Dealing with difficult adult behaviour

I get to work with a lot of great head teachers, ones with a real sense of moral purpose, who work hard and are willing to make tough decisions for the benefit of their pupils. But one thing keeps coming to me as an issue that these capable, purposeful heads face: managing adults. Not in an organisational sense, they’re generally very good at that. It’s those difficult conversations and let’s face it, none of us enjoy them do we?

Anyone who has managed people will know difficult conversations, such as dealing with poor performance or behaviour, is a necessary part of the job. Really it’s a necessary part of life, but in our day to day lives we can choose to avoid it. One brilliant piece of psychology in helping Head Teachers, and in fact anyone, deal with these tricky conversations better is Transactional Analysis. Beautifully simple, easy to remember and applicable to every relationship we have it’s far to say this is one of my most favourite pieces of psychology. And it’s helped everyone I’ve shared it with.

What is it? Well, Berne came up with this way of understanding our relationships. There are three positions: parent, adult and child. Taking each in turn:

Parent is a taught style which we learn from childhood and is unconscious mimicking of parental behaviours:
Knows best

Child we learn from quite simply having been children once. This child-like state is driven by emotion:
Likes to play

Adult is a state based on thought and is non-emotive, it is evidence based, rational, not threatening or threatened.
Adult states use:
Open questions
Comparative expressions
Reasoned statements
True, false, probably, possibly, I think, I realise, I see, I believe, in my opinion
An objective understanding of reality

The key to knowing which state you’re in is ask yourself ‘Am I being emotional about this?’ That can be any emotion, but if there’s emotion there you’ll be in a parent or child state. Particularly when dealing with tricky topics it is important to stay in an adult state.

Have a go, apply it to the next time you feel an interaction or relationship isn’t going well and try to understand which state you were in. If you’re really into this the next time you’re in that situation or with that person adopt and adult state and see what effect it has. It might be worth thinking about who you get to be adult with most the time so you are well practised at being in this state.

You can read more on TA at

One thing to note, I’m all for emotions. In fact I love my emotions, as long as they’re useful to me. TA helps me and others manage the emotions we would rather not have, meaning that we get to have more of the positive emotions and less of the negative. Enjoy!