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 – 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.

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.