Regulating The Degree of Intimacy
My name is Sari van Poelje and I’m an expert in business innovation. I’m the director of two businesses. One is called the Intact Academy where I train coaches and consultants from absolute beginners to supervisor level. The other business is Team Agility where I help businesses innovate their business more quickly than their products.
As an organizational consultant I work at a systemic level. As a coach I work at team level but I also work at individual level. I do a lot of executive coaching and to do that well, I use a model called transactional analysis.
One of the transactional analysis concepts is called ego states, the patterns of thinking and feeling linked to patterns of behaviour that all of us have stored in our archive, either programmed by Parents or learned in early childhood or associated with the here and now competencies we have. We call that Parent Adult Child ego states. You can read more and watch a video: You Always Have A Choice: Which Drawer Will You Open?
One of the things I was wondering about is how sometimes I feel really close to my client right away. I feel an immediate degree of intimacy. I feel OK, this person will tell me what’s going on with them, and I can work with them. And sometimes I come in and I feel kind of distant and I wonder what that is.
My own nature is to be pretty close to people. Sometimes the intimacy goes up and down. And so I was wondering about this degree of intimacy we have in executive coaching. I’m convinced that everyone creates their optimal degree of intimacy through communication. Some people like to be close and some people like to be further away. But you create that through the way you communicate and you regulate the distance you’re at with someone through your communication patterns.
Regulating the Degree of Intimacy with Communication
In TA terms we’d say you regulate through the ego states you use. Traditionally we explain ego states as Parent, Adult, Child ego state and we talk about them as entities, conglomerates of patterns of thinking, feeling and behaviour. But to explain this degree of intimacy I usually talk about ego states in a different way.
We have a structural model with Parent, Adult, Child, but we also talk about the Parent showing two types of behaviour. So from the Parent ego state we show caring behaviours or nurturing Parent, and we show structuring behaviour from Critical Parent.
The Adult is not divided.
In the Child ego state, we talk about Rebellious Child or Adaptive Child, and we also talk about Free Child. Rebellious or Adaptive Child is really a reaction to the environment or to your inner Parent. The free Child is the spontaneous feeling you sometimes have in your most creative moments or the authentic feelings you get in moments of intimacy.
I have put these ego states in a grid. The vertical dimension is dominant/ submissive (up or down), and the horizontal dimension is close/far. Each ego state that we use creates a relationship that is more or less intimate depending on whether you dominate or are submissive. And whether you use it to be close or far.
For instance for those of you who know more TA, know about Critical Parent behaviour – don’t do that, that is wrong. That dominant behaviour creates distance. A nurturing Parent – what can I do for you, how can I care for you? What kind of behaviour is that? Well it’s still dominant or up but it creates closeness. So it’s something that creates intimacy. Someone needs help and you give it.
Let’s look at creating intimacy from the Child ego state. Well we say if you do adapted Child you adapt to a critical Parent or a nurturing Parent you say – yes, yes, yes, yes. It’s submissive. But you’re not really close when you do that because you’re probably showing a mask, adapting to the other instead of listening to yourself. So it’s submissive but it creates distance. Any time in a coaching relationship (but also your marriage) when you submit to someone you’re creating distance.
When we talk about the rebellious Child, someone who goes against the grain, who likes friction. They may say – Yes. But. But it’s not my fault. It is submissive, because you’re still adapting to whatever comes from the outside, and it also creates distance. It’s a mask, you’re not showing your true self and you’re not getting into a real relationship with someone, you’re creating friction.
Now what kind of behaviour would create intimacy? The free Child. It’s still a Child ego state but it’s linked to the authentic feeling, intimate, spontaneous. You look across the room and even if you don’t know someone there’s a spark of recognition – we could be playing together. I mean it in a childlike way. That kind of behaviour is not really submissive because you’re free, you’re not submitting to anything, you’re responding to an internal pure need. We call it the inner Child or the golden Child. It’s really on that central line. It’s not dominant and it’s not submissive but it creates a lot of intimacy.
Last night my friends were here and we were drinking a glass of wine and talking about when we met at university. We reminded ourselves of an adventure we had together and we looked at each other and just burst out laughing. Really free laughter about who we were and what we went through. And that creates an intimate moment. We call that a Free Child exchange of intimacy.
Then we have of course the Adult ego state which in its most iconic form could be Mr. Spock on Star Trek. You know, Lieutenant Uhura comes to him and says I’m in love and he says, Don’t worry it’s just a chemical reaction. This is the Adult’s factual problem solving, here and now response. More like a computer response. The Adult ego state is still a combination of thinking, feeling and behaviour. You can also feel an Adult as a reaction to the here and now.
The Adult ego state can create an intimacy of the mind, in the here and now. It’s not dominant, it’s not submissive, it doesn’t create closeness nor distance.
So remember, I was thinking about why I feel closer to some clients at the beginning and further from others, and why that intimacy goes up and down? I relate this to what kind of ego state we both use in communication to regulate the distance of the intimacy that we have. Critical Parent is dominant and distant, Nurturing Parent is dominant and close, Rebellious and Adaptive Child is submissive and distant or at least not close, and Free Child creates intimacy, Adults are more or less neutral.
When people show certain ego states in their communication they regulate intimacy. They also show me something about who they truly are. One of the curing things I think in executive coaching is that we teach to love unconditionally. We teach people that even though they can disapprove of some behaviour, they can still feel compassion for the person.