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The importance of interpersonal skills
The importance of interpersonal skills

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2 Relationships

In reality, a message like the one just referred to above is just one of many which forms part of the ongoing relationships we have with the people we work with. How we get on with each other can have a huge impact on the interpretation of a given message, and the subsequent effects that might have on their motivation or morale.

The next idea we will introduce is a framework for assessing how relationships are established and evolve, based on the states of mind of those involved in it. It is rooted in the work of psychologist, Eric Berne (Figure 2), from an idea proposed in the mid- 1960s. Berne (1966) argued that everyone goes through shifting states of mind – or ‘ego states’ as he called them –based on the circumstances they find themselves in and the responses they have developed over time to these circumstances. There are three basic ego states: parent, adult and child.

Described image
Figure 2 Eric Berne

Parent state, as the name suggests, is associated with the typical behaviour of a parent towards their children. This could be authoritarian, prescribing or admonishing as in ‘Don't do that’, ‘Do it this way’ or ‘That's wrong’ – which might be described as a critical parent state. Alternatively, it could be sympathetic, protective or cosseting, which might be described as a nurturing parent state.

Adult state is associated with calm, rational, objective behaviour where the individual focuses on gaining better factual understanding of a situation. Someone in this state of mind will tend to ask questions and check their understanding with the other people they are communicating with. They will come across as thoughtful, enquiring and balanced.

Child state, again as the name suggests, is associated with a variety of behaviours which might be thought to be childlike. This time there are three possible types of child state: free child state, which is associated with creativity, spontaneity and fun; rebellious child state, which is associated with hostility, defiance and argument; and adapted child state, which tends to involve displays of compliance, but can also lead to a more instrumental approach to getting a reward.

It may be easy to jump to the conclusion that some of these states of mind are right and others are wrong, but this was not Berne's intention. The main messages of his work are that:

  • At any given time each of us is in one or other of the states of mind outlined. Sometimes the shift from one state to another can be very rapid.

  • One person will tend to respond to another's state of mind. For example, if a manager approaches a member of staff in a critical parent mode, the staff member will tend to adopt a child state of mind, becoming perhaps defensive, dependent or argumentative.

  • Awareness of both our state of mind and the other person's can help to achieve more effective communication and to develop more positive relationships.