Eric Berne: Games People Play

Games People PlayA seminal, very useful book is turning 50 this coming year. Published in 1964, and the best selling non-fiction book of the 1960s, Games People Play by Dr. Eric Berne introduced Transactional Analysis, which looked closely at human relationships. He opted to study interaction as transaction, since he said we communicate to get something out of it.
For example, if one person says hello, and the other person doesn’t respond, the first person feels cheated or irritated, since he or she expected to get something out of saying hello.

Berne said we communicate in three ego states, as the parent, the child and the adult. Everybody has these three people inside their head, which explains the mental cacophony we sometimes experience. When we are emotional, we are the child. Supportive or exerting power over others, we are the parent. Acting rationally, and focusing on the objective problems at hand, we are the adult. And the obvious way to go is to be the adult. This still comes across as fresh to me. It’s good, solid, everyday advice, the very basis of Emotional Intelligence, i.e. applying reason to how we engage in social situations with others.

Berne identified six different ways in which people communicate:

  • withdrawal (disengagement)
  • rituals (highly standardized exchanges)
  • pastimes (predictable conversations, polite exchanges of opinions)
  • activities (eg doing math or building something together)
  • games (underhanded, exploiting others)
  • intimacy (a game-free relationship)

The games we play, he says, like “If it weren’t for you”, are all rackets. Anger is one of those rackets, he says. It makes you feel righteous for a while, but doesn’t solve anything. Instead  he says we have to decide to look at what is making us angry and think about why the other person is doing it. That means not letting the other person win the game by allowing ourselves to get angry. It’s an interesting and engaging challenge, and one that can actually improve the situation.

Every game has three parts:

  • the con – the way of cheating used
  • the gimmick – the weakness that makes the other person play the game
  • the payoff – the feeling that people get from playing the game

Among the aspects Berne identified as worthy of therapy are scripts that he said we develop and follow early in life, and can for instance recognize in fairy tales.

Below is a wonderful 1966 NET Science broadcast special on the book. The reporter interviews Dr. Berne at his home in Carmel where the author explains the theory behind Transactional Analysis. The camera then follows the two of them along the gorgeous Carmel coast – where incidentally Helmut and I spent almost a week last summer. And finally we see Dr. Berne in with other California psychologists, Swinging Sixties style. Watch these four short videos for an exquisite introduction to the theory, and take an evocative journey into the epoch when Transactional Analysis was still new.

Eric Berne passed away in 1970. A website dedicated to him contains selected games he identified. See if any of them ring a bell with you. They did with me. ‘Uproar’, with slamming doors, is a game I used to play a lot with my dad when I was a trouble-making teen. And I find it quite sobering to recognize that I still like to indulge the Child in me.

On this note: I want a sun umbrella just like Dr. Bearne’s.

Debate and discussion

I enjoyed yesterday’s communication skills class with the Master of Public Management class at the University of Potsdam. We did discussion and debate, and I used a few resources I can recommend:

communication triangle anne hodgson

After showing the students my communication triangle above (connect at the human, the community, and the (competitive, self-)marketing levels), I highlighted the skill of building and maintaining rapport. I used Bob Dignen’s lovely “Business with Bob” video, “Building Rapport”, where he explains mirroring and positive modelling. You’ll find it and the rest of his video series on the Business Spotlight site. (Link to the intro page to that series. Link to the video itself.)

how to disagree

Then I showed them Paul Graham’s great “pyramid of disagreement”, from the lowest, and least effective, ways (name-calling, ad hominem attacks) to those that promise most in every respect (refutation, and especially refuting the key argument). That article is well worth reading (Paul Graham, How to Disagree, March 2008).

Then we got down to business. I started with an activity from a great book I’m using a lot at the moment, by Jenny Guse, Communicative Activities for EAP (Klett/Cambridge University Press 2011, with CD-ROM, e.g. here). The activity is Discussion Trios, so: three to a group, they get a problem card, and have 10 minutes to come up with as many factors that contribute to this problem as they can. This gets them talking and practicing the language of coordination (and, as well, also, another one…). I took Jenny Guse’s material for this, namely a range of 10 environmental issues. Then we did Trios reloaded, where the same teams had to think of a new problem themselves (social, economic, cultural,…) and do the same thing again. They came up with issues like overpopulation, social inequality, corruption, but also having too many term papers to write in too short a time, and eating too much. Then they were ready to do the first extended task. I adapted an activity in Jenny Guse’s book, where she asks students to design a computer game for the elderly, and asks students to discuss and come to an agreement on the passions, values and experience of the elderly. This is to practice the language of agreement and disagreement. I preferred to have them work “closer to home”, and told them that they were to design a computer game for young adults like themselves to educate them to a pressing problem of our day and age. They were to determine the passions, values and interests of their target group that this game would appeal to. I put them in four groups of 5-6 each, and they started out by deciding on the problem, then outlining the values and passions, which each team presented, and they then went back into their groups to develop the game itself. These four games were then presented by a duo from each team:

  • A stress-reduction game: The player moves through various environments where she makes healthy, fun, vitalizing choices to move from 100% to 0% stress.
  • An urban life game: The player moves through urban adventures, where he has to “do the right thing” and is awarded citizenship and other bonus points and can become mayor or similar.
  • An end terrorism game, where the player has to put together a team to end terrorism (a lawyer, a general…). Each profile has a different chance of success, and this is predefined, so depending on whether the player employs the members of the team the way the designers have determined them to be successful, the mission will succeed.
  • An end organized crime game, in which players gain the necessary resources, which they then use as they try to infiltrate the criminal networks in missions, distracting and entertaining them to get inside.

After this entertaining activity, the students went on to “take a stand”. I showed them a cartoom that’s been making the rounds (“Dad, I’m considering a career in organized crime.” “Government or private sector?”) and asked them “Which sector is more corrupt?” The more outspoken in the class stood and spoke, and responded to each other with counter-arguments. They were great, and this I filmed, but unfortunately at over 13 minutes, the film is too long too share. (I have to break the film down to upload to our private channel, but this always takes time.) In a second round, everyone paired up, and one player expressed a standpoint, to which the other responded by agreeing with certain parts of the argument and disagreeing with others. This gave the less outspoken ones a chance to speak.

We didn’t get around to the big two team debate I had set up to end things, based on two groups, each reading only one side of an argument, and then engaging in debate, as the above activities took up the full three hours.

One thing that is rarely successful in these types of lessons is to get students to actually use functional language. I did hand out respective phrase bits and modeled them, but I didn’t actually give positive feedback when I heard them being used. The most effective feedback, I think, is when they are grasping for words and then get, from their peers or from me, the correct phrase (Comprehensible Output). I heard lots of that going on. But in my experience, as I say, it’s rarely the language usually defined as functional, it’s usually the words that carry more content. These students are using English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), at differeing levels of fluency, and they are collaborating towards an outcome, very successfully. I don’t think it’s wrong to point out functional language, it may ring a bell with some of them and come in handy, but I don’t believe in pushing it. I think it’s far more essential to internalize the principles of good communication, and that’s why a bit of a presentation and discussion of those, followed by loads of communicative activities to practice and get routine, is my favored approach. What I need to improve next time I do this sort of thing is to make sure there is a feedback slot at the end to revisit those principles.

Here is my presentation as a pdf. If you have done or do anything similar in classes, I’d love to hear from you!

MPM Discuss and debate

Job interview

For the Trinity assessed lesson, my class did job interviews. I can warmly recommend the topic to other teachers who have to do a Trinity diploma or DELTA assessed lesson, especially if your class is as motivated as ours was, and job interviews are in fact on their agenda. It obviously helps to choose a topic your students really do want to talk about. The main content should be authentic and matter to your learners, yet be packaged playfully, so noone gets bogged down in their own immediate agenda. Thank you, dear class, for being so wonderful and lovely!!


This was the third lesson in a series on job applications. The group started by thinking about the exact definition of 12 given words that you can use to describe your strengths (and weaknesses). Since some of them are similar in Spanish, and others are very different and can easily be confused, the class spent quite some time exploring their meanings, and applying them to themselves.

  • supportive… means I am helpful when there are problems. — de apoyo!
  • friendly… means I am nice and helpful. — amistoso!
  • focused… means I am very clear about what I am doing.  — centrado!
  • flexible… means I can make changes as needed. — flexible
  • creative… means I have many ideas.  — creativo
  • organized… means I plan very carefully.  — organizado
  • responsible… means I do the right thing. — responsable
  • careful… means I think about what I am doing so I don’t do anything wrong.  — cuidadoso
  • technical… means I understand technology.  — tecnico
  • experienced… means that I have done something a lot.  — exprimentado!
  • reliable… means that I will do what you expect.  — fiable!
  • successful… means things are going very well for me. — exitoso!

One of the most important things I learned in the assessed teaching practice, through somewhat painful trial and error and very helpful feedback from Mark McKinnon, was to break down new content into individual stages. So, for example, I didn’t have the learners focus on the spoken words until they had worked out the meaning in groups. I didn’t ask them to tell or read me the answers, because that would have meant having them say the words, and I would have either let their pronunciation errors pass, or would have had to correct them, distracting everyone from the area we were focussing on. Only after everyone had the correct words and definitions lined up did we begin to work on pronunciation.

I only took this approach after having done a simlar exercise differently in a disasterous earlier lesson, where I’d had them do a gap fill and then read off answers, which lead to discussions about meaning and pronunciation drills all mixed up with questions about where we were on the page, creating a huge mess of an activity which completely tore apart a lesson which on paper had looked balanced and promising. So: these details are important!

This was fascinating to me. I learn very differently than many of my students.  I tend to set up tasks based on my natural inclination to synthesize information very quickly rather than processing it analytically, and prefer short general explanations that don’t break things down over the more extensive and particular explanations that many learners prefer, but which I find positively irritating when I am subjected to them. So following my own preferences over the years means I haven’t been giving learners with a less global/ more particular and less synthesizing/more analytical approach quite the information they needed to do their tasks well. Realizing this blind spot in my knowledge of learning preferences and exploring similar issues goes far beyond just being sure to cater to visual or kinesthetic learners. This broader approach to self-reflection on language learning styles was introduced to me by Patricia Franco using Rebecca Oxford’s Strategy Inventory for Language Learning, and it has made me turn my teaching inside out. The Strategy Inventory makes a lot of sense to me as a reflective tool and I hope to incorporate it consciously into my new courses. I’ve found a very extensive learner questionnaire by Oxford, Cohen and Chi that can be used as is to jump-start a deiscussion with learners, and help profile their preferences from the very beginning of a course: Learning Style Survey.

In a second step we did a very short review of question forms. I had anticipated that this would not work well, as this was a mixed level class with a variety of different approaches to studying grammar, so I declared this a sub-aim to the communicative aim, and wrote that I wasn’t aiming for accuracy, but for fluency. The question sorting part went well, but question formulation was something that only the more advanced learners could do on their own, and in fact a number of them did do it while the others were still working on the sorting activity. So when time ran out, I decided to drop the formulation activity and go straight to the role play. If I had to do it again, I’d declare the formulation part to be a flexible addition for the advanced learners to do on their own, and leave it at that.

The stronger learners supported the weaker ones throughout this course, which Patricia and I encouraged and relied on. The communicative activity that got the participants to speak English extensively and try out the new words and use the questions was the interview itself. I had prepared a cheat sheet with questions for them to pick and choose from, and they did really well, and interviewed away.  This setup for role play is something I learned from Heather Lyle. As for the seating arrangements, I had the learners move their chairs and sit in two formal rows facing each other, so they actually had to move physically into the role, which I think makes all the difference in getting into the mindset. After round one they switched partners and played the other role, balancing out the communicative heart of the lesson.

I had prepared a presentation anticipating a few areas I thought they’d have problems with, some of which did come up, so I could project those selected slides onto the board and we could work around the gaps and spaces to add emergent language. This is low tech, just a Powerpoint and a normal whiteboard. An IWB would be a cooler solution. In any case the projected images were a better solution than writing up all of the language that came up on the board, especially with these very visual learners. 60 minutes are such a short timespan to work with, and just understanding them when they were speaking and noting down emergent language was a challenge, let alone analyzing it and getting it onto the board in a comprehensible and didactically valuable way. It was more feasible to select and preempt areas they’d had trouble with just the lesson before, things I just knew would come up. Predicting errors and language problems in teaching learners whose L1 I don’t speak was really the hardest part of the entire course for me.  German learners I can teach on the spot, but not Catalan and Spanish speakers. GIven how lovely I found the country, I’ve decided that learning Spanish is definitely on my agenda!

The phonology bit, focussing on word stress, went fine. They had learned the notation using capital letters with Patricia the day before, and they had given us feedback that they actually really liked any and all drilling we did.  In hindsight, I should have added some work on /aɪ/ to the mix for “reliable” /rɪˈlaɪəb(ə)l/, which Spanish speakers have a great deal of trouble with.

Just to clarify: This is certainly not the way I have normally taught. I’d have poopooed this degree of scaffolding as “spoonfeeding”. Patricia and I had very interesting conversations about other kinds of lessons and learner training with analytical and deep end components that may be more effective in paving the way for greater learner autonomy over the duration of a course and in the long run. Still, I see staging in increments, followed by the communicative heart, as a very valuable teaching model because it redirects my attention towards what the learners can process on their own in a single lesson. That’s in fact very much a part of what I wanted to learn in this course. So I’ll be experimenting with it in “real life”.

Handout: Job interviews
Job interview roleplay
Presentation job interviews

Teaching practice documentation is required for each assessed lesson.

Communicative aim

A communicative aim in a Trinity assessed class is not the same thing as a communicative aim in real life. In real life, we might communicate with each other to get something off our chest, or to check each other out, to find areas we share interests in or perhaps just to shoot the breeze before we get down to business, without actually “communicating towards an outcome”. Yet that latter, very narrow definition of communication is what we have learned forms the heart of the lesson.

The rationale is that language learners need a concrete reason to use English, so we have to design a task for them to do that. I’m feeling the pressure, as the class I teach can communicate most easily using Spanish (though they’re multilingual in that some have Catalan as their mother tongue). And they use it too much in class. As we design our lessons, we have to include one main communicative activity that aims for a believable and concrete outcome in some way related to what the learners need to apply outside class. In that activity they have to be using language that we have defined as our lesson aims, and have taught and had them practice in that particular lesson. There has to be evidence for their intake. But it feels audiolingual and behavioristic, actually.

We can’t simulate real life transactions in class, so there’s always an element of something being forced, which is why I tend to avoid communicative didactics in this narrow sense. I do lots of information gap activities, sure, as well as authentic communication and simulations, but I’m just not too keen on roleplay. Yet now I have to play the communicative EFL game, or I’ll fail the teaching part of this exam.

For Friday the students have requested talking about the weather. I can have them describe all sorts of weather moving up towards the heart of the lesson (I might use paintings, and have them describe the weather there and then. I’ll also have them describe the weather on a beautiful day on their last vacation, and on a bad-weather day they remember very clearly.) But it’s not enough. So I’ve been kicking around a few lesson ideas:

I’d thought of having them “call a friend” in advance of a weekend trip, and ask them about the weather there, and then pack their suitcase accordingly. In the classroom setup, that would amount to pairwork, with one person being “it” and drawing a card containing information about a place, and having to formulate a brief weather report on the current weather, and then the other person recounting what they’ll put in their suitcase. But that feels like a lesson out of a 1970s or ’80s coursebook, and reminds me of the teaching I had to do at Wall Street Institute. I burned out after six months.

A second slightly feverish idea I had was having them solve a murder mystery based on forensic evidence influenced by the weather, which would certainly be working toward an outcome, but would not exactly be very applicable. Plus, I just can’t fit in my MD in forensics before Friday. Did I mention “feverish”?

Another way to solve this might be to set the scene where they’re going on a last minute holiday, and they have to make up their mind at the airport based on the current weather report (which they research and report separately). This scenario would have the added advantage of putting them under time pressure (which is important in any fluency activity). Perhaps I could actually stand them in line and give them the “weather report” info as they stand there in line, and then call them “to the ticket counter” when they’re “up”.

I can think of so many nice activities that are not communicative:
Labelling pictures
doing a personal weather report (the weather mirrors my state of mind)
a gapped dictation describing the weather to set the scene
a sorting task differentiating between excerpts from a travel guide and a personal description of the weather right now
I’d like to film them doing a weather report, but there are 22 of them, and 60 minutes is incredibly short. And when do we have time to watch the film?

Anyway, I can’t just have them talk about the weather the way we normally do, with the aim of using the language later to break the ice and tune in to each other in a real encounter. Weather is a wonderful metaphor for feelings, and right now mine are stormy.

PS: Mike from our course has summarized the formula: “The ppp with a communicative approach worked. Remember ‘activities that are truly communicative, according to Morrow (in Johnson and Morrow 1981) have three features: information gaps, choice, and feedback.’
Three activities with correction error slots is all we have time for.”