This post is about the precious nature of human contact. I will use it to introduce the aspect of Transactional Analysis (TA) known as Strokes.
Yesterday I met up with an old friend. I hadn’t seen her for 20 years but she was flying home via Amsterdam and had the briefest of stopovers. So brief, in fact, we weren’t even sure it would work out. Luckily, it did, and we spent 20 minutes together. Not that long, but it was worth every second. It didn’t really matter what we talked about. There were smiles, appreciation and happiness, and I returned home filled with warmth, thinking just how uplifting it can be to have contact with another human being.
In TA, the term ‘strokes’ is given to the attention, recognition and acknowledgment we get from each other. It is a fundamental need of every human. Studies show that if babies are deprived of that basic contact, they suffer development difficulties and can even die. Prisoners are punished with solitary confinement, robbing them of the contact we all need for a healthy existence.
And on a daily basis people everywhere play (psychological) games in order to gain the strokes they need. We manipulate situations and each other when all we need to do is be straight about what it is we are looking for. There are four kinds of strokes, listed here with examples:
- Positive Unconditional: ‘I love you.’
- Positive Conditional: ‘Thanks for the report.’
- Negative Conditional: ‘You handled the client badly.’
- Negative Unconditional: ‘You’re an idiot!’
In every case unconditional strokes (those not dependent on any specific event or reason) are more powerful and more intense than the conditional ones (those which are specifically to do with something the person has said, done, caused, demonstrated etc.). And, of course, they are not just verbal. Strokes can also be exchanged in the form of a smile or a grimace; or through physical contact such as a handshake or a hug.
Interestingly – and I find this a fascinating aspect of human behaviour – if we can’t get positive strokes, we’ll take negative ones. It sounds crazy, but it’s true and the more you think about it the more sense it makes. It’s one of the reasons why children (and adults!) misbehave. At a rudimentary level, they just want their existence to be acknowledged.
Yesterday I travelled through the rain and my friend risked missing her connection, but that briefest of meetings was, in and of itself, an exchange of unconditional positive strokes. I’m very glad I got to see her.