participants in therapy, or involved in training, to describe the past of the scene talked about or played out in the present here-and-now by getting them to play the other’s role in the script. This is the basis of Moreno’s psychodrama and sociodrama, i.e. using symbolic representation to bring forth into the present moment the conflict and its characters.

At first glance, it might seem a bit unorthodox to bring together in the spatio-temporal setting, a psycho- and socio-dramatic approach and Transactional Analysis. Still, Transactional Analysis reaches its full value in conjunction with other approaches that validate and complete it at both a conceptual as well as a practical and experimental level.

This gets me into trouble in the ITAA these days. There are many people who want to take Transactional Analysis back to psychoanalysis… Well, I am a camper, especially on this one: I feel strongly that not to go in the direction of the social/transactional aspects of Transactional Analysis is to abandon the model. This is the essence of Transactional Analysis. It was the heart of Berne’s theory, and it is what made Transactional Analysis different. It is about the analysis of transactions, not the analysis of psyches. Transactional analysts analyze transactions, I like to say. (Steiner, 1998).

Role-playing in Transactional Action

We defend role-playing starting from the principle that a person learns better if the various aspects of him- or herself (intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual) can be active together during the same activity, i.e. role playing. The original technique of psychodrama, adapted much later by Gestalt therapy, offers a fairly convincing demonstration of ego states’ reality (Steiner, 1984, p.55).

Fritz Perls (1969), who was truly impressed by Eric Berne’s work and the latter’s emphasis on role-playing, was disappointed when Berne and his followers failed to build properly on this activity. As Perls suggested, the idea of maturation, integration and transcendence of role-playing appeared as something foreign to them (Perls, p. 264).

Since we cannot follow people at each stage of their lives, nor determine through testing or interviews how they use their ego states or the transactions they experience daily, we must rely on role-playing activities. As metaphors of life, they allow us to examine in simple and quick ways what we need. In this context, role-playing is a kind of time-out or break from reality which allows us to perceive this same reality and bring the subject closer to himself, treading the less frequented paths of intimacy, autonomy and the spontaneity of the here-and-now. In such a training or therapy setting, active participants can neither pry open the chest of future uncertainties, nor open the bag of past tricks, as they do every day when they become unhappy as a result of their inability to live in the here-and-now. The immediacy that role-playing offers is about finding oneself and others and being able to live a fictional reality that, more often than not, can actually explain day-to-day reality, or even transcend it.

What is hidden away in our unconscious mind is revealed in images and metaphors we generate in the spontaneous dramatic play we perform and in the speed with which we carry out each action. This way role-playing is better than words, allowing us to save a lot of time and strive for what Berne sought from the very beginning, namely a quick and effective way to treat and train.

Our role-playing activities belong to the field of experimental research. Their goal is to interconnect the means of self-understanding proposed by Transactional Analysis to the role-playing. It is used as a factor of innovation in Transactional Analysis, compensating for its excessively analytical rationality and lack of practical tools for training or therapeutic action.

Demonstrating Ego States

In our Transactional Action Laboratory, we created a few acting-out activities to identify different ego states. The results obtained through the egogram test (like those achieved through general testing) only provide indicators. In order to find someone’s dominant ego states, it is important to know the person’s life history, origins, family, what he/she has done and continues to do in life, what he/she knows, feels, and experiences. These matters cannot be revealed in a simple test or interview.

A first part of the work is demonstrating ego states. This is related to life experiences that form a triple personality and that is related to total being (structural analysis). Therefore, physical activities incorporated into role-playing are a good way of determining which ego state subjects mobilize. For example, in the Child ego state, they may like to touch or be touched and easily accept an outburst of happiness. In the Parent ego state, they may touch what is strictly necessary in order to conform to social rules or to protect the other and avoid sensual (sensitive) content. Finally, in the Adult ego state subjects might touch with a well defined purpose; for example, touching someone on the shoulders to show solidarity or understanding.

In the practice that we are developing as transactional action counselors, teacher trainers and youth educators, or those in the field of group psychotherapy, we have at times observed how participants in our therapy and training settings quickly perceive some surprising behaviors and ways of being of which they initially were unaware. When a teacher whose self-image is democratic and non-directive is suddenly asked to create a teacher-student relationship image, he or she ends up becoming self-critical, pointing the finger at his/her own intrinsic authoritarianism, mobilizing for its effect his or her own ego state as a Critical Parent. Once back in the real world after he or she has uncovered what was hidden in his/her consciousness, he or she is likely to change behavior as a teacher towards his/her real-life students. The same happens in situations where we are called to create an image of Parent-Child relationship. Our later work with teachers in training further confirms that new ego awareness can be achieved using methodologies that require kinesthetic actions such as those found in group work and dynamic acting scenes.

Aguilar and Rodrigues use a tableau variant of word association in teaching TA concepts to teachers. With the “students” standing in a group, the leader calls out an emotionally-laden term and orders the group arrangement. An example would be “Teacher” and “Threes.” The students then quickly arrange themselves into triads to adopt interactive positions so that the term “teacher” evokes a particular grouping. The students freeze in their position, which then leads to discussion about how they spontaneously arranged themselves and explored certain options and alternatives. (Gaft & Moore, 2004).

It was our understanding of Berne's work to release the kinetic forces locked away in the static environment in only talking. That's when we established our Transactional Action Laboratory. We tried out our revision of the practice at the San Francisco Conference in 1999 at a session chaired by Felipe Garcia, Sam Gaft, and Mary Westphal. It was there that we confirmed we could identify ego states and release the inhibited forces of personality locked in the rigidity of a compressed ego.

Exchanging Strokes

The second part of the work is related to the exchange of strokes. According to Steiner, the first experiments on strokes were conducted in Berkeley and initially entailed transforming people’s negative strokes into positive ones. The desire for strokes is so great that, if people cannot get them in a positive and natural way, they will seek them in negative and fake ways since it is better to have negative strokes than none at all. According to Steiner, the need for physical strokes is greatly compensated by symbolic and recognition strokes.

Seen from the outside, putting a number of people in a room may seem quite artificial; so does asking them to give strokes to each other following a set of clearly defined rules that ban, for instance, negative and exaggerated criticism of others, comparisons or lying directed by order of the Critical Parent in the pig parent version. However, those who do participate, especially if accompanied by a therapist or instructor who knows what he/she is doing, will witness outbursts of joy, laughter, crying, openness to feelings, etc. Thus we can ask: What is artificial? We have people freely and creatively expressing to one another what they spontaneously feel. How different is it from the mayhem of everyday life, in which we see people do just about anything to get the psychological calories they would otherwise not have, even if it means remaining inside a vicious circle that turns people off, and allows obsessive circulation in the dramatic triangle. In these, destructive games they sometimes persecute others, play the traveling savior, or complain or portray themselves as the victim (Karpman, 1973).

Analyzing Games and Scripts

Eric Berne’s theory of games (1964) assumes that there are certain needs: for strokes, structure, excitement, recognition and leadership. Analyzing a game is a very complicated matter that can only be done in a psychotherapeutic framework. All the clues protagonists give usually prove insufficient to sense what game is in play. Berne put it so well when he suggested that an individual does not look for a given therapy or session to learn how to live in a healthy, intimate, spontaneous and creative way, but rather does so to learn how to better play the game. Psychotherapy and training in this field are not only about bringing games to an end, but are also used to move out of them, even if it is by creating new ones. Suppose we change the negative strokes for positive ones! Will people behave artificially and cease to play? At least for a few moments, they stop playing, abandon the script, and leave behind the distress that their life position might have thrown at them. In a simulated situation, which sometimes can be more real than the real thing, people express real feelings because they don’t have to disguise what they feel in order to get strokes.

From our point of view, this process can begin from any angle as long as it leads to autonomy, spontaneity and intimacy, which are the only ways one can first change and then develop as a creative person instead of remaining what Berne calls a plastic person, i.e. someone who switches on the mechanisms of games that are related to one’s own life scripts. Since life does not allow experimenting or rehearsing these changes, it becomes necessary to create settings like the ones we propose and which serve as a break or time-out from the reality. Role-playing allows us to collect additional information to identify the games people play or those to which they are invited.

AGUILAR, Luís (1999). Análise Transaccional: Guia para o Auto-Conhecimento. Lisboa: Fim de Século.
BERNE, Eric (1947). The Mind in Action. New York: Simon and Schuster.
BERNE, Eric (1964). Games People Play. The Psychology of Human Relationships. London: Penguin.
BERNE, Eric (1973). What Do You Say After You Say Hello? New York: Bantam Books.
DUSAY, John (1977). Egograms. New York: Harper and Row.
GAFT Samuel & Cynthia MOORE (2004). Transactional Analysis in the College Classroom. Transactional Analysis Journal, July.
KARPMAN, Stephen (1973). Fingograms. Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 3(4), 30-33.
MORENO, Jacob-Lévy (1947). The Theatre of Spontaneity: an Introduction to Psychodrama. New York: Beacon House.
MORENO, Jacob-Levy (1964). Psychodrama. New York: Beacon House.
PERLS, Frederick (1969). In and Out of the Garbage Pail. California: Real People Press.
STEINER, Claude (1998). Transactional Analysis and Emotional Literacy. The Script – Script- International Transactional Analysis Association Bulletin. XXVIII, 2, 1 and 6.
STEINER, Claude (1984). Des scénarios et des hommes. Paris: Epi.

© Luís Aguilar

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