Sari van Poelje

personal, expert, consultant, author, Speaker

Back to Basics Executive Coaching Series – How To Get Out of Psychological Games — March 27, 2020

Back to Basics Executive Coaching Series – How To Get Out of Psychological Games


My name is Sari van Poelje I’m the director of Intact Academy. We give training programs for coaches and consultants all over the world, from beginning coach to team coach to organizational consultant. At the moment we run team coaching training programs in five different countries. You can find them on My other business is Team Agility. I am an Agile Business Innovation Designer: I help companies innovate their business more quickly than their products so that they’re always on time to market. 

We’re recording a series of videos to teach you about transactional analysis. We use TA in executive coaching and team coaching because it’s simple, easy to understand and easy to transfer. Clients love it. In this series we’ve been talking about ego states, transactions, games, rackets. This time I want to talk to you about how to get out of conflict or psychological games. 

Last time we talked about the Formula G, which explains how you get INTO conflict or psychological games. Every conflict follows the same steps. You have stress. You do ulterior transactions. You have a moment of cross up, where the monkey comes out of the sleeve. And then the conflict ends in a payoff, your favourite rotten feeling linked to your basic assumptions about yourself, others, and life. 

This time we’re going to talk about how to get out of conflict or how to get OUT of psychological games.

How to get out of conflict:

We’re going to cover three principles: 

  1. Why do people play games, and are there ways to diminish your possibility of getting into games? 
  2. Can we use Formula G to look at each step to see if there’s an option or exit? 
  3. Do we switch roles? And are all roles bad?

Why do people play games in the first place? 

Eric Berne said there were six advantages to playing games, and if we invert those we’ll have six ways to get out of games as well. 

1. Unconditional Recognition

We play games and get into conflict because it’s a way to get a lot of recognition and attention. Anytime we’re into a conflict, it feels like you’re the only people on the planet engaged in this really intense conversation. It’s a source of what we call strokes. Negative recognition is better than no recognition at all. So if people can’t get positive recognition, they go for the negative ones and get into conflict, because at least in conflict you’re sure to feed that hunger. Berne called this the biological advantage.

One of the tricks to stay out of games is to stay out of stress. A great way to stay out of stress is to make sure you’ve got enough recognition in your life. 

QUESTION 1: Do you have people in your life or colleagues who actually see you and give you strokes for who you are and what you do? 

We call that unconditional recognition. If your tank is full then the chances of getting into conflict are minimized. If you don’t have unconditional recognition, where could you get it? You can ask for it. There’s a myth that if you ask for recognition it’s worth less than if you get it spontaneously. Well, I can tell you that’s not true. In society it seems that there’s not enough recognition to go around, so we give it out sparingly. But the truth of the matter is, it’s very easy to give recognition. You see someone on the bus, they’ve got a nice sweater on. You could go up to them, and say, gosh, I really like your sweater, without it meaning anything else except an exchange of compliments. That person’s day is better and so is yours. 

RULE 1: If you want to stay out of conflict, make sure your tank of recognition is full and that you also give other people recognition for who they are or what they do. 

2: Confirm Basic Assumptions

Berne said a second reason that people get into conflict is because it confirms the basic assumptions they have about themselves. He called that an existential benefit. Last time we talked about the anecdote of people wanting to put out the trash and them ending up fighting about their relationship: “If you love me enough, the trash would have been outside.” Well, if you are caught in a loop of confirming your basic assumptions about yourself, others, and life, then the chances of getting into conflict are very high. Some people go around life wanting to reconfirm: “Nobody loves me,” or, “The world is a difficult place,” or, “It always happens to me.” 

The trick is to really be open and curious, and you might  find out that life is actually different from what you think. That can be in small things, random kindness, for example. So if people hold open the door for me, I’m really happy about that. If a restaurant offers me an extra drink, wonderful. This only happens if you’re curious and open to life being different than you think it is. 

QUESTION 2: Are you open to life being different, to being surprised about what life can bring? 

What would life be for you if you decided that you were open to something else? The chances of getting into conflict might be much lower. 

RULE 2: Be open and curious.

3: External Psychological Advantage

The third reason Berne said we get into conflict is because it gives us an external social advantage. Sometimes people get bored and when they’re bored they look for a degree of stimulus. So what do they do? Well. Intimacy is one source of stimulus, but people think it’s scarce. So what they can do is they start a fight. 

You can see that in kids. When they’re bored, they escalate until you start to fight with them, because that’s a way to relieve boredom and to get their social advantage of passing time without really having to accomplish anything. 

QUESTION 3: Are you bored?

I’m often called into teams where they’ve had six managers and they don’t have enough to do. The myth is that people need to reduce work pressure when they’re under stress or in conflict. Well, I think you need to up the ante. Set a new purpose and a new challenge for a team, and they might have to work harder and get into conflict less because they have something to do. They ‘ll simply have less time to get into conflict. 

RULE 3: If people get into conflict to relieve boredom then increase your demands on them. 

4: A Sense of Pseudo Intimacy

Remember, when you’re in a conflict with someone it feels like you’re the only two people in the world. Everything else disappears and suddenly you’re completely focused on this other person. It’s better to have pseudo intimacy than no intimacy at all in your life. People replay old relationships during a conflict, becoming top dog, victim or rescuer.  And every time you get into a conflict and you replay those roles, you feel pseudo intimacy. 

The great thing about being an adult is there are no rules. You can create any life you want to. And one of the decisions you can take is: “I’m not going to go for pseudo intimacy anymore. I want real intimacy”. So another way to get out of games is to really make sure that you have a couple of really close relationships in your life because the nourishment you get from that will help you diminish your hunger for conflict. 

QUESTION 4: Do you have nourishing, close relationships?

I don’t see conflict as a negative thing. You can have positive conflict, where one and one leads to more than two. However, psychological games are non-problem solving patterns of behaviour, which means that you loop your past in your present. 

I had an ongoing gamey friction with a colleague for 20 years. I called him up last year and said, “I don’t even remember why we are in conflict. Can we go have a cup of coffee somewhere and talk it over?” And we started to talk. And we found out we share loads of values. Now he’s my best buddy. We’re going to work together. It’s fantastic what real dialogue can do. 

RULE 4: So my invitation to you is if you’re in conflict, look to love. Look for those moments of pseudo intimacy that you can switch into moments of real intimacy. 

5: Avoid Solving Problems

Another reason people get into psychological games is because they want to avoid solving their problems. This sounds really psychological, but it’s a way to avoid situations that challenge your frame of reference. 

Every time someone offers you a hand and you go, oh, no, my life is not like that, you start a conflict about it. Why did you give me your hand and why did you do it now? Oh, you’re too close. It’s a way to recapture that frame of reference that you have your belief about yourself, others, and life. 

QUESTION 5: What status quo are you protecting?

There’s almost a biological need to maintain status quo in your life because it’s predictable and anything that’s predictable costs you less energy. But being predictable when it’s good is a very different story from being predictable when it’s bad. If you want predictability because life is bad, then it’s time to recalculate and rethink your frame of reference. Ask yourself: Is this really true? Maybe your life has been like that. And maybe there have been events in which you’ve experienced that life is not so difficult. Or maybe you experience that people have betrayed you or done things that have trespassed your boundaries. Or maybe you have experienced moments where you thought you weren’t competent or good enough. And the truth of the matter is, every day is a new day. And every day you can rethink what frame of reference to have. Take a piece of paper and write down what you think in your unprotected moments, in the darkest time of night. What do you believe about yourself, others, and life? Are you prepared to let that go? And what would happen if you would let that go? What will life be like? 

RULE 5: Challenge your own frame of reference, because sometimes life is different than you thought it was. 

6: Internal Psychological Advantage

Berne said sometimes it’s easier to create pain in the here and now to then to feel the pain that you had before. It sounds a bit strange, but sometimes people create pain in the here and now because they’re in control. When you were young you weren’t in control, you were dependent and you had no control about the pain you got. All of us, no matter how good our pasts are, no matter how wonderful our parents were, have had moments where we’ve lost contact with self and others. 

You’ve experienced pain. All of us have. But sometimes that pain is so severe that a child  decides that they’d rather have control of the pain, so they create situations in which they create pain because then they are the locus of control. And that’s much easier than feeling powerless or impotent or not in control.

QUESTION 6: What old pain are you avoiding?

It’s easier to create a fight than to feel the depressive state that goes with a bad experience. To really change, you have to go into a what we call a depressive state where you relive the pain. And some people don’t want to do that. So they create conflict before they can feel that depressive state. But if you don’t feel that depressive state about what you missed and what the hurt was, you can never change. 

RULE 6: Feel the old pain and embrace it.

If you don’t embrace the old pain it’s really hard to open your frame of reference to not being in conflict.

To summarise, Berne said there are six advantages to being into conflict:

  1. Internal psychological advantage, which means that it’s easier to create pain in the here and now. 
  2. External psychological advantage, which means that you avoid situations that challenge your frame of reference. 
  3. Internal social advantage where you have pseudo intimacy, which is better than no intimacy at all. 
  4. External social advantage where you pass time because you’re bored. 
  5. Biological advantage. It’s a source of recognition. Negative recognition is better than no recognition at all. 
  6. Extent social advantage where you confirm your frame of reference, your belief about self, others and the world. 

I’ve given you in this talk some ways to get out of that. And I hope you’ll use it to your advantage. 

Further Reading

Options, Stephen Karpman, MD :

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Back To Basics Executive Coaching Series – How To Stay in Your Old Games – Formula G Enhanced — March 20, 2020

Back To Basics Executive Coaching Series – How To Stay in Your Old Games – Formula G Enhanced

Back To Basics Executive Coaching Series – How To Stay in Your Old Games – Formula G Enhanced

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

One of the tools we use to help people change is called transactional analysis or TA for short. We’ve been talking about ego states, the building blocks of personality, how people communicate effectively. Now we’re talking about how people stay in their old stories without solving their problems. One way is to racketeer, another is discounting.

We talked about games as an unconscious, non problem solving, patterns of behaviour that lead you to a known pay-off. Eric Berne, the founder of TA, talks about psychological games using his Formula G or formula games. Every conflict or game follows the same pattern, which is lucky for us because it makes it much easier to recognize when you’re in a game. 

Step1: The precursor is stress. At the moment of stress your brain already shrinks, the field of options becomes much smaller, you go into survival mode, and when you’re into survival mode, under stress, you automatically go to old patterns. 

Step 2: Exchange of Ulterior Transactions. Under stress people can move to transactions with an ulterior meaning. On the surface they look innocent and complimentary, for example: “Where did you leave my socks this time, darling?” But anyone who listens carefully and notices the non-verbal communication knows that it means something else. It might mean keep your hands off my stuff, or why do you always move my socks? This is a transaction with an ulterior meaning. These ulterior transactions can escalate if people are very set on having a game.

We can use the drama triangle model to explain the three types of ulterior transactions. 

We each have a favourite plan A and a plan B.

People start games with either a Persecutor, Victim or Rescuer. Imagine that the ulterior motive to start a game is like a fishing rod. At the end of the fishing rod there’s really good chocolate. People who are stressed and want to get rid of their stress walk around fishing until someone takes the bait. Now in games conflict feels really personal, but in actual fact, anyone could take the bait. 

There are three types of chocolate, let’s start with the persecutor. 

Persecutor: A stressed person might go around blaming or criticizing other people. It ties in with the four horsemen of the apocalypse from last time, too. This contempt or continuous criticism, we call persecution. Persecution is when you point out what’s wrong without there being a need to or a contract for it. 

If I wrote a report and asked you to point out what I missed, and you returned the report with comments in the margin, because that was our agreement, you’re keeping a contract, it’s not persecution. But if I gave you the final version, and you sent it back with everything underlined in red, with spelling and grammatical mistakes marked up without there being a contract for it or a need for it, that’s persecution.

Rescuer: The other way to start a game is by fishing to rescue people. So a rescue is when you give help when there’s no need or contract. As a leader if I lean over your desk and take over, when you never asked for help and there’s no need for it, that’s what we call Rescuing. 

Victim: The third way to start a game is by playing the Victim. A Victim is someone who often discounts their own competencies. They’re usually good at asking for help. That’s the positive side. But the problem is a Victim is someone who invites help both consciously and unconsciously without there being a need or a reason for it. 

I shouldn’t be telling you this, but when I had a flat tyre and my neighbour came out  I told him I didn’t know how to change a tyre. And he did. I played the Victim though it was quite conscious, because I do know how to change a tyre. He felt good about it. I gave him a bottle of wine afterwards. 

Step 3: Escalate. To summarise Formula G: you’re in stress and you start a game through an ulterior transaction. You say something on the surface, but underneath you’re doing something else probably from a Persecutor, Rescuer or Victim role. This escalates and at a certain moment someone takes the bait. 

According to Berne’s Formula G there’s an X in the formula, a moment where we say in Dutch that the monkey comes out of the sleeve. The ulterior motive comes to the surface. It’s like being at the centre of the storm. At that moment, people have a choice. They can either leave the game or they continue the game. 

Step 4: The Pay-off. If they keep on biting that bait, they usually continue to the pay-off. In Formula G the pay-off is when you end up with your favourite rotten feeling or your racket and you confirm your beliefs about yourself, others and life. For instance in the argument about who takes out the trash one person storms off feeling sad and thinking “Nobody loves me”  and “The world is a lonely place”, while the other storms off feeling angry and thinking”I always have to do everything around here”.

All of us play games. The way that games happen is you start in stress, you go through the four steps of Formula G ulterior meanings, escalation to the X with a moment of silence and then pay-off. Once you’re in the pay-off, you also have options, which we’ll talk about later. 

I want you to know and recognize when you are playing games. What kind of stress gets you in that game? What is your favourite chocolate at the end of your fishing rod? And where do you end up? Because sometimes people start with the fishing rod with great chocolate, but they end up in a different role. So notice that in the coming week and we’ll speak later.

Back To Basics Executive Coaching Series – The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — March 16, 2020

Back To Basics Executive Coaching Series – The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Back To Basics Executive Coaching Series – The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

My name is Sari van Poelje 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. 

One of the tools I use is Transactional Analysis. We’ve been doing a series on the various concepts, and now we’re talking about psychological games. Psychological games are unconscious, non problem-solving patterns of behaviour that lead to a known pay-off. Games are the thing that costs organizations and marriages most, and affect our quality of life. 

As an executive coach I frequently dealt with people who want coaching to become a better leader or to help change the organization. Often by the fourth or fifth session they become a bit pensive, and tell me their marriage isn’t going so well either. Of course in real life private life and work life isn’t that separated. The patterns you have at work very similar to the patterns you have at home. 

One of the things that cost businesses the most both psychologically and financially is the fact that people play psychological games with each other. 

One of the things the Gottman’s talk about [1] is the relational patterns that get people into trouble. They can predict how long couples will stay together by measuring transactional patterns. His work doesn’t isn’t only applicable to marriages, but also or your relationships at work. 

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse at Work

  1. Criticism: Gottman talks about people who constantly criticize each other, we call that racketeering in transactional analysis. Constant criticism gets people into what we call a plus/minus position. One is the Persecuter and the other is the Victim. At a certain moment, of course, people don’t take it anymore, and so the roles switch and the game escalates. That’s usually the reason couples divorce, or leaders derail. 
  2. Defensiveness: If your partner says “You ‘re always on your computer, you’re preparing your work for tomorrow. We’ve got a lot going on, with a young family and we were in love. Where are you?” A defensive response might be: “You don’t understand. We could never have this lifestyle if I didn’t work so hard.” This leads to redefining and discounting, and not actually addressing what’s happening in the dialogue. 
  3. Contempt: Contempt is when you say, for example, “Oh, you’re always or you’re never….” When you show contempt you don’t respect the other person equally. In TA you are showing that you feel that the other person is not okay or in any case that you are more OK. Constant contempt or the expression of contempt is one of the predictors of a breakdown in a relationship both in marriage and at work. I remember when I was the talent development director at a company and I asked why Peter, who was very good at his job and had been doing it well for a long time, hadn’t been promoted. One of the board members said, “Well, you can’t promote Peter, 20 years ago he dropped a screwdriver in a machine. Those machines cost £20 million. So we can never promote him.” For twenty years this poor guy who dropped a screwdriver in the machine when he was 19 hadn’t been promoted. 
  4. Stonewalling: A very clear sign of gaming in a relationship is stonewalling. You can tell by the amount of relational bids people make whether the relationship is good or bad. Children naturally make relational bids, “Oh mommy, I love you,” constantly looking for touch, both real and symbolic. If a relationship is really good between adults you see a lot of relational bids too. When a relationship breaks down, you see that the amount of relational bids goes down dramatically.


These four horsemen of the apocalypse are the portals into a psychological game or are signals of ongoing games. If you want to break through you have to start at the highest level of discount – see the previous article for more detail. 

[1] The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship ExpertPaperback, May 16, 2000, John M. Gottman, Nan Silver


Back To Basics Executive Coaching Series – The Trash is Still In The House – Games People Play — March 6, 2020

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

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.


The Game Of Teams Interview — March 3, 2020