Sari van Poelje

personal, expert, consultant, author, Speaker

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.

Back to Basics Executive Coaching – You Always Have A Choice: Which Drawer Will You Open? — October 11, 2019

Back to Basics Executive Coaching – You Always Have A Choice: Which Drawer Will You Open?

You always Have a Choice: Which Drawer Will You Open?


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. 

It’s after the summer and I decided to go back to basics. Back to basics is working with individuals in organizations. We do a lot of work on teams and big scale change but really the basis of our work is working with individual leaders so that they can influence the quality of life of all the employees in the organization. 

The model I use for executive coaching is called transactional analysis. TA was developed in the 1950s by a guy called Eric Berne and has been flourishing ever since, because it’s very practical and easy to explain to your clients as well. It gives models with which you can recognize behavioural patterns and help people change them. And that’s our job as executive coaches. 

Ego States


One of the basic concepts that we use is called ego states. An ego state is a pattern of thinking and feeling, linked to a pattern of behaviour. Read more here: Coaching with Transactional Analysis: ego states

We distinguish the Parent, Adult and Child ego states. 

Parent: The Parent ego state contains the patterns of behaviour thinking and feeling that you inherited from your Parental figures. It could be your biological Parents or it could be any other Parent figure, teachers or mentors.

Child: The Child ego state contains the pattern of thinking and feeling linked to the pattern of behaviour that you learned as a Child, to survive your Childhood as it were. Sometimes it’s a reaction to what you lived through in your environment. 

Adult: The Adult ego state contains the patterns of thinking and feeling linked to a pattern of behaviour that is rooted in the here and now experience and your current level of competency. So that could be you at five years old or you are 20 or you 60 years old. It contains all the competencies you have to deal with the here and now. It’s also the mediator between the Parent patterns and the Child impulses. 

For example: What should I do? What would I like to do? This is what I’m going to do, is a typical example of Parent, Child and Adult response. We do that every day all the time. 

You have a lot of patterns of thinking, feeling and behaviour in your Parent which are very useful in the world today. They are functional because they give you empowerment, permission, potency and protection. Some are less empowering, because they inhibit expression or growth.

You can think of this structure of ego states as the structure of your personality. You’ve got Parent which contains the program of your parents, Child which is your pattern of thinking, feeling and behaviour that you learned in your childhood, and you’ve got Adult. You can also think of them as your archive.


Ego States are Stored for Easy Retrieval


Imagine an archive, one of those old fashioned wooden ones, with three drawers. You can think of the top drawer as the Parent drawer, the middle drawer as the Adult and the bottom drawer as the Child. When something happens in your life you go immediately back to this archive, you pull open one of your drawers and when you open that drawer there are millions of files in there. Along the way you learnt millions of ways to think and feel and act and all of these files are linked together. 

For instance, if someone holds out their hand and says, How do you do? your Parent programming says, Oh I’ve learned how to do this, and you immediately hold out your hand and shake their hand as well. This is a Parental pattern you’ve learned. 

Sometimes you come into a group and some people have learned to be scared of groups in their family of origin perhaps, so they come in, open their Child drawer: Oh no! I think groups are scary, I feel scared, I’m going to sit in the corner. 

If you think of your structure of personality as a conglomerate of Parent, Adult, Child ego states and if you think of that as your archive which you open now and pick out patterns that you will use in a current situation you’ve got a very good picture of an ego state model. 

Now sometimes when you open the drawers and there are millions of patterns in there, but we’re kind of lazy, so most people pick the patterns that are at the beginning of the file. Your brain is lazy. It’s used to selecting the things you use most. But you’ve got millions of files in there. Sometimes you’ve got to reach back a little bit and find a file which is more appropriate to the time today. 

This is one reason why people do what they do – they have these files but they pick the ones they’re most use to. I’m thinking of my friend who’s basically married the same woman four times, but each time in a younger version. They pick the file that’s at the beginning of the drawer. 


Red or Green?


You can also imagine this archive as a conglomerate of millions of folders, where some of them are RED and some of them are GREEN. And because we have what Freud called repetition compulsion we are apt to pick the patterns that are somewhat red because it validates our patterns. 

I had a client who, every time she did a project had great results but it was always too late. Every time she delivered a project late she’d get a scolding from her manager. She came to me for coaching to figure out what she was doing. We looked at this archive of the three drawers and their red and green patterns of thinking, feeling and behaviour. I asked her what happens when she starts a project. She responded: Well, I opened the Child file and I look in there and I think it’s really exciting, but I have to do well because I’ll get punished. 

I asked if that file was red or green and what it said. 

Well I think it’s red. If I open that file it says: “You have to do well because else your Parents won’t love you”. But at least if I get punished I get attention….

This seems like a really extreme example but we all have these files that we use at work or in private life. I asked her how she felt. 

Oh, I’m scared and I’m really a little bit sad as well. 

I asked her what kind of energy being sad and scared brings to her project. 

Well I’m not fully there. I don’t use everything, all my full potential because I’m also busy with this kind of internal conversation.

I asked her to look in her Parent drawer to see if she had red or green files there. The first file she picked was red. 

I have green files but I don’t use them. This red file is about my father. He said: If you don’t do well in life you’ll never do better than I did.

And she started to cry.

That’s a burden but it’s also a huge permission to do well. She never saw it that way. We talked a little bit about her father. She told me he started from nothing, left home when he was very young, built his own business and was very successful. But he told her that going from nothing to being someone is a very hard route. He taught her that she always had to work hard. But she didn’t always want to work hard so she didn’t always obey.

She didn’t see it as a permission, she saw it as a limitation. 

At some level she was still protesting against this limitation instead of taking it as permission. 

Our personality is built up of ego states – Parent, Adult, Child – and you can think of that as an archive. And when you think of it as an archive you can imagine that you’ve got millions of possibilities of behaviour. Sometimes you’re lazy you pick the ones to hand, which might confirm your old story. And sometimes you pick RED. But you have the choice! You can pick something that’s further back in your drawer, and you can always pick green. 

Leadership Coaching – The sequence of your life — July 9, 2019

Leadership Coaching – The sequence of your life

Leadership Coaching – The sequence of your life

My name is Sari van Poelje and I’m an expert in business innovation. I help businesses innovate more quickly than they innovate their products to accelerate their time to market. One of the tools I use for that is leadership coaching or leadership team coaching. In leadership coaching I really focus on silences, sequences and stories. I want to say something about sequences and life scripts.

One of the levels of pattern recognition or sequence recognition is what we call the life script. A life script is an unconscious pattern of behaviour that you learned in early childhood which was confirmed by your parents or events, and ends in a well-known payoff.

When you ask people: what do you think will be on your tombstone? Leaders answer something like: “I worked so hard, yet here I am.” Or, “I forgot what was important” or, “I accomplished a lot but my wife left me.” I often have to coach leaders who are caught in their life script.

Recently I had a female leader and she started off by telling me that she had a new leader. I said, “Oh, that sounds like news?” and she said, “Yeah, but it’s a female leader. And I can’t work for a woman.”

“Why can’t you work for a woman?”

She said: “Oh it’s just impossible. Women are impossible.”

I asked her what would happen if she worked for a woman.

She said: “We’ll get into a fight. I know that for sure.”

“How do you know that for sure?” So we went back bit by bit in her life script story and I probed when was this taking place for her.

She said, “It’s my mother. I never had a good relationship with her and I just think I couldn’t work for a woman because of that.”

I asked what happened between her and her mother, and she told me that when she was 26 she got married, but her mother didn’t go to the wedding, and that’s how she knew her mother didn’t love her.

I probed further.

When she was 22 she was the first in her family to succeed at university but her mother wasn’t there for her diploma ceremony, so she knew her mother didn’t love her. I went back in time and asked when was the first time she thought this.

She said: “Well, when I was very young I had to do communion in the Catholic Church. I was dressed in white and I had these shiny black shoes on and I went to up to my mother, I stood in her bedroom doorway as she was sitting behind her makeup table, and I said to her, ‘Mama, mama, look at me. I look so beautiful!’ and my mother said to me, ‘No, look at me I’m beautiful.’ And that when I knew my mother didn’t love me.”

“But now you’re an adult. What do you think about this?”

“Well, I don’t know. I remember that my father had just died the year before. My mother was really sad.” I asked my client to remember what else was going on in the preparation of my communion. “My mother had gone to church and at church she met a man who was the father of another little girl who was doing communion. I think they really liked each other.”

I said to her, “Well you’re a grown up woman now. What do you think was going through your mother’s mind?”

“I think my mother was really nervous because she was going to meet this guy again when I was going to church to do my communion. Ha. Now I realize what she was doing was really telling me we’re women together and we’re both beautiful but I’m really nervous.”

I said, “So how does that make you feel?” And she started to cry. She hadn’t realized that her mother was a human being too. “Now when you think about it what does this mean for you as a leader?”

She thought: “I feel much better about working for a woman now. Maybe now I can do something that I was never able to do with my mother.”

When I work with leaders I always look for the script. The script is really the pattern of life that people have decided when they’re very young to survive, but which may not be very functional at this moment in time. What I often see is that people repeat old stories that aren’t necessary in their life today.

The life script concept really helps me see the pattern of life that we need to interrupt, to have a better life and to become a better leader.


Leadership Coaching – Respect rank but relate as equals — July 2, 2019

Leadership Coaching – Respect rank but relate as equals

Leadership Coaching – Respect rank but relate as equals

I’m Sari van Poelje, and I’m an expert in business innovation. I help businesses innovate more quickly than their products, so that you’re time to market is accelerated. One of the things that really helps is leadership team coaching. What I pay attention to in this coaching is usually silences, stories and sequences.

In the last video we talked about the sequence of ego states.

What I’d like to talk about now is the sequence of relationships and communication. Sometimes I notice that leaders are really stuck in certain relational patterns. So for instance they find themselves top down.. Yes in position and rank you are perhaps more ‘top’ but in terms of relationship I think a good leader should be at an equal level with her people, else you don’t promote initiative or leadership in your employees.

What we teach people in leadership team coaching or leadership coaching is really to recognize the difference in rank but to communicate and relate in equality.

So what do I use for this? Well first of all it’s really good if you can distinguish if people are an equal or higher or lower level, as a leader. We often see that leaders create what we call symbiotic chains. It’s as if they position themselves on top, and they’re the ones thinking for the organization, and they expect their employees to just execute what they think. That means that employees are excluding their Adult and Parent function, and the leader is probably excluding their Child ego state.

Neither is a very healthy position to be in. When you exclude your Child ego state, everything that’s intuitive, feeling, spontaneous, relating, intimate in your life, that means you become a kind of a robot thinker who has values and norms but doesn’t feel very much. Not a good place for a leader to be.

When employees exclude their Parent and Adult ego state they’re just executing and in submission. What they’re excluding is their ability to think, to have values and ethical norms. Not a good place to be for an employee.

We teach people, in terms of relating in a healthy way, is yes respect the rank but relate equally. That means that we teach people to communicate in a way that invites leadership from employees, asking questions, asking why, asking what would you do, instead of just telling them and giving orders from a position of I know best.

If you want your organization to innovate teach them to lead differently.


Leadership Coaching – Sequences and pattern interruption — June 25, 2019

Leadership Coaching – Sequences and pattern interruption

Leadership Coaching – Sequences and pattern interruption

My name is Sari van Poelje and I’m an expert in business innovation. I help businesses innovate more quickly than they innovate their products. And one of the things I do for that is coach leaders. I’ve been doing this for 33 years and every year I think what is it that I do? Can I do it better? What can I add into this to accelerate the process? And I figured out that actually I only do and focus on three things: silences, stories and sequences.

I want to focus on sequences now. What is it that we mean by sequences? I mean a pattern of behaviour, of thinking or feeling that leads to a known outcome. So it’s kind of like going: “dat da de dat da…” and someone else goes: “dat da!” That’s a sequence and it’s so inbred that you do it automatically.

Our responsibility as coaches is to help interrupt patterns because as soon as behaviour is automatic you know people aren’t really learning anything, but repeating patterns that have worked in the past.

So how do you distinguish sequences? How do you identify them? What I use for that is transactional analysis. TA is a psychological theory that was developed by Eric Berne in the 50s and it is still useful today.

The great thing about TA is that nearly every concept describes a pattern. And because our job is to be pattern interrupters, what better theory can you have than one that distinguishes patterns.

So one of the kinds of patterns that we talk about in TA is ego states. Ego states are kind of the building blocks of your personality. The definition of ego states are that they contain patterns of thinking and feeling linked to patterns of behaviour. We distinguish three types of ego states: parent, adult, child.

The Parent ego state is the ego state that you’ve learned or taken over from your parents. For instance if I hold out my hand to you and I say how do you do people will usually take my hand. That’s a parental introject or parental behaviour pattern.

We also talk about Child ego state. Child patterns of thinking and feeling linked to behaviour have helped you survive your childhood. For example let’s say I notice when I get into a group I feel a little anxious. I realize that this anxiety for bigger groups comes from when I grew up in these other countries, in unknown places. As an expat that actually helped keep me safe. It’s just not so happy to feel anxious nowadays though.

We also talk about Adult ego state, where we have thinking and feeling linked to behaviour which is fitting for the here and now, with the competencies we have today. These might be patterns of problem solving or patterns of thinking or patterns of feeling that actually help you find options in today’s world.

When I do leadership team coaching I look to see which ego state they are actually talking from. Are they talking from an Parent, Adult or Child.. Because if they’re talking from Adult they’re well connected to the here and now. If I hear people talk from Parent or Child I know they’re probably in a rubber band to the past.

As a pattern interrupter it pays to pay attention to ego states.