You are what you do, not what you say [April 05 2017]

Let me start with two definitions: INCONGRUITY and AMBIGUITY. Something is incongruous when it is not similar or congruent with something else. It is not matching or fitting. Something is ambiguous if it is open to multiple interpretations. In this post I am writing about a special situation when the two are present at the same time. It can happen in the office or school, in the street or at home. What is this? You can experience this when someone tells you something (words) but their body language tells something else (tones, gestures, posture, facial expression) and due to this you become confused and you cannot interpret the situation.

Imagine a child who accidentally breaks a vase. Her mother gets angry and shouts at her. The child asks "Don't you love me anymore?" Her mother says "Yes, I love you." while collecting the broken pieces angrily and huffing and puffing and finally leaving the room and the child behind.


The mother's communication was incongruent. The Social Level of her message (the words "Yes, I love you") was not congruent with the Psychological Level of the message (angry tone of voice, keeping and increasing distance, contemptuous facial expression). In this situation the child can make a decision that "My mother loves me, she is just sad because of the broken vase". She can back up her reasoning by the mother's words (i.e. the Social Level). She can decide that "Even if she says she loves me, she does not love me". This time the reasoning is arriving from the Psychological Level (i.e. it is not what she says but what she does).

A third scenario is also possible though. This is the ambiguous interpretation. When the child is 50 - 50 % with both of the two earlier mentioned situations. "Maybe she loves me, maybe she does not love me". So she might arrive to doubt, ambivalence, confusion, hesitation, carefulness and anxiety.

Let us take another example. A husband turns to his wife: "Have you taken your medicine, darling?" The wife silently says "Yes, I have" while looking down, biting her nail and subsiding into silence. Again, we have the same communication pattern. The words and the body language are incongruent. The question is always: what will happen next? This can depend on several things but one of them is the husband's interpretation. If he believes that her wife tells the truth, she is just anxious because of the treatment then he might consider the situation OK and go on. But if he is not sure and he has some doubts about her wife's answers, he can dig deeper to reduce the ambiguity.


This "digging deeper" is my topic today. Many times you can experience this uncertainty or ambiguity in others communication. We cannot change that directly. What you can control is your reaction, what you do next. And this can modify the other person's behaviour. In other words, you can invite others to communicate differently. If you want to improve your control, first you need to be able to recognize certain patterns of the transaction. So first I will give you some help to recognize incongruent messages. Then I will give you some ideas how you can control the situation to reduce ambiguity in order to make better, more constructive decisions. Your whole personality can be engaged in this. There are times when the Adult part can do the job, other times you will need the Parent or the Child.

Let us start with the topic of deception. In the next example you are in the office. You check the vault. The company cash is gone. You ask your business partner: "Have you taken the cash?" and he says "No, I haven't". But what you see is this:


So what is deception? It is the act of hiding the truth, especially to get an advantage. Let us go back to the example in the office. Do you think the guy took the money? Why do you think what you think? He is sending incongruent messages. The words come and go on the A - A highway, on the Social Level. The business partner's nonverbal communication is happening on the covert CC - CP highway (that is called the Psychological Level of the message). In TA we call this type of transaction ULTERIOR. TA also says that the behavioural outcome of this type of a transaction is determined at the Psychological Level and not at the Social Level. The diagram below visually demonstrates this incongruent (or ulterior) transaction.

You may agree with me that this was not a challenging situation. It was easy to spot the incongruity. Let me ask a question: Has this guy taken the cash? What would you say based on what you know so far? My answer is: we don't know. His incongruent communication can be the result of several different things. Let us see some possible options: (1) it is the third time this week he has been accused of something; (2) he did not take the money but he knows who took it and why; (3) he had plans with the money but now his plan has collapsed that makes him sad. These are just some possible answers.

How would you dig deeper to eliminate ambiguity after recognizing incongruity? The best approach here is to invite your business partner to use their Adult ego state. In this situation Problem-solving is needed. It can be done best from the Adult. How can you do it? Here are five ways of inviting the Adult:

(1) Asking a question

(2) Stating a few facts

(3) Asking for their opinion

(4) Asking for their preference

(5) Asking for their view

When getting the answers, observe if their messages are congruent. Keep going until you arrive to congruent messages.

Now let us see a more challenging case. It is your daughter's wedding day. You ask her: "Are you happy?" She says: "Yes, I am." She, on the other hand, looks sad to you so you ask: "Sure?" She answers: "Yes. I smile, can't you see?" You see this:


To dig deeper, deeper than the fake smile, you can invite her Adult ego state but I would recommend you to invite her Free Child or Natural Child, which might be masked by the negative CC. Here is how you can do it:

(1) Being in FC yourself as well

(2) Being in positive NP and share your feelings, concerns or worries

(3) Showing the honest (e.g. sad, funny, ironic) side of the situation

(4) Being enthusiastic, empathetic and engaged

(5) Showing an unconventional way of looking at things.

When doing so, you can arrive to congruent messages more easily. But remember, when CC gives way to the honest FC, you can expect strong emotions you might need to deal with. You can add oil to the fire if you are not prepared or the reaction you are inviting for is not appropriate in the here-and-now context.

I am bringing one last example here. You are in trouble and you need help. You turn to a friend who thinks he or she is helping you and caring about you. You get advice and "commands" from this person. You say you don't need this; you just need someone to talk to. You don't feel you get the support you need. Your friend says "I'm just trying to help you" but in a criticizing voice.


You have the feeling that your needs in the situation are not heard. The Social Level confirms that you are helped but in spite of this the Psychological Level destroys that message. It actually says: "I will tell you what to do, think or feel". You find yourself against a CP. Question: how can you invite your friend to be in NP to provide you with the care and support you need now? Here are some ways:

(1) Asking for their help

(2) Asking for their advice

(3) Asking for their expert opinion

(4) Communicating your fears/worries

(5) Admitting your vulnerability (i.e. giving up your Be Strong driver)

I gave you 15 possible ways how you can direct your communication with others when recognizing incongruent messages during the transactions. The first 5 ways enhances the A operation. The next 5 strategies invite the FC. The last 5 approaches support the NP. Keep your eyes open and observe the conversations around you. When you detect ambiguity that should be reduced for a more constructive solution or decision, evaluate whether the operation of the Adult, Parent or Child would provide the best alternative in the here-and-now context.

If you have any questions, comments or stories, share them with me via email. We can publish them here.



by Bali Polyanki

(c) All Rights Reserved 2017