Are you following the script?

A script of Hamlet

Let's hope your script doesn't end up like this one.

In preparation for a day-long workshop for doctors on interpersonal communication I have been refreshing my memory on Transactional Analysis.

TA (as it is known to its friends) first endeared itself to me when it helped me to understand a bizarre pattern that would happen with certain clients. Some people seemed to take a strange delight in shooting down every idea that I came up with. Every single suggestion about how they might make progress was found to have a fatal flaw. At the end of the session I felt exhausted, frustrated and a complete failure.

Thanks to TA I now recognise that this could an individual trying to engage me in the ‘Why Don’t You…Yes But‘ game. It was a bit of a revelation to me that someone might prefer the disappointing pay-off confirming their belief that they were beyond help to the more positive pay-off of actually being helped.

This time around I was struck by the idea of the various common script processes by which people reinforce their belief patterns about themselves and the world. In TA terms a ‘script’ is a set of decisions made in early childhood about how your life will play out. These decisions are not conscious or rational, but reflect an infant’s response to how they perceive their environment and their role within it. You could call them self-fulfilling prophecies.

Eric Berne, the founder of TA suggested that there were six patterns of behaviour through which people live out their scripts in everyday life.

  • Until
    This is a pattern in which something good can’t come about until something difficult has been completed.
    ‘I won’t be able to really enjoy my career until I have reached a certain level.’

    ‘I can’t enjoy myself until I have finished this project.’
  • After
    In this pattern if you experience something good now, you will have to pay for it later.
    ‘I’d really like to take a sabbatical, but it will probably damage my career prospects.’
    ‘I’ve had a great time at university, but it’s all downhill from there.’
  • Never
    For people in this pattern, what they most want in life is perceived to be inaccessible or impossible.
    ‘I really like the look of that career but it’s just too competitive.’
    ‘I like the idea of being a journalist but I never got round to submitting any articles.’
  • Always
    In this pattern the same problems seem to visit you over an over again but you never learn from your mistakes.
    ‘I always seem to screw it up at the interview.’
    ‘Why do I get landed with the useless manager in every job I take?’
  • Almost
    People in this pattern never quite seem to finish things off. They either fail before the end or discover that what they thought was the summit is only half way up the mountain.
    ‘I think if I had stayed in my last job a bit longer I might have been promoted.’
    ‘When I got to be a manager, I realised I wouldn’t be happy until I had my boss’s job.’
  • Open-ended
    In this pattern you focus on immediate goals but fail to think about life beyond them.
    ‘I knew I wanted to go back to university to complete my education, but I have no idea what to do after that.’
    ‘I’m at a bit of a loss about what to do now that I don’t have to spend all of my time looking after the kids.’

One of the first steps to breaking ‘scripty’ behaviour is to recognise the scripts you might be following, so…

  • Which of the above script processes sound familiar to you? (I have an uncomfortable shiver of recognition about Almost and Open-ended.)
  • If you do recognise a script, how has it played out in your career?
  • Do you recognise these scripts from any of your clients? If so, what did you do about them?
  • How many games of ‘Why Don’t You…Yes But’ have you played?

Further reading

  • Stewart, I. & Joines, V. (2002) TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis. Lifespace Publishing.
  • See this article on TA Games at Work.

Related post: Mine! All Mine!

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  1. #1 by Vinny on 8 February 2010 - 13:08

    I think that with many of these scripts, the “Vinny as a child” technique may work.
    When I was little (and to be honest, not much has changed) I was very annoying and would constantly bug my parents with the question:
    “Why?”
    “But why?”
    “Why?”
    “And why is that?”
    “Why?”
    (please note the tone of voice of an irritating young boy)

    I think that this technique (without the tone of voice) could be a good one to use when countering many of these scripts.

    This technique is used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
    Basically people think negative thoughts, which affects the way they feel and thus how they then act.
    If you can identify these thoughts or the patterns of thoughts (scripts) and examine them closely, they can begin to break down. With fewer negative thoughts, they then feel better and act more positively.

    So act like an annoying child and start challenging their scripts.

    • #2 by David Winter on 8 February 2010 - 20:44

      It takes management gurus years to come up with an approach like that. Five-year-olds got there first!

  2. #3 by Tristram Hooley on 10 February 2010 - 13:58

    Thanks for that – that is a useful starter on Transactional Analysis. It is something that I’ve heard quite a bit about but never really got to grips with.

    For some reason I’ve got TA filed in my head as being academically a bit suspect. Am I wrong on this? Is there an empirical basis for the claim that people use these kinds of strategies to avoid or delay making decisions.

    Just flapping around really. I always think you learn more about something by understanding why people have criticised it.

    • #4 by David Winter on 10 February 2010 - 17:32

      I always wonder if the ‘academically suspect’ label has been applied because Berne and his followers use everyday language for their concepts rather than multisylabic jargon. For example, the whole ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ framework (the OK Corral) is virtually identical to the much more academically acceptable adult attachment framework (Anxious and Avoidant). Things with unfamiliar words have better face credibility with academics.

      I think Berne himself was very careful to say that the stuff in TA is only a working model which helps to explain rather than an objective truth which can be proved or disproved.

      For me I think it is useful to help people to recognise things that happen in interpersonal relationships and have a label for them. Even if the labels aren’t the absolutely most accurate labels there could be, they are better than no labels. Once you have the labels in place you can then work creatively with them and understand their limitations.

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