Games People Play Eric Berne Transactional Analysis Strokes

Games People Play Eric Berne Transactional Analysis Strokes


Stroking each other physically and mentally

Eric Berne was the founder of transactional analysis which sought to define the term ‘Social Interaction’.  He did this by calling it ‘stroking’.  His research in the 1960’s showed that all primates touch and stroke each other as a means of assurance and communication.  I bet you have seen on TV silverback guerrillas grooming each other backs – it’s quite amazing to see these magnificent powerful animals being so gentle.

Human beings are also primates.  We also need ‘stroking’ but this tends to be done using words rather than physical touching.  Just by one human recognizing and acknowledging another human this would classify as a ‘stroke’.   Berne states “These needs are part of our biological and psychological hungers – and these hungers can be satisfied with strokes.” 

eric berneSo a simple stroke in everyday life would be whilst your standing at a bus stop you have a quick conversation to person next to you about how wonderful the weather is.  After you get on the bus and travel your separate ways, you have a little glow inside that you interacted with someone and it reinstalled your faith in humanity.  It may seem trivial but it’s actually served a purpose that you have interacted socially.  Human and animals want to connect with others. 

A stroke can be identified as a ‘unit of recognition’, or an interaction between humans.  Stroking can be as intense as hugging someone, to just simply staring at them.  Talking probably comes somewhere in the middle.  Strokes can be positive or negative. 

“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.   “Pooh?" he whispered.
  "Yes, Piglet?"
  "Nothing," said Piglet, taking Pooh's hand. "I just wanted to   be sure of you.”

  ¯ A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

Dr Berne recognized that strokes are a biological necessity. It’s really an essential experience in our lives that makes us tick.  Just think how babies are stroked and interacted at such a young age.  Without this you see young children with all sorts of mental illnesses in orphanages due to neglect and lack of interaction with other children. 

Similarly prisoners also have similar conditions with the solitude of jail. The statistics speak for themselves.

  • More than 70% of the prison population has two or more mental health disorders. (Social Exclusion Unit, 2004, quoting Psychiatric Morbidity Among Prisoners In England And Wales, 1998)
  • Male prisoners are 14 times more likely to have two or more disorders than men in general, and female prisoners are 35 times more likely than women in general. (Social Exclusion Unit, 2004, quoting Psychiatric Morbidity Among Prisoners In England And Wales, 1998)
  • The suicide rate in prisons is almost 15 times higher than in the general population: in 2002 the rate was 143 per 100,000 compared to 9 per 100,000 in the general population. (The National Service Framework For Mental Health: Five Years On, Department of Health, 2004; Samaritans Information Resource Pack, 2004)

There are not many people who can manage to live like hermits in solitude.  Most people need social contact and some people actually crave it.  Few people could function without it.  It seems more apparent in today’s celebrity culture than ever before.  We do know that if we can match the person’s individual need for strokes the better they will be. 

Games People Play by Eric Berne

Positive and Negative Strokes

When we give and receive strokes we make ourselves feel better and this helps to reduce our anxiety.

In order to receive and give strokes effectively it’s good to know the types of strokes there are.  The most important distinction is if the strokes are positive or negativePositive strokes usually involve some sort of compliment to the other person but it can mean for example

  • A greeting of some sort when you first meet them
  • Asking a question if they are OK
  • Finding out more about them
  • Telling them more about yourself
  • Inviting them to do something with you

As you can see from the above a positive stroke is an interaction that makes the other person feel comfortable about themselves and others around them.

On the other hand a negative stroke would make the other person not feel good about themselves or the people surrounding them (or both).

The above definitions are important if you intend to criticize someone.  It would suggest criticism is a negative but it does not have to be.  We all need to stick up for ourselves and do what’s right for us.  When you’re recovering from anxiety you have to a certain extent look after number one.  You have to avoid people who take energy from you and be with the people who give energy to you. 

So if you need to tell someone you are not happy with their behaviour then constructive criticism can be a positive stroke if put correctly. 

There will be times when you will need to criticize other people especially if their performance is not up to scratch.   However scathing criticism would be a negative stroke and not helpful. 

It’s much better to word your criticism in a positive way to let the person know how you want them to behave rather than criticizing them.   The best way to criticize someone is to tell them positive things by pointing them in the direction they can improve on.  If you put the shoe on the other foot how would you feel if you were criticized non constructively and told what you are doing was wrong.

It’s also not a good idea to praise someone by comparing them to someone else.  By the above definition this would generally be a negative stroke.  This tends to make the comment recipient feel superior and better than everyone else.   So saying ‘You are much more competent than the others.  Your enthusiasm is so infectious. Why can’t everyone in your team be as motivated as you?’  The comment recipient would feel fantastic.  For the people being criticized, this can be deflating and de-motivating if they hear this. 

Games People Play Berne

Conditional or Unconditional Strokes 

Another way strokes are defined is whether they are conditional or unconditional. 

Conditional strokes are ways of interacting with other people on the condition that someone has done something you asked.  Unconditional strokes are given without the need of any conditions.    So you may give a person a stroke if they meet you at a certain times or dress in a certain way.  Conditional strokes may be positive or negative. 

Unconditional strokes, are given without any condition and are much more powerful as they do not exert any control over the person.  Strangely enough some people react more comfortably when they are given conditionals stokes than unconditional.

An example of an unconditional stroke would be commenting on the persons height or colour of their eyes (things they cannot change). 

Stroking Partners

Healthy people tend to have strokes every day.  The majority of these strokes are from the same people.  These are probably work colleagues, family or friends or team mates at sport.  Therefore these strokes are limited to a small collection of people that we feel comfortable with.   These strokes are also familiar as they come from people we know.   Sometimes we will meet other people outside of our inner circle who will provide us with strokes that tops up our pool of everyday strokes.

Whether you aware of this or not, strokes are usually quite diverse, whether we receive or give them.  Sometimes these strokes overlap as we combine friends with work.  It’s really all down to personal preference.

Whatever are personal preference are, we will seek to have as many friends as we can so that we can receive enough strokes.  The quality of stokes is also important as it can often determine the level of bond between people. 

In today’s internet age lots of people are searching for more friends and followers on Facebook and twitter to feed their ego’s and gain more importance. This is not necessarily a bad thing as they can meet new and exciting people.

Some people get by with a small circle of friends whilst others have a huge number of friends. Neither is right or wrong.

It’s always a good idea to take stock and review how many strokes you are giving and receiving.  I always think the more you give, the more strokes you will receive.  So think about who your interacting with everyday.  Do you give strokes to them, what are the strokes achieving, how do you give strokes, etc.  Also look at the strokes you are receiving.

By analyzing your strokes you can see the areas you can improve on in your life including behaviour to others and yourself.  Try being more complimentary about people and try not to be too hard on yourself.  If people see you are trying to make the effort to interact and give unconditional strokes, it’s surprising how your environment can change for the better.  Manners are free and people notice if your fair, honest and polite.  Strokes should not be given in the anticipation they should be given back, but people will naturally want to go that extra mile to help you, if you make the first step to help them.

It’s often a good idea to give strokes to people regularly.  If you don’t it’s surprising how people can pick up on this, and feel not as close to you as they may of otherwise felt.

Think of the intensity of the strokes and the likely impact they have.  Are you just paying lip service to your friends.  Do you think your strokes could be more powerful and have more meaning to the recipient.  If so, would the recipient be comfortable if you hugged them, or would more kind words be better?

A common behaviour pattern is reacting to negative stroke in an unpleasant manner.  For example if someone criticizes your dress sense it’s very easier to snap back with a nasty comment.  Instead you could reply in a more positive way, i.e. “I got dressed in a hurry this morning.   I’m sure you do not always have time in the mornings to make yourself look good.   I think it’s much more important what’s on the inside of someone than the outside anyway.”  I think this statement explains you’re not perfect and that’s life, but you have made a valid point that real beauty is on the inside (which is what strokes are all about).

Try to be as varied as you can with your strokes as different people respond to different strokes.  They should be tailored to the individual.  If your giving out blanket strokes then there likely to fall on deaf ears and people will not take much notice.  Try to use intuition and insight to tell if your strokes are being well received or if they are being pushed back.

If your just giving strokes as a reaction to someone giving you a stroke, this may seem a little artificial.  It’s also best to be fair and even handed when handing out strokes as we all have a tendency to be much more touchy and feely when were in a good mood.  If your boss comes in the morning and you see he/she are in a bad mood, then it’s human nature to avoid them.  But at times like this they may need more strokes.

Berne Transactional Analysis Strokes

Improving your strokes 

If you wish to improve your strokes then below may help

arrow right.        Do you need to include more people within your general interaction pattern?  Who might they be?  Start with one or two people only and gradually find opportunities to stroke them.  Do not add lots of people to the pattern at once  -  you will not have enough time, you will find it too stressful, and people will begin to wonder what has happened to you!

arrow right ·       Do some people need more strokes than others?   Don’t expect that everyone will respond to exactly the same stroking format.  Notice who are the ones who like many strokes  -  they may also be people who are content with lower intensity strokes given more frequently.  Identify others who may prefer a much higher intensity stroke on an occasional basis.

arrow right ·         Should you change the content?  The content should be important to the recipient.  Check that you are not just talking to them about what matters to you  -  for example, your hobbies or your work.

arrow right  ·        What about negative strokes?  Change these to positives!  Making someone feel bad is not a good recipe for a relationship.  Either look for positive things to comment on, or change the negative stokes to constructive criticism.  Let the person know what you want them to do in future rather than what you did not like in the past.

arrow right ·        If you find you’re hardly giving any strokes then start with your immediate circle of friends.  Start by giving more strokes to one or two people and then when you get more accustomed to it start expanding your base.  We sometimes spend more time with work colleagues then we do with our family, so work can be a good place to start.

arrow right  ·        The best relationships are built on honesty, compassion and integrity.  There is no problem with giving construction criticism to someone if you they need it.  Look for the positive in people and build them up rather than knock them down.   Criticizing them for past behaviour is normally destruction.  Look to stroke them and help them develop.

arrow right·        Think of what each person likes.  Get to know them and talk to them on their level.  Too often people will not change their point of view and put themselves in the other person’s shoes.  Try to show empathy and tailor strokes to what the recipient needs.

Strokes affect people in different ways.  Some people are quite reserved and may need more strokes to feel appreciated and loved.  Whilst others will need fewer strokes and these will perhaps be of a higher intensity.  We all have different needs due to higher or lower thresholds of recognition.


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