Eric Berne proposed that every person has three ego states available to them: Parent, Adult, and Child. The Parent ego state resembles the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors characteristic of a person’s parents. The Adult ego state contains the person’s ability to act rationally, relate to the world realistically, and think logically. Finally, the Child ego state represents immature thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that were fixated during childhood. Berne believed human behavior can be understood by focusing on which ego states are in control during social interactions. He proposed that as people interact, they shift from one ego state to another and these shifts have significant meaning for the quality and rationality of their interactions. Some combinations of ego states can generate productive interactions while others are potentially disruptive.
When both parties are operating in their Adult ego state, there is little likelihood that emotional issues will interfere with the collaborative process. On the other hand, when one party shifts to their Parent or Child ego state, the interactions can become emotional and the collaborative process may degenerate into name calling or other self-destructive behaviors.
For example, a collaborative divorce interaction may begin with both parties in their Adult state where they can discuss issues realistically and rationally. At some point, usually triggered by an emotional communication such as a threat, slur, or insult, one party may regress to their immature Child state. When this happens, it’s difficult for the parties to make any progress toward solving their divorce issues. Their interactions become self-defeating rather than constructive.
The most damaging interactions happen when both parties simultaneously regress to their Child ego state. When both parties are thinking, feeling, and acting as children, the opportunities for self-defeating behaviors abound. Children are inherently selfish, unrealistic, and irrational. When both parties are in their Child ego state, the responses and interactions the collaborative team sees are selfish, unrealistic, and irrational. The best way to handle the parties when they have regressed to their Child state is to call a time-out and appeal to each party’s Adult state during the break. Once both parties have moved from their Child state back to their Adult state, the collaborative team can make progress again. Sometimes this transition from Child ego state to Adult requires only a few minutes. However, the transition from Child to Adult state may require much longer if emotions have been especially strong during the earlier interaction.
Difficult interaction may also occur when one party is in his Parent state and the other is in her Child state. This happens most often when one party says “you should” or “you must” do something. The other party may immediately shift into her Child state, become defiant, and say “no, I won’t.” Again, the best strategy for dealing with irrational Parent or Child states is to call a time out and appeal to the Adult states of the clients.
A third disturbing interaction may occur when one party is in her Adult state and the other party is in his Child state. Generally, interactions between Adult and Child ego states are not so destructive as interactions between Parent-Child and Child-Child states, mainly because one party is still thinking and acting as an adult. The Adult ego state can often mitigate the problems caused by the other person’s Child ego state or at least recognize that there is something seriously wrong with the interaction and slow the pace to give the other side time to cool down.
Finally, interactions between Parent ego states can be difficult if both parties become bossy and attempt to tell the other what to do. By contrast, Parent-Adult, and Adult-Adult interactions are generally constructive because an Adult state is involved and available to keep collaborative interactions on a logical, realistic level.