Home/Back to Basics Executive Coaching Series – Recognizing ego states – alignment to change

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. 

I help leaders lead in a different way. Cooperate to innovate. Involve customers to think differently. Integrate commercial and innovation. 

I have coaching and consultancy schools in different countries to teach professionals to be agile and innovative. One of the tools we use for that is transactional analysis. Now, we talked about the structure of your personality as an archive. We talked about the functional ego states as a basis for communication. And now I want to talk about how you recognize when someone is in one of those states. Let’s talk about the four ways of recognizing how someone is in a certain ego state. 

Behavioral analysis – what are they doing?

The first way to recognize an ego state is through behavioral analysis, both verbal, the words and the tone, but also nonverbal, their posture, gestures, the way they look at you. 

For instance, someone who is using negative Critical Parent might ask you: “Why are you are wearing those shoes today?”. Perhaps with a raised finger, a piercing look, strong posturing, a firm tone of voice. This can be positive or negative. It might be needed or requested to give feedback. If not, it is actually quite oppressive.

In Adult ego state communication, you often see people with a balanced posture, looking straight ahead, with a more neutral tone. They will be very clear about what they’re saying, often have a concise factual way of speaking. 

How can you recognize the Nurturing Parent? In Nurturing Parent, you see metaphorically or literally people holding out their hands to you. The tone is softer. There’s often an inclination towards the person, you see a caring around the communication. 

Rebellious Child is when you see the energy, you hear them going against the grain. In Adapted Child you could see the tilted head, looking upwards, they’re making themselves smaller. The Free Child behavior can be really open, making eye contact, engaging with an inner enthusiasm, they seem free in their way of connecting, they are expressing an authentic feeling. 

Insert figure

Personality part Words Tones Gestures Postures Expression
Free Child Enthusiasm, I like, authentic expression feeling Energetic, playful, up Animated, lively Fluid, resilient Twinkly, lively
Adapted Child I will, What do you want? Soft,  Few Rounded shoulders, looking down Subdued
Rebellious Child Slang, Wow, I want Abrasive Energetic,  Moving about Joking on the outside
Adult What, when, how, will questions directed at information  Monotone Few Steady Expressionless
Structuring Parent Imperative directed at thinking Firm, non-critical Few Erect Expressionless
Nurturing Parent Nurturing, I appreciate, I am happy you’re here Warm, gentle Palms up Open, forward leaning Accepting, smiling


Social analysis: Your Reaction

You can also recognize what ego state someone is using through your reaction. If you can feel what ego state is triggered in you, when someone communicates. 

When people come from Critical Parent, the natural thing most people do is move into Adapted Child or Rebellious Child. So anytime you feel yourself tilting your head and making yourself smaller, or going into Rebellious Child, chances are pretty big that the other person is coming from Parent. It’s a complimentary ego state. 

When someone comes from positive Nurturing Parent, then the most natural reaction is to also go into Nurturing Parent or Free Child. Care begets care. If you feel yourself wanting to take care of someone when they take care of you, it’s probably their Nurturing Parent coming through. If it’s smothering instead of mothering, you probably go into Adapted Child, “I have to be grateful.” 

How do you recognize the Adult ego state in others? Probably because you go into Adult as well. When someone is factual, neutral, problem solving in the here and now, you’re invited into that state yourself. If someone asks, “What time is it?” You go, “It’s quarter to ten.” It’s very rare that the response to that question is, “Why the hell don’t you have a watch?” You know you’re going to have a really bad day if you respond that way. 

How do you recognize if people are coming from Adapted or Rebellious child? Well, either you also go there, or you go to Parent because that’s a complimentary state. If someone did respond rudely to the time question, you probably want to go into a Parental state, telling them that’s impolite. 


Historical Diagnosis – where does it come from?


The third way you know where someone is coming from is historical. Everything I’ve shown you so far is an exaggerated version of what you can expect in behavior or a reaction. But truth to tell, there are no formats. People react in a very personal way and you can only understand where they’re coming from historically. 

So, for instance, some people might seem on the outside to be reacting from negative Critical Parent, but historically, it might be understood in a different way. For instance, they might come from a family where their father always screams at them and reacting from Critical Parent was their only protection. So, even though they seem Critical Parent on the inside, it might be that it comes from Adapted Child. 


Phenomenological Diagnosis – showing yourself there and then in the here and now


I think everyone has had that experience that sometimes you see someone, and you see the reflection of who they were many years ago. We call that phenomenological diagnosis. You see them react in the way they used to react when they were 6, 12, 13. 

I recently went back to a reunion of my school. We hadn’t seen each other in 38 years, and yet when I looked at their faces, I recognized their facial expressions from 38 years ago. I saw them as they were then, and some of them still reacted as they were then, which is interesting. 

Sometimes you can recognize where someone comes from through them showing you as they were then. They kind of froze in time. This gives you many clues about what is needed developmentally to heal early trauma.




How do you know where someone is coming from in terms of ego states? 

  • Behavioural diagnosis: words, tone, gestures, posture, facial expressions. (frequency count)
  • Social diagnosis: From what ego state are you relating to the other? What does that say about the others’ ego state?
  • Historical diagnosis: What were you like as a child? How did your parents behave?
  • Phenomenological diagnosis: Re-experience of past with connected thinking, feeling, behaviour you had then and there.  

To be absolutely sure where someone is coming from in terms of ego states you need at least three checks.

Published On: November 5th, 2019By Categories: Leadership, Videos


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