Home/Back to Basics Executive Coaching Series – The function of different communication styles – check the need or the contract
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.
One of the models we use is functional analysis of ego states. We want to teach people to communicate in a way that other people can hear. To be a master communicator, you have to adapt the ego state you’re using, to reach the other person from an ego state they can hear.
We talked about Structuring Parent, Nurturing Parent, Adult, Rebellious Child, Adapted Child and Free Child. So, what are the effects on communication when you transact from those different ego states?
Structuring Parent: Let’s start with the critical parent or structuring parent. Pretend you have a puppy and you have to teach it how to sit. You don’t say to a puppy, “Please sit down. How do you feel about it?” You actually say, “Sit!” You use your critical parent or structuring parent voice. There’s a certain command voice to it, it has a certain look to it. It’s directive. There’s a force behind it and it’s very clear that you’re setting a boundary. That’s what you use Critical Parent for.
The positive thing about using this Critical Parent: you create clear boundaries and direction. So, the Titanic is sinking – you don’t ask people would they would like to go? You say, “Go to the lifeboats!” That’s a really positive function of critical parent.
However, if you overuse Critical Parent, it becomes dysfunctional because it means you’re always going after your employees with a raised finger, telling them what’s wrong and where they’re missing things. When you give a report back and everything is underlined in red ink, that’s a really bad use of critical parent.
Nurturing Parent: sounds really great, it’s empathic, caring, it’s nurturing. That’s the positive side. A Nurturing Parent might say:” What can I do for you? Are you feeling OK? Would you like a chair?”
This is functional as long as there’s a need or a contract for it. If someone is falling down and you offer them a chair, there’s an obvious need. If someone has told you they’re not feeling well, and you give them a chair, then there is a contract. Using Nurturing Parent in these situations is a really good thing.
However, when you overuse nurturing, when you start caring for people when there is not a contract and not a need, it can have a negative effect. It’s the difference between mothering and smothering. When you give care when people have not expressed a need for it or not contracted for it, it makes you the one who knows what’s right for them.
In a management situation, it’s great to have your door open for people so you can take care of them. It’s not so great when you give them care when they don’t need it because that means you’ve stopped them from developing.
Adult ego state: The positive side is giving information, giving facts and reiterating things so that people go back to what’s real and what’s here and now.
During the last financial crisis, people came to coaching and said: “I’m really scared, I’m going to lose money.” And I’d ask them questions from the Adult ego state: “Have you lost any money? Is there any indication that you’re going to be badly affected by the crisis?” I sometimes find that people aren’t communicating in the moment. They act from something they’re scared of in the future, that hasn’t happened yet. Coaching using Adult is about asking questions what, how, when, who to bring people back into this Adult state where they can process real time, here and now information, and check the facts.
Of course, if you would use Adult all time, life would likely get really boring – everything would become factual. I remember watching Star Trek. In one episode Lieutenant Uhuru said to Mr. Spock, “I’m in love.” And Mr. Spock replied, “It’s just a hormonal imbalance of one-point two percent.” This is an example of how using Adult is a great thing, but if you only use Adult, it can become pretty tiresome and bothersome and stop people’s natural expression.
Adapted Child: This communication style is good because it allows you to follow rules and hierarchy. Look right, left, right, when you cross the street, that’s a pretty darn good use of adaptive child. If you don’t use it, you’re bound to get run over. Adapted Child can be dysfunctional when you do it automatically. When you always adapt whatever people say. If someone asks, “Do you want tea or coffee?” You respond, “Oh, I don’t mind. You choose.” That’s a dysfunctional way of using Adapted Child, because you’re not being autonomous. You’re not using all your ego states to function in the world.
Rebellious child: In business, using Rebellious Child is a very energetic way of showing opposition or protest. If we didn’t have that Rebellious Child nothing would change. Look at the climate warning protests and Greta Thunberg. Think about how she uses Rebellious Child in a positive way to really tip the balance in the system and create an opening for something new.
Of course, in some cultures it’s not used enough, and in some cultures too much. Too much happens when we use Rebellious Child to block initiatives. When you hear someone say, “Yes, but…” all the time or when people automatically go against the grain or against structure or against authority without thinking. Then it becomes a dysfunctional type of communication.
Free child: When you use Free Child too much, it usually becomes negative rebellious child. This free inner child or the golden child, is a part of you that reacts spontaneously and authentically to whatever stimulus is out there. A Free Child transaction could be when you just burst out laughing, when you see someone and fall in love. When you are genuinely hurt or sad and you cry.
Yesterday, I was giving dance classes and I could see people really discovering their Free Child in movement. I could see their faces light up. Free child is relational. It goes beyond any culture, beyond rules. It’s something to treasure. And it’s something people sometimes unfortunately lose on their way to adulthood.
What does this all mean in business communication? We’ll talk about that next time.