Sari van Poelje

personal, expert, consultant, author, Speaker

Back to Basics Executive Coaching Series – The function of different communication styles – check the need or the contract — November 12, 2019

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. 

You invite people to become smaller than you. You keep that unequal balance. We talked about managing intimacy, and this is one of the dysfunctional ways of managing proximity or intimacy. Of course, sometimes you have to give negative feedback, but you don’t have to do it with the energy of trying to make people smaller. We’ll talk about that a bit later on. 

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. 

Back to Basics Executive Coaching Series – The Function of Ego States – How to communicate effectively — November 6, 2019

Back to Basics Executive Coaching Series – The Function of Ego States – How to communicate effectively

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. Intact Academy uses many different perspectives, including group relations, systems theory, family constellations, voice dialogue, but mainly we use transactional analysis. 

Last time we talked about your personality structure being like an archive with three drawers, Parent, Adult and Child. We talked about how consistent patterns of thinking and feeling, linked to patterns behavior get established during your lifetime. 

Today, I want to talk about how you use those drawers. So, the last time we talked about the structure of your personality, this time we’ll talk about the functionality. 

Last time we said, you have Parent, Adult and Child ego states.  Some of the patterns are inherited from your parents, some of it you develop in the here and now, some of them are learned in early childhood.  “OK, so if I have this in my archive, how do I communicate?”

We can use the ego state model to describe various styles of communication. Within T.A., we recognize five styles of communication. Two from Parent, two (or three) from Child and one Adult style. We call this the functional analysis of those states. It’s the difference between analyzing the car (structural ego states) and driving (functional ego states).

Using Parent ego states, we have two ways of communicating on the whole. One is called Critical Parent or Structuring Parent used to give directives. If I tell you: “Make 20 copies” using command voice that could typically come from the Structuring Parent. In Nurturing Parent, we could ask: “What can I do for you?”  A caring transaction, the empathic transaction. 

From the Adult, we’ve got a more factual way of communicating. So, it might be: How many copies do you want? And you’d answer: “Twenty” in a neutral tone of voice.  

From the Child ego state, we talk of two or three ways of transacting, depending on what school you follow. One way is transacting from Adaptive Child, so called because you are adapting to an external Parent or an internal Parent message. For instance, when someone says: “How do you do?” you perhaps automatically put out your hand because that’s what you’ve learned to do from your parents. Or when you cross a road, you look right, left, right, depending on what country you live in. So that’s Adapted Child behavior. 

We’ve also got a Rebellious Child style where you act against the external or internal Parent. For instance: “Why should I make the 20 copies (for you)?”  could be a typical Rebellious Child reaction. 

Lastly, we have the Free Child, so called because it is free from parental influence. So that means that you’re free to react spontaneously and autonomously and authentically from this inner feeling of connection. Sometimes you can look across the room and catch someone’s eye and smile with the joy of this connection. That’s typical Free Child. 

When we talk about communication within transactional analysis, we actually analyze:  from what ego state are you transacting? Each ego state has a different effect. 

Back To Basics Executive Coaching – It’s A Kind Of Magic: The Art And Science Of Executive Coaching — October 29, 2019

Back To Basics Executive Coaching – It’s A Kind Of Magic: The Art And Science Of Executive Coaching

It’s a Kind of Magic: The Art and Science of Executive Coaching


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 decided to go back to basics now after the summer and back to basics for me is really individual coaching and  executive coaching. I coach a lot of leaders, usually men over forty, who are at a crossroads in their career and their life. Sometimes they’ve gone up the ladder and they’ve developed patterns of behaviour that have brought them to that point but now they want a break through. Or they want to go to a different level but they don’t know how to do it. The other reason that people come to Executive Coaching is personally, they’ve become successful in their career and then they realize that they don’t really have a personal life anymore because they’re always busy working. They want to get that balance back. 

A lot of the coaching I do is through zoom, so I do distance coaching with executives all over the world. I might start as a mentor, become a coach and end up as a sparring partner. 

Sometimes people think what I do is magic. I guess for me Executive Coaching is kind of magic. It’s an art. But it’s also a science. 


Science or Art?


When you’re an executive coach it’s OK if you coach based on intuition. That’s the art part, the magic, but it’s really important that you use the science part, the discipline, too. The discipline part includes observing, interpreting, conceptualizing behaviour and then helping people to break out of patterns. What I teach my students in executive coaching and what I also explain to leaders who have to manage employees is the disciplined scientific part of coaching. You must build up a discipline of observation, interpretation, conceptualization and then intervention. And that sounds complicated but actually it’s not. It’s something that I practice all the time, every day. 




So to figure out what to do in executive coaching I first observe. For observation we use transactional analysis, because transactional analysis like no other model has concepts to think about patterns. So I observe. I observe how people talk to their peers, talk to their employees, talk to their bosses. I watch their mannerisms. 

I had a client just the other day who every time he talked about his boss started nervously twitching his pen and usually ticking very loudly on the desk. And I thought, that’s really weird, I’m going to see if this is a pattern or not. So I purposefully dropped in his boss now and then in our executive coaching, and every time he’d grab a pen and start ticking. 

I wonder what’s going on there. The reason he came into coaching was that he felt as if he was not being completely himself in his leadership role. After a time I asked him if he realized that every time we talked about his boss he started ticking with his pen. He didn’t realize he was doing it. Sometimes people have mannerisms where the unconscious betrays itself. 

I asked him to exaggerate what he was doing, and he started ticking much much louder with his pen. I said, What are you really doing? 

He said very softly, I want to beat him up. 

He told me about the experience he had the first week in the job, almost ten years earlier. As his boss introduced him to his new employees, his boss shared a confidential fact about his private life with all the staff. When he had discussed this with his boss he had never meant for it to be shared publicly. In his mind his boss publicly humiliated him. He felt a mixture of shame and rage.

This mixture of shame and rage came out every time he talked with his boss. This was something he had never spoken of, for the last ten years, which he still needed to repair in that relationship. This little kernel of rage and shame is why he started to hide himself, and not feel so free. 




Once we’d observed this behaviour we talked about the interpretation. 

He said, I still have this mixture of rage and shame, I felt humiliated. There’s still something there and it hinders me in my work. I feel like a very vulnerable balloon that’s about to burst every time my boss checks in.




In an earlier article we talked about the people regulate intimacy and proximity through the way they transact. Well this guy had decided to only talk from Adult and Critical Parent and create a dominant distant relationship with his employees. His employees saw him in his ivory tower, and felt they couldn’t really talk to him. 




Then we talked about what he could do as an intervention. What he could do to change that. 

He said, Well, what I really want to do with you is to practice other ways of being,  other ways of communicating. I want to use other ego states more. I want to transact in a different way. I want to communicate in a more intimate way with my employees. 

I asked him, You do realize the consequence of that is you’re going to have to let them get to know you? And he kind of blanched at that and got nervous, he said, I won’t be able to do that unless I resolve this with my boss first.

We did a lot of work on how he could give feedback to his boss about an incident that happened ten years ago that was still influencing his behaviour today. We worked on creating internal protection for him, because he’d never learned to do that for himself. 

After about three months work he was ready to have this conversation with his boss. He learnt a bit more about how to transact from different ego states, to create more intimacy in his relationships and his employees were already reacting well and expressing their appreciation. 

The big thing, of course, was this talk with his boss. We prepared it really well, we scripted it almost because he knew he was going to be really nervous when he came into that room with his boss. Fortunately, his boss had also been in coaching and had learned to reflect on his own behavior and accept responsibility. So when my client explained the issue, the boss did the right thing. He apologized profoundly for his behaviour, and asked what he could do to help and support my client. A beautiful reaction. My client was free. He’d been apologized to, he got the support of the boss that he needed, and he started to be a different boss at work.

In executive coaching we observe behaviour. We talk about interpretation – what does this mean? Then we use theory: how can we conceptualize and generalize this observation? Is this a pattern which is something that they use all the time or is it an incident? Is it a longer term pattern? 

One of our jobs as executive coaches is to interrupt the patterns that are not empowering an. So what could help you break out of the pattern? I believe a lot in sharing and partnering with my client in this observation, interpretation, conceptualization, and that’s why teaching TA to your clients is really helpful.

Back To Basics Executive Coaching – How Can A Bottle Of Champagne Change Your Leadership Style? — October 22, 2019

Back To Basics Executive Coaching – How Can A Bottle Of Champagne Change Your Leadership Style?

How Can A Bottle of Champagne Change Your Leadership Style?


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 do a lot of systemic work where I help large scale change to happen and I do a lot of work on teams, but I also do a lot of work in executive coaching. And one of the things in executive coaching is helping people to change their stories. We can’t change events because events are always in the past.  But we can help people change the stories around the events. It’s the interpretation of events that often hurts. 


Telling New Stories


One of our jobs as executive coaches is to interrupt these patterns and to help our clients create new stories using transactional analysis (TA). We’ve talked about people being made up of ego states in previous articles. Eric Berne, the founder of TA, talked about Parent, Adult and Child ego states, and the structure of personality. In a previous article we looked at the structure of ego states, with an archive of drawers that you open that contain millions of files, and you get to choose which files to use. We talked a little bit about how you use these patterns in communication to regulate intimacy. Within TA we also talk about transactions. That’s where transactional analysis comes from. We analyze transactions. 

People can communicate from any ego state. They can communicate from Critical Parent, don’t do that, or from Structuring Parent, we have 20 minutes, what do you want to do in that time? I can transact from Nurturing Parent, what can I do for you, what do you need from me? I could transact from Adult – what happened then? Do you know the facts? How many? When? What do you want to achieve today? Or we could work from a Rebellious or Adapted Child, If you wouldn’t believe anything they tell you what would you be doing? Or we could invite the Free Child, if you would really go inside and realize what you need and what you miss right now, what would you be asking for? 

These are all ways of transacting which we use in executive coaching. Some people wonder if we should preferably transact from Adult. And the answer is: no I don’t think so. If we would transact all the time as Adults, ask for facts, go into problem definition, and keep people only in the here and now, we would probably have a satisfying but very boring kind of executive coaching where people actually only access the things they already know. 

I could ask my client if they have a problem, if they have this often and keep asking for the known value system – what do you do and with whom do you do it. They might be able to find a little bit of solution for the problem but probably not something that’s lasting. So I always think  what can I use it to create a working alliance and really to help resolve problems longer term to create a sustainable solution for the client?


You Don’t Always Have To Transact Adult to Adult


They really need to delve into different ways of transacting, in different ego states, because each ego state has a piece of the puzzle. Each ego state knows something different about the same problem which could lead to an innovative solution. Each ego state has a different perspective of thinking, feeling and behaviour which could help them resolve the problem.

Part of what we do in executive coaching is interrupt a clients normal pattern or way of functioning. With executives their normal way of functioning is usually Critical Parent and Adult, so we interrupt and invite them into more exploration of other ego states. What is in the adapted Child, what is in the free Child, what is  in the Nurturing Parent that you’re not using today which could help you  interrupt the pattern of thinking feeling and behaviour that you usually use, and that is getting you into trouble? 

A client told me he’d been a leader for 20 years in a production setting, but he was getting a lot of criticism. People didn’t like working with him anymore. This man had never had coaching. He had never taken the time to really think about himself and to develop a reflective capacity. We talked about what he was doing and the way he transacted. I asked him what he did when under stress, for example when something goes wrong in the production line. How he talks to people. 

He said:  Well, I tell them what to do to correct the problem. Which is what a lot of leaders do. To be fair they’re very good at problem solving. From research we know leaders take a decision every two minutes. 

So then I asked what else he could use instead of working so hard himself. He said, Well I could ask questions. The predominant myth amongst executives is if they question their people when they know the answer it will take longer. The truth of the matter is in the short term it might take longer. But in the long term: they won’t come back so it’ll save you time. 

We trained his ability to ask questions, with the Nurturing Parent’s intentions and Free Child energy behind it. Allowing people freedom to explore or make mistakes but asking still from Adult, but in a different way, with a different intention. So, instead of telling people what to do (critical Parent Adult) he started practicing with this new style of Nurturing Parent and Free Child questioning.


Try it, be curious, see what happens…


I wanted to energize this guy. So I said: You’re going to try this for three months. If after three months it doesn’t work I owe you a bottle of champagne.

He went for it. He made notes about the transactions he did, the way he talked to his employees and he realized that he was the Critical Parent a lot of the time. He started to interrupt himself, and really use different ego states to transact. He started experimenting with questioning, reaching out through curiosity and creativity. And that was OK. 

He didn’t dare at the beginning to use a lot of Nurturing Parent. But as time went on he started to ask people questions like, What do you need from me to be able to solve this problem? And he realized after a while that it saved him a lot of time. It was a sustainable change that he encouraged in his employees. Needless to say I won the champagne! 

Back To Basics Executive Coaching – Regulating The Degree Of Intimacy — October 15, 2019

Back To Basics Executive Coaching – Regulating The Degree Of Intimacy

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.