Back To Basics Executive Coaching Series – The Trash is Still In The House – Games People Play

My name is Sari van Poelje and I’m the CEO of Intact Academy. We give training programs for coaches and consultants all over the world, from beginner coach to team coach to organizational consultancy. My other business is Team Agility. I am an Agile Business Innovation Designer: I help companies innovate their business more quickly than their products. 

We’re looking at using Transactional Analysis as a tool in change, about ego states and transactions, redefinitions, discounting and racketeering. We’re now going to talk about games, psychological games. Eric Berne, the founder of TA wrote a book called Games People Play, a kind of dictionary for all the ways in which people get into conflicts and maintain their old stories.

Berne talked about games as a repetitive, non problem-solving, patterns of behaviour that always end with a known pay-off. 

It’s unconscious, it’s not something people decide to do, unless you’re a master manipulator. Games are non problem solving patterns of behaviour. They’re like the discussions you have at home about who’s going to take out the trash. 

“It’s your turn.” 

“No, it’s not. It’s raining outside. It’s not my turn.” 

“I cooked. It really is your turn.” 

“No, I cleaned the shoes.” 

“We’ve had this conversation before. That’s why we made a list, it really is your turn.” 

“I do everything in this household. I shouldn’t be taking out the trash as well.” 

“If you really loved me you’d take out the trash.” 

Then suddenly your conversation is about the quality of your love and relationships, and whether you should stay together and everyone forgets the trash. Both of you storm off, and you’re in your own corner repeating your own story: See nobody loves me. See, I always have to do everything for everybody. But the trash is still in the house.

This is what we mean by a non problem-solving pattern of behaviour.

The last bit of the definition is “ending in a known pay-off”. In a previous talk I discussed coaching as pattern interruption. A game is a non problem solving pattern ending in a known pay-off. The known pay-off is usually your favourite rotten feeling (which we call a racket feeling) plus your conclusions and beliefs about yourself, others and the world. 

Back to the discussion about the trash:

“Nobody really loves me.” This is, this is belief about self. 

“Other people never do anything for me.” Belief about others. 

“The world is a cruel place.” Belief about life or the world. 

And you walk off “sad”. That’s probably a racket feeling because the authentic feeling is probably anger. 

The other person meantime has stormed off with their beliefs:

“I always have to do everything around here.” Belief about self. 

“Nobody ever takes care of me.” Belief about others. 

“Life is lonely.” Belief about the world or life. 

Recognize that people set up games to end up with their pay-off because the pay-off is something they know. It’s like your conclusion about life from when you’re very young, and even though the environment changes your relational patterns might be repetitive. You know how to do these patterns, you’ve trained to do them all your life. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

We have the potential to change, but very often in life we choose people who play a role in our games. If you’re very lucky in a relationship, you become conscious of the games you play and you talk about it. You might decide to change or you might decide to continue, but at least you know why you’re doing them and what the underlying need is. 

Every known pay-off hides an underlying need. 

Everybody plays games. I’ve been in transactional analysis for 35 years and I still play psychological games sometimes. No matter how much you work on yourself, your first limbic reaction is that which you learned at a very young age.

What you can do through coaching, therapy or through learning TA is to learn a very quick second reaction so that you can recoup and do something that’s in the relationship in the here and now, instead of repeating the past. 

We talk about games as a way of redefining reality, a way to repeat your patterns. It’s important to remember that it’s unconscious, because otherwise it’s a pathway to blame and shame. If you understand that games are unconscious it’s an opening to continuing compassion, to understanding that people are fragile and that they’re repeating patterns because they haven’t experienced other ways of living. When someone storms off and and says, “Nobody ever loves me,” your heart should soften.

Of course that’s not the way a game works. When you’re in it, your heart hardens and you forget there are options. 

There are degrees of games:

  1. First degree games are mildly embarrassing. “Oh, I had a discussion about the trash, blah, blah, blah.” And everybody laughs a bit. 
  2. Second degree games are more embarrassing. You probably wouldn’t share it with your friends. It’s more repetitive and more vicious. Maybe in a marriage they always repeat the same kind of fight, but after a while your friends don’t really want to hear it and you don’t want to talk about it. 
  3. Third degree games, Berne said, always ends up in court or in the hospital or in the morgue. 

My belief is that psychological games or gaming is one of the things that cost organizations the most money because when people get into these patterns, for instance power games, it’s really a way to repeat a pattern and not think innovatively about new solutions.


Published On: March 6th, 2020By
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