Integrative Psychotherapy Articles
Cooperation, Relationship and Change
Richard G. Erskine
Portions of this article were presented as a keynote address on 10 August 2007 during the International Transactional Analysis Conference in San Francisco, California, U.S.A. The theme of the conference was “Cooperation and Power: Relationships, Choices, and Change.” Thank you to Karen Hallett, M.Ed., for her contribution in developing this speech and article.
This keynote speech explores various aspects of human relationships and cooperation that are dependent on interpersonal connection and involvement. Eight principles of relational group psychotherapy and four homeostatic functions are considered as elements of cooperation, relationship, and change. The eight concepts of tolerance, humility, compassion, conscientiousness, curiosity, graciousness, creativity, and optimism are described as enhancers to quality relationships. Predictability, identity, continuity, and stability are presented as homeostatic functions.
Dianne Maki, one of the coordinators of this conference, called me over a year ago and asked me to speak on the themes of cooperation, relationship, and change. Other speakers, she said, were invited to talk about cooperation and power. I told her that I had never talked about cooperation and added, “I am not sure I know much about it.” She answered, “Yes, you do. It’s in your teaching about relational group process. Your approach to group psychotherapy is all about cooperation and relationship and change.” Hence, the title of this keynote speech.
After the telephone conversation, I had a year of being periodically uncomfortable, a discomfort that actually led me to do some mindful soul-searching. I particularly examined when I was cooperative and in relationship. I also paid careful attention to when I was not cooperative and when I contributed to a disruption in relationship. I explored what elements of cooperation-in-relationship were missing in my intersubjective process. As a result, I will be sharing in part my own personal journey over this past year—a journey stimulated by Dianne—and talking with you professionally about the principles of a relational group psychotherapy.
I found it interesting that in the previous keynote, “Liberating Self and Others through Cooperation,” Giles Barrow (2007a) was saying that a relational group psychotherapy takes the psychotherapist out of the center of the group and puts the focus on the relationship between group members. With this statement, Giles provided an introduction to my presenting some of the principles of a relational perspective on conducting group psychotherapy. I will be presenting the various methods of relational group psychotherapy in a future workshop.
When I began searching for ideas on cooperation, I went to the Dictionary of Behavioral Science (Wolman, 1973), one of my favorite sources, and discovered that “cooperation” is not even listed. I turned to one of my other favorites, Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary (2001), because not only is the definition listed, it usually also provides the origin(s) of the word. This time Webster’s was rather short! It described cooperation as the act of working together for a common purpose and benefit. I was surprised at the similarity between this definition and the principles of relational group psychotherapy. Webster also defined relationship as a connection or involvement. If we merge those two definitions together, then cooperation is dependent on our interpersonal connection and involvement. Cooperation is based on shared experience. Just think for a moment about a time when you needed someone else to cooperate with you—and he or she did not do it. What was missing for you in that relationship? How did you need that other person to relate to you differently?
I would like to share with you eight principles from relational group therapy, augmented by my own soul-searching, and suggest some descriptive terms that may provide a useful perspective on cooperation, relationships, and group process.
Tolerance is based on the assumption that the other person’s behavior seems to him or her to be the best possible choice given his or her past experiences and motivation. Each of us is always making the best choice as we evaluate it in the moment. Tolerance is respecting the other person’s form of choice and providing the other with the opportunity for choice whenever possible.
Tolerance also involves the opportunity for the other to express self-definition, an important relational need that we each bring to the other. We all require the opportunity to define ourselves in relationship with other persons. The need for self-definition is further expressed by having agency and efficacy. Agency can be described as being in the passenger seat of a car: You have the map, you tell the driver where to go, and he or she follows your directions. Efficacy is when you are in the driver’s seat, and wherever you point the car, that is exactly where it is going to go. We all need a sense of both agency and efficacy in our lives—the ability to influence other people and to express our own choices. When we practice tolerance, we provide the opportunity for the other person to express his or her agency and efficacy.
Tolerance involves taking the other person’s concerns, frustrations, and anger seriously. Remember for a moment being in a situation in which you were angry at someone, and the other person immediately apologized to you, but you found that the apology did not work. Apologies that are made too quickly often lack an emotional connection, particularly if the other person has failed to take your anger seriously. Tolerance includes allowing one’s self to be impacted by the other person so that we seriously accept the other’s frustration, choice, agency, or anger as significant. Tolerance involves a language of inclusion. It is a “we” and an “us”—it is a focus on the together possibilities versus an “I” and the “you” focus on our separateness.
Humility is the opposite of “I know best.” Humility counteracts certainty, the expression of an attitude of “I have a monopoly on truth.” Humility is the opposite of “I know what is real.” If we are less certain of the truth, or the right way, or reality, then we allow the other person to influence us—an element of cooperation and relationship-making in life and in relational group psychotherapy. As a result, we can both grow and change.
Cooperation and relationship include allowing the other to influence us. To think that we know better than the other is a human fallacy; with such a fallacy we tend to emphasize our own perspectives rather than listening to the other person’s. Humility also creates the opportunity for the other to be more self-expressive. When we become more humble, we give up the attitude of certainty and our conviction of doing things the right way. Humility includes the capacity for empathy. When I use the term “empathy,” I include Carl Rogers’s (1951) concept of feeling what it is like to be in the emotional experience of the other person. I also include Heinz Kohut’s (1977) idea that empathy involves cognitive introspection, a putting of one’s self into the mind of the other. Bill Cornell (2007), yesterday in his workshop, described another form of empathy, that of “somatic resonance.” Such an important human connection occurs when we allow our body to resonate with another person’s body while having an awareness that the somatic resonance is a way to deeply know the other. Each of these forms of empathy and humility are important aspects of the process of interpersonal connection.
Compassion is based on a commitment to the welfare of the other person. It includes an emotion and attitude of being with and for the other. Compassion is the highest form of being interpersonally contactful. It creates a sense of safety and security in the other person and involves a commitment to understanding the feelings and motivations of the other. When we are validating the other—that is, finding value in his or her wishes, reactions, and/or emotions—we are being compassionate. Compassion involves valuing the uniqueness and difference in the other person and the expression of that value. With compassion we communicate to the other that his or her feelings and needs are important to us. Two meaningful questions that we can each ask ourselves about the possibility of compassion are: First, am I committed to the other person’s welfare? Second, am I defining the other person rather than meeting him or her with compassion? When we define people, when we ascribe motivation to them, when we categorize them, we lose our capacity for compassion. What would happen in the quality of our communication with others if we had a more compassionate perspective when using our transactional analysis theories of games, rackets, or ulterior transactions?
Conscientiousness is the means by which we establish personal consistency and dependability. Being conscientious includes making and keeping agreements that are bilateral and benefit each person, so that each of our desires, choices, and needs are reflected in our agreements and our contracts with each other. Another form of conscientiousness involves follow-through or reliability: Follow-through means remembering what is important to the other person and keeping the uniqueness of that other person in mind. By being dependable, reliable, and consistent, we establish an environment of emotional stability. Someone asked me recently what the most important idea was that I had written. I answered that it was not an article or one of the books, but only one sentence in the article “Shame and Self-righteousness”: “What is the effect of my inner affect or behavior on the other person?” (Erskine, 1994, p. 87). When we keep that question in mind, we lessen the opportunity that behavior will be humiliating and shaming to the other person. Often we do not immediately know how we affect the other, and, therefore, we must inquire and engage that person while bringing ourselves fully into the relationship. Through a respectful inquiry, we demonstrate our tolerance, humility, compassion, and conscientiousness.
Relationship and cooperation include being curious about the other’s perspective, feelings, and how uniquely different he or she is from us; it involves being curious to learn about his or her point of view. Quality relationships involve exploring the other’s self-definition and embracing that person’s worldview, at least for a period of time. I am not suggesting that we become confluent with the other person, but rather that we get out of our own perspective temporarily and appreciate the experience of being that other person. How do we do it? One way is to assume that we know nothing about the other person’s experience or inner life. All of our observations, all of our theories are mere impressions. They do not tell us enough about what it is like to be in the other person’s experience. Therefore, an ongoing inquiry is necessary to discover the other person’s perspective and feelings and what he or she needs in a relationship.
Let me share with you another of my questions of self-examination: What will happen to me if I embrace the other’s frame of reference? Will I change? Am I afraid of that change? Often we are afraid of even a small change in our frame of reference because it may be the beginning of changing how we have structured our whole way of being in the world.
Graciousness is built on respect. Graciousness provides a sense of security and an opening for others to express themselves. People become less guarded and defensive in an atmosphere of graciousness. Graciousness opens the possibility for dialogue through an honoring of the other’s inherent “OKness.” It is the real expression of “I’m OK, You’re OK.” We express graciousness through prosody, which refers to how we emotionally talk to each other. Prosody is not about content but about the tone of voice, the cadence, and the affect that characterizes about 90% of our communication.
Let me give you an example: Yes……YES…..YES!!!....Yesss… Each of these is the same word when we read it in print. It is simply spelled y-e-s, but the tone tells such a different story—of confirmation, willingness, annoyance, or compliance. Graciousness requires that we pay close attention to our tone, which carries our affective message, not just the content of what we say. One of the most gracious sentences that we can say to each other, when done with an attitude of open acceptance, is, “I’ll be glad to do that for you.” Have you said that recently to someone?
Each of us plays an important role in the life of each other even though we may not realize it. The mirror neurons in the brain respond to the prosody of speech. They are constantly reflecting the emotional content of how we are with each other, hence an attitude of graciousness creates the opportunity to enhance relationship and cooperation.
Creativity involves searching for new solutions. Creativity leads to change. We can learn creativity by embracing the perspectives of others. Creativity includes examining problems from a novel perspective. We could examine transactional analysis theory from what is called the “bottom-up rather than the top-down” approach to problem solving. For example, would we have a different understanding of ego states and transactions if the Child ego state were drawn on top and the Parent ego state on the bottom of our three-circle diagram (Barrow, 2007b)? How would you explain transactions or intrapsychic influence differently from that perspective? Our theory will only change and grow by continuing to examine it through novel perspectives. Embracing a new perspective recognizes that change is inevitable.
Transactional analysis today, both in theory and practice, is not the transactional analysis that I learned 40 years ago. It has evolved with our changing culture and our ongoing creativity. We still have our foundation; we still are well grounded, I hope, in what Berne and the people in the San Francisco seminar developed. Yet we are also a part of the whole paradigm shift that has occurred throughout the field of psychotherapy. The Journal of Behavioral Therapy now emphasizes that building a relationship between client and therapist is the most important element in psychotherapy prior to focusing on behavioral change. In New York City, I am involved in an ongoing seminar at the Institute for Intersubjectivity, where I am constantly amazed that my psychoanalytic colleagues frequently sound like transactional analysts when they are discussing cases from their own practices. They also reflect the paradigm shift in both psychotherapy and in other fields of human relationships. One of the remarkable things is that the ITAA has creatively allowed that paradigm shift to emerge. We have just given the Eric Berne Memorial Award to Helena Hargaden and Charlotte Sills for their writing on the concept of relationality in transactional analysis, an award that reflects changes in our theories and methods of TA. For me, the important changes I have experienced in understanding theory and in creatively developing new methods have been stimulated by my clients’ feedback about what is effective and what is ineffective in their psychotherapy. Each of us is part of the paradigm shift in understanding psychotherapy and human relationships. Change is inevitable.
Optimism involves the anticipation of a positive outcome and a commitment to the idea that we are going to achieve something wonderful together. My mother, who lived to be 87 years old despite a lifelong illness of tuberculosis and other adversities, faced each crisis with her motto, “Life will always work out, not as we predict, not as we plan, but life will work out.” This motto gave her an optimistic view of the adversities, losses, and disappointments that occurred in her life. Optimism includes faith in the inherent “OKness” of both life and people: faith that people make good decisions for themselves, faith in the choices that people make, faith in the common benefit if we all work together and respect each other’s needs. Such an optimistic faith brings us to change, the last word in the title of this speech.
What happens when our optimism and our enthusiasm for change become intense and we demand change in our clients or ourselves? In gestalt therapy theory, Arnold Beisser (1971) wrote about the paradoxical theory of change. This simple concept asserts that the more we push for change in the other person, the more he or she is secretly and quietly going to resist and the more he or she is going to stay the same because old patterns of behavior and attitudes provide several homeostatic functions.
We stay in our old behaviors and attitudes because they provide predictability, an important aspect of structure hunger. Berne (1966) described how we all search for structure. Predictability fulfills that need for structure by providing a sense that we are in charge of the future. We know what is going to happen when we remain with old behavioral patterns and attitudes, and so life is predictable. Another homeostatic function is identity. Our old behavior patterns and self-protective ways of relating to others provide us with a sense of identity. If we change, if we do not engage in the same predictable behavior patterns with each other, then who are we? Who are you? Who am I? Our old behavioral patterns also provide continuity. When we have been engaging in the same patterns for years, those patterns seem natural to us; we sense that this is how it has always been. Continuity is also an outgrowth of structure hunger; it is our desire to keep our experience consistent. People often imagine that there will be pain and loss in change. Our focus needs to be on the gain and growth that is possible with change.
Stability is another form of structure hunger. This homeostatic function provides a sense of self-comforting, self-soothing, and self-regulation by relying on old behavioral patterns.
When we change our old patterns, we must rely on the quality of our relationships to provide regulation, soothing, and comfort. In the human relations fields and in psychotherapy, change occurs through appreciating each person’s homeostatic functions of predictability, identity, continuity, and stability and in developing a quality of relationship that provides these functions. Cooperation is built on relationship, interpersonal connection, and involvement. People change when we offer tolerance, humility, compassion, conscientiousness, curiosity, graciousness, creativity, and optimism. In my personal experience, that is how we can all learn and grow together in our relationships.
Richard G. Erskine, Ph.D., was the corecipient of the 1982 Eric Berne Memorial Scientific Award and the 1998 Eric Berne Memorial Award. He is the author of numerous articles on transactional analysis theory and methods. He may be reached at the Institute for Integrative Psychotherapy, 500 East 85th St., PH B, New York, NY 10028, U.S.A.; e-mail: IntegPsych@earthlink.net .
Barrow, G. (2007a, 10 August). Liberating self and others through cooperation: Teaching, learning, schooling, and script. Keynote address at the International Transactional Analysis Conference, San Francisco, CA, U.S.A.
Barrow, G. (2007b). Wonderful world, wonderful people: Reframing transactional analysis as positive psychology. Transactional Analysis Journal, 37, 206-209.
Beisser, A. R. (1971). The paradoxical theory of change. In J. Fagan & I. L. Shepherd (Eds.), Gestalt therapy now: Theory, techniques, applications (pp. 77-80). New York: Harper & Row.
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Cornell, W. F. (2007, 9 August). Somatic resonance: A body-centered understanding of transference and countertransference. Workshop presented at the International Transactional Analysis Conference, San Francisco, CA.
Erskine, R. G. (1994). Shame and self-righteousness: Transactional analysis perspectives and clinical interventions. Transactional Analysis Journal, 24, 86-102.
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Webster’s encyclopedic unabridged dictionary of the English language. (2001). San Diego, CA: Thunder Bay Press.
Wolman, B. B. (1973). Dictionary of behavioral science. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold & Co.
This article was published in the Transactional Analysis Journal, Vol. 38, No. 1, pp. 31-35. Reprinted with permission of the ITAA.