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Heather Fowlie on Relational Transactional Analysis

Transactional analysis was founded by Eric Berne whose aim was to develop a comprehensible, effective, and powerful theory that could be used, as the name suggests, to analyse how people communicate (transact), both with themselves and with others, and where these communications limit intimacy, spontaneity and awareness (Berne, 1961) to open up alternative relational possibilities and expectations.

Relational transactional analysis is the name used to describe the re-visioning and re-working of transactional analysis theory and methodology, so that it better supports a therapist who wishes to uncover, engage with and transform, not only explicit, but also implicit, relational expectations, which include both the ‘longed for’ and ‘feared” other’ (Fowlie 2005).

In many ways, this re-visioning of Eric Berne’s original work, (which he developed whilst practicing as a psychiatrist, during the late 1940’s right up to his untimely death in 1970), can be seen as both an advancement, of transactional analysis theory and a reclaiming of its psychoanalytic roots.

Heavily influenced by psychoanalytic thought, having almost completed his training to be a psychoanalyst, much of Berne’s theory draws upon and bears witness to the respect he had for it. For example, he extended Federn’s (1953) concept of the ego and made this a central concept of TA theory, using it to explain, among other things, intra-psychic and interpersonal conflict. Likewise, he built upon Freud’s ideas about the repetition compulsion and developed it into another central concept within TA, that of scripts, with the games and rackets that support it.

He was, however, critical of the way that the psychoanalysis of the day was practiced, believing it to be too slow, too exclusive, and too far removed from the politics of the time. Transactional analysis was, in part, created to address these criticisms. His theory innovatively combined psychoanalytic thought with a humanistic philosophy, which emphasised the potential for change and the importance of involving the client as an equal partner in the work, with theories from social psychiatry that highlighted the link between mental health and life stressors such as unemployment, racism, sexism etc and cognitive-behavioural approaches, which focused on helping people to identify and change dysfunctional thinking, behavior, and emotional responses.

The result was a versatile integrative theory that could be used to work effectively and flexibly with many client presentations, including clients presenting with unconscious relational expectations, because Berne believed that those using his theory would be familiar with and trained in psychoanalytic concepts.

The popularisation of TA in the 1960’s, however, had the effect of Berne “simplifying” his theory to make it more accessible to the general public. This coupled with the trend in the 1970s and 80’s of what Erskine (1988) refers to as the ‘skewing’ of clinical methods towards those that emphasized behavioral change, resulted in the psychoanalytic basis of transactional analysis being over-shadowed in favour of theories and methods that focused more on explicit and known relational patterns.

TA’s psychoanalytic roots were never completely lost, however, as documented in “From Transactions to Relations: The Emergence of a Relational Tradition in Transactional Analysis”. This book, edited by Cornell and Hargaden, (2005) collected sixteen seminal articles together, spanning a twenty-five year period, which charted, as the title suggests, the emergence of relational transactional analysis. These articles quite clearly showed, that at the same time as this ‘skewing’ was taking place, many eminent transactional analysts, were staying true to what they saw as Berne’s original ideas, and advancing transactional analysis theory in keeping with this.

This trend continued within TA, and Relational TA is the natural conclusion of this. Mirroring similar changes to those that were happening within other psychological fields, its formal introduction was first envisaged and described by Hargaden and Sills (2002) in their most timely and highly influential book “Transactional Analysis – a Relational Perspective.

In the ten years since its publication, there has been a proliferation of articles that have expanded and developed relational TA still further and in 2009, a number of relational TA practitioners and theorists came together to form the International Association of Relational Transactional Analysis (IARTA), which was founded to promote the development and articulation of relational paradigms within TA. It fulfils its aims through running an annual conference, on-line colloquia and webinars, the writing and publication of relational articles and books and through giving presentations and workshops at psychotherapy events. In 2011, IARTA became an affiliated organisation of the European Association of Transactional Analysis (EATA), which further cemented its place as an established and accepted approach within TA.

The word ‘approach’ is pertinent here, as within TA circles relational TA is sometimes mistakenly thought of as another school within TA rather than an approach. The word approach, points more to the ‘values’ and philosophy behind the way that someone works, whereas ‘school’ rather suggests a group that adopts and practices according to a commonly shared understanding of theory and/or technique.

Relational TA practitioners do not unite around any one TA school in this way, nor would they think it was necessary to do so, viewing theoretical differences as natural and as offering a welcome opportunity to debate, critique and refine what they think; instead, they draw from across all three of the major schools within TA, (Classical, Redecision, and Cathexis) enjoying the flexibility that comes from this kind of integrative attitude. This is not to deny that there are some theories that lend themselves more easily to a relational approach. It simply underlines a freedom within the approach, for the practitioner to choose a theoretical model that best enables them to be adaptable, attuned and responsive to the particular relational dynamics that emerge with each new client.

Relational TA practitioners do, however, in keeping with relational practitioners from other psychological theories, connect around a commonly held set of values, beliefs and attitudes about how to engage effectively and respectfully with relational expectations. Fowlie and Sills (2011) in discussing these, propose them as a set of ‘principles’ which they suggest “are principles of praxis, in other words, they involve our way of understanding as well as how we engage, apply, and put that understanding into practice“ (p. xxx).

TA relational principles

The principles they outline, and which are described in full in their edited book, “Relational Transactional Analysis - Principles in Practice”, include:

  • The centrality of relationship – which places an emphasis and focus on relationship and most particularly the relationship that develops between the therapist and the client.
  • The importance of engagement – which states that, the practitioner is, and needs to be, an active participant in the work, and is not, and cannot be, a neutral observer.
  • The significance of conscious and non-conscious patterns of relating – which suggests that practitioners need to recognise and focus on implicit relational expectations, rather than just those that can be   easily remembered and verbalized.
  • The importance of experience – which acknowledges that, profound and deep change occurs in response to relational experiences (as opposed to cognitions), which challenge implicitly held relational expectations.
  • The significance of subjectivity – and of self-subjectivity – which stresses the importance of the therapist being aware of, able to contain, and non-defensively use their counter-transferential responses to help them to understand and therapeutically respond to the client.
  • The importance of uncertainty – which recognises that certainty is neither possible nor desirable when working with implicit relational expectations and emphasises instead, the value in holding an open mind and multiple meanings.
  • The importance of curiosity, criticism and creativity – emphasises a freedom to practice alongside a responsibility, to be curious and reflective about the work and the relational patterns that get evoked.
  • The reality of the functioning and changing adult, – which moves away, from the ‘parental paradigm’ where the practitioner acts as a  temporary provider of what was once missing for the client, and stresses instead, the importance of authentic relating.

These principles clearly locate relational therapies, including relational TA, within what Stark (2000) refers to as a “two-person psychology”, where the emphasis is on authentic relating, in the belief that the act of experiencing and exploring what transpires between the two parties as they engage in such a relationship (or attempt to avoid it) has the potential to challenge, disrupt and transform deeply held implicit relational expectations. Within this model, the therapist sees him or her--self as an active participant in a mutual engagement.

How TA therapy works

Similar to most other relational therapists, Relational TA therapists believe that deeply held, unconscious relational expectations are most effectively engaged with and challenged via the transferential therapeutic relationship. To this end, they privilege the therapeutic relationship as the main vehicle for therapeutic change, recognising that relational expectations are most available for exploration and transformation as they get evoked and provoked in the heat of the present therapeutic moment.

They also acknowledge that the work of disrupting what has been learnt at an implicit level is demanding and difficult. Rather than simply observing and commenting on a client’s relational world, a relational TA therapist would instead participate in it. She would do this by making herself available to be affected and influenced by the client and by using his relational expectations of her, as evident in his transferences and her countertransferential responses, to unearth the unconscious, often non-verbal parts of his relational world. The therapist’s willingness to use herself, and her ability to reflect upon her own subjectivity in this way, aligns Relational TA to Benjamin’s (1995) definition of relational perspectives, when she states that they ‘may best be characterised as an enquiry into the questions of common concern that come to the fore as a result of the adoption of a two person model’ (p 3).

Success within a relational (TA) framework rests on the therapist’s ability to immerse herself in the relational process whilst paradoxically, simultaneously staying separate and grounded enough to be able to consider, contain and reflect upon it. It is through a considered involvement and empathic exploration of the evolving relationships and the dynamics that arise as a part of it, that the often intransigent, relational expectations of the ‘undeveloped and disturbed self’ (Hargaden and Sills, 2002), eventually comes to be known and most importantly, made malleable.

Therapy is threatened if the therapist either resists entering into the client’s relational world or gets so entangled in it, that her ability to non-defensively participate, respond and make sense of what is happening, becomes compromised.

TA methodology

Most relational approaches, transactional analysis among them, have their own methodology for evoking, engaging with, containing, and transforming relational expectations. Within TA this methodology revolves around the use of ‘empathic transactions’ (Hargaden and Sills, 2002).  

Building on Berne’s (1966) theory of therapeutic interventions, which he called ‘therapeutic operations’ and linking these to Clark’s (1991) ideas about empathic transactions, Hargaden and Sills (2002) propose a flexible and responsive methodology for working within the therapeutic encounter and the various transferences that emerge within it which they name introjective, projective and transformational.

Accepting Clark’s (1991) suggestion that “an empathic transaction occurs when the therapist communicates understanding of what the patient is experiencing and the patient experiences being understood” (pg:92), they emphasise the importance of this “complementary transaction” (Berne, 1961) occurring between the therapeutic couple at both an Adult (appropriate) level, and between the therapist’s Adult and the client’s Child (archaic self).

As a means of achieving these moments of shared understandings, they rework Berne’s therapeutic operations so that they better responded to the implicit relational expectations that are hidden below the Adult message, thereby offering the potential to challenge and disrupt them, whilst at the same time promoting self-understanding, compassion and trust.

The empathic transactions are:

Enquiry – This involves a collaborative exploration of clients’ phenomenology and felt experience, in an attempt to understand the way that they view themselves, others and the world, including the way in which the therapist and the client are experiencing each other.

Specification – This involves the therapist putting ”into words the client’s situation in such a way that his thinking, beliefs or values are clarified” (Hargaden and Sills, 2002: 40). Most often this involves the therapist restating what the client has said so that it becomes explicitly known between them but can, with the same result also include the therapist hearing and then stating what is just below the surface of the clients awareness.

Confrontation – This involves the therapist using information that has already been subject to a specification, to point out inconsistencies and discrepancies. In recognition of how easily some clients can be shamed, this transaction needs to be used in an “empathically sensitive way” and phrased so as to allow for deeper enquiry and understanding. For example, “I hear you feel that you are stupid and yet you have several degrees, I wonder what this is all about?”

Confirmation – A confirmation is used following, and in support of a successful confrontation, if and only if the client is ready and able to accept that reality does not support her distorted beliefs about herself or others. If timed appropriately and offered sensitively, a confirmation supports the client to make the psychological shift necessary to take in and accept reality. E.g. The feelings of stupidity that you describe sound terrible, and I know that they are really strong, but neither of us can deny that in reality, you are actually very clever”.

Illustration – This involves the therapist’s use of image, metaphor or story to increase the client’s ability to reflect upon themselves and ways of being in a relationship. An illustration can explain something succinctly that might otherwise take a long time to explain; it can get to the heart of something that is otherwise difficult to put into words, and it can convey to the client that the therapist knows them well enough to speak to their experience in this way. E.g, “when you withdraw like that, you remind me of a feral cat that is starving but is terrified to come close for food. Bit by bit hunger drives the cat to come closer, but one false move and she'll be off.”

Explanation – This involves the therapist describing what they think is going on for the client, with the purpose of helping the client understand, recognise, make meaning and provide context to their unsatisfactory ways of relating. For example, “when you get close to your feelings it seems that you feel overwhelmed and you deal with this by withdrawing into yourself”.

Often in a collaborative therapy, the client will make their own explanation, for example, “I want to tell you that I am scared, but I think that you will think that I’m stupid, so I sit here in silence instead. It is as if I go back to being a child and then I don’t trust you”.

Interpretation – This aims to help the client to know and reflect deeply and with compassion on the previously repressed parts of their defensive self. The therapist does this by putting into words those thoughts and feelings of the client, which seem to her to be literally unspeakable.

Holding – This refers to the times when the client needs an intervention that is “aimed at doing no more than offer the steady containing presence of a nonjudgmental therapist who is perceived as having the potency to offer the protection and permission needed” (Hargaden and Sills 2002:127). Referring to a symbolic rather than physical holding of the client, these interventions are most appropriate when the client is temporarily unavailable for analysis, due to being regressed, in need of perfect mirroring or connected to a deep rage within the self. In the latter case, the “therapist’s role is to survive, to ’hold’, to listen and not to retaliate” (pg 128).

Crystallization – This intervention often comes towards the end of therapy when the client has achieved a lot of insight and involves the therapist stating the options that are now available to the client in such a way that the client feels empowered and appropriately prepared to take the space to determine how, whether and what he wants to do with them. E.g. “so it seems that your mother is not going to change and whilst you wish so much that she would change, you are now in a position to stop hoping against hope for this”.

The empathic transactions, when offered with skill, sensitivity and appropriate degrees of intensity can be used to successfully, negotiate the various stages of the therapeutic encounter, from building the working alliance, to raising Adult awareness and the ‘decontamination’ (Berne, 1961) of distorted thinking and beliefs, through to the ‘deconfusion’ (Berne, 1961) of the Child ego states via a careful engagement with the various transferential levels and the longed for and feared relational expectations. Whilst any and each of the empathic transactions can be employed during each of these stages, how they are employed, and with what intensity is determined by the particular needs and demands of the relationship, for example, a confrontation during the early stages of developing a working alliance with a client who is easily shamed, may need to be very gentle, whilst with another it may need to be robust enough to establish the boundaries of the therapeutic relationship and an ensuing feeling of safety. This certainly fits in with Hargaden and Sills (2002) concept of empathy as the following quote illustrates:

“Empathy does not mean agreeing with the client, or supporting the client, or even sympathizing with the client; it does not mean avoiding confrontation in favour of being kind, it does not mean denying negative feelings and searching for a loving attitude. On the contrary, empathy might be hard, shocking and confrontative, It could be expressing a feeling of hopelessness or anger or envy, which might allow a client to feel that we had at last understood his intractable despair, outrage or desire to negate another. By empathy we mean allowing the client to have his full impact upon us, surviving it and in some way allowing him to know that he had had that impact” (pg 35).

Limitations of the approach

The limitations of a TA relational approach are similar to the limitations of any relational approach, in general, revolving around the capacity of the therapist, to non-defensively, remain open and curious about and to, the relational encounter.

As is probably evident, this demands much from both the therapist and the client. Walking the path between feared and longed for relational expectations, is often hard, sometimes frightening, sometimes seductive and often because of the unconscious nature of these processes, not always obvious. A therapist who is under-resourced, lonely or hungry for narcissistic supplies may well be drawn to the approach because of the apparent intimacy that it brings, thereby setting up a symbiotic ‘longed for’ relationship with the client, that at best, does little to help the client to work through the realities of her past relational failures and at worst repeats and reinforces her feared relational expectations.

To guard against this, the relational therapist is expected to have undertaken, and often remain within, her own in-depth psychotherapy so that she can, for the most part, withstand the pushes and pulls of the client’s testing of her, and/or recover quickly and compassionately from them if she temporarily loses her therapeutic edge. She is also expected to work closely with a supervisor who is experienced and comfortable working with unconscious processes and is able to help her openly and curiously explore the client’s transferences and her countertransferential responses, and to contain, reflect upon and use these to formulate an appropriately ‘optimal neutral” (Little 2013) and “therapeutically required” (Little 2011) response.

Interesting developments

To find out more about relational TA, and the work of the International Association of Relational Transactional Analysis (IARTA) please go to their website at www. – their forthcoming events include a colloquium (19th – 26th March 2013), where they will be discussing a paper entitled “What is  relational psychotherapy?” and a relational conferenece (12th and 13th Oct 2014), with Lew Arron as the keynote speaker.


Berne, E. (1961). Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy. New York: Grove Press. Reprinted London: Souvenir Press, 1975.
Berne, E. (1966). Principles of Group Treatment. New York: Oxford University Press.
Benjamin, J. 1995. Like Subjects, Love Object., New Haven and London: , Yale University Press.
Benjamin, J. (2002). Principles of relational psychoanalysis. First biannual meeting of the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, New York.
Benjamin, J. (2006). The analyst’s fear of doing harm. Paper presented at the London Voluntary Sector Resource Centre, sponsored by Confer, England.
Clark, B. (1991). Empathic transactions in the deconfusion of the Child ego states. Transactional Analysis Journal, 21: 92-98.
Cornell, W. F., & Hargaden, H. (Eds.) (2005). From Transactions to Relations: the Emergence of a Relational Tradition in Transactional Analysis. Chadlington, UK: Haddon Press.
Erskine, R. 2008. Psychotherapy of Unconscious Experience: Transactional Analysis Journal, 38, 128-138.
Fowlie, H. (2005). Confusion and introjection. A model for understanding the defensive structure of the Parent and Child ego states. Transactional Analysis Journal, 35: 192-204.
Fowlie, H. + Sills, C (Eds) Relational Transactional Analysis – Principles in Practice, London: Karnac Books.
Hargaden, H., & Sills, C. (2002). Transactional Analysis: a Relational Perspective. London: Brunner-Routledge.
Little, R. 2011. Countertransference and self-disclosure. In H.Fowlie + C. Sills (Eds) Relational Transactional Analysis – Principles in Practice, (pgs: 47 – 58),London: Karnac Books.
Little, R. 2011. Impasse clarification within the transference-countertransference matrix.Transactional Analysis Journal, 41: 22-38.
Little, R. 2013. The New Emerges out of the Old: An Integrated Relational Perspective on Psychological Development, Psychopathology and Therapeutic Action. Transactional Analysis Journal (in press)
Stark, M. 1999. Modes of Therapeutic Action: Enhancement of Knowledge, Provision of Experience, and Engagement in Relationship, Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.


Heather Fowlie

Heather Fowlie MA; MSc (psychotherapy) is a Teaching and Supervising Transactional Analyst and UKCP registered Psychotherapist. Heather works half of the week in private practice, in Surrey, as a full time psychotherapist and supervisor and the other half as the Head of the Transactional Analysis Department at the Metanoia Institute in Ealing, West London. She is particularly interested in integrating other models of psychotherapy, especially object relations within a relational approach to Transactional Analysis. She is a founder member of IARTA (International Association of Relational Transactional Analysis), author of several articles, has co-edited a book with Charlotte Sills entitled - Relational Transactional Analysis - Principles in Practice (Karnac 2011), and has another book, Relational Transactional Analysis – a Primer, in print.

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