Home/Back to Basics Executive Coaching Series – Redefinition Limits Change

Back to Basics Executive Coaching Series – Redefinition Limits 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 train coaches and consultants to be able to do this work, and for that, I use transactional analysis. 

We’re doing a series of videos on transactional analysis and how that helps leadership and coaching. We just talked about the five ways people maintain their own stories. , Let’s talk about redefinition first. 

Redefinition is when you distort your perception of reality to fit your own reality and your own story. 

For example, if I ask you a question “when” question and you answer with a “Who” response that’s a redefinition. For instance, I ask, “What time is it?” And you say, “Paul’s not here yet.” That’s a redefinition in its simplest form. 

Sometimes you see that in management, for example, when discussing a problem in a process and someone responds with a problem with a person. The whole conversation shifts to why, which is a competitive invitation instead of an invitation to solve the problem. These are all examples of redefinition, and before you know it, your conversation has tangentially moved to a different subject, a different object and a different space and time, and you end up with no problem solving. 

Redefining is a way in which you translate the reality to fit your own reality. We do that through through behaviour, and we redefine internally. 

Internal Redefinition of Reality

The internal mechanism by which you can redefine your reality occurs in three ways:

  1. Discounting : blanking out the stimulus, problem and options. For instance when you want to stop smoking you could be saying to yourself: actually I don’t smoke that much (stimulus), and anyway nobody has ever proven it causes disease (problem), I’ve tried everything bu nothing works for me (options)
  2. Grandiosity:  exaggeration or minimization of some aspect of self, others or the situation. For instance, DiCaprio standing on the bow of the ship of the Titanic just before it sinks, “I am the king. I can do everything.” Of course, grandiosity is something that a two year old should go through, this phase where you think you can achieve everything and you’re omnipotent. In real life, when leaders believe they are omnipotent, and can do anything, they may forget their work is based on the work of so many other people below them. 
  3. Over detailing or over generalizing, or both. For instance, if something happens to you and you say, “Why does this always happen to me?” Or someone else gets recognized for their work and you say, “I never get recognized for what I do.” These are examples of overgeneralizing or over detailing. If someone says never or always you know they’re caught up in their old story, and this will keep them from finding a solution.

Whenever people redefine by discounting, showing grandiosity, over-detailing or over-generalizing they are probably also showing up externally with gamey or scripty behavior.


  • External Redefinition of Reality


There are four ways we can see that you’re redefining on the outside, and that’s through your passive behaviours. 

  1. Doing nothing. When I was younger, my parents really wanted me to be a classical musician. They told me I could not have an instrument which was more jazzy. I, of course, wanted to play the saxophone, but they told me I had to play clarinet. It wasn’t until I was about 30 years old, one of my friends said to me, “Hey, wait a second, you don’t have to keep on complaining about this. You’re a grown up. You can buy your own saxophone.” I spent 20 years doing nothing about it. This is a typical example of passive behaviour, which helps it helps you maintain the reality you used to have.
  2. Over-adaptation. Over-adaptation in a leadership situation is visible when people say yes to your requests, and then do nothing. It may be a “yes but” transaction or an “OK, but I’ll never do it,” transaction. When people keep saying yes or they bow to what you say without actually voicing their own opinion or accounting for their own competence, you know they’re in passive behaviour, and maintaining their own reality.

Some leaders may mistakenly see this as a demonstration of their authority. If I were a leader and people say yes all the time and never question what I do, I’d start to question my own grandiosity. Just imagine if people over-adapt to you all the time as a leader, they’ll never be able to solve problems on their own. And that means they’re dependent on you. Which means that every time you turn your back or you leave, all the problems will still be there because you’ve never helped them to get out of there over adaptation to solve their own problems.

  1. Agitation. You can see agitation when people do things that are habitual but non problem solving. Agitation also means they push against your leadership boundary all the time. They question everything you do automatically. It’s the opposite of over-adaptation. When they’re complaining all the time I call that non-committed complaints. One of the things I teach my people when I’m a leader in a team is committed complaining. Committed complaining means you bring a solution at the same time as the complaint. 
  2. Violence or incapacitation. Violence or incapacitation sounds extreme. It does occur a lot in business. For instance, if an employee gets sick all the time or sabotaging instead of addressing the problems. 

In my personal coaching of relationships in teams I noticed that when people start to talk about unresolved  issues sometimes one of the partners gets starts blaming the other person, or starts blaming life. They can get quite aggressive about that. That’s one of the passive behaviours that keeps you in a pattern where you’re discounting, grandiose or over detailing in which you cannot face the reality of the here and now and actually solve your problem. 

Incapacitation is the flip side of violence. Violence is when you are overactive, and incapacitation is when you’re under active. For instance, people might get sick. Of course, people do really get sick, but sometimes people incapacitate themselves because they feel overwhelmed. I had one employee who every time I asked or something for an international project – which would extend her and challenge her to to to grow – she would get sick. At first I tried to give her more support because I thought she didn’t feel protected enough. But I realized after a while that every time she was challenged, she found a way to withdraw. Having a conversation about this pattern is then important.

In Summary

So there are five ways people keep the past in the present and not in the here and now problem solving mode. 

When you see any of these behaviours, when you’re a leader or coach, you know that people are not in a state to solve any problems. There’s something you have to do to get them into their Adult ego state before you can start problem solving. 

For more information read:

  • E. Berne. Games People Play: The Psychology Of Human Relationships, Penguin Books, 1964.
  • Existential Classification of Games, EC Stuntz, TAJ 1:4, Oct 1971
  • Options, S.Karpman, TAJ 1:1 Jan 1997
Published On: December 4th, 2019By Categories: Leadership, Videos


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