by Justin Standfield
I was recently contacted by someone on Linkedin, who sent me a connection request together with an introductory message that congratulated me on my qualifications and impressive track record in Learning & Development. They added that I was just the calibre of person who would be ideal to judge some relevant industry awards their organisation hosts each year. I must admit, it felt good to have my background and expertise recognised in this way; it seemed something of an accolade to be invited to join a judging panel, so I sent a reply saying that I would be pleased to get involved and enquired about next steps.
The reply came back almost immediately, with information on the process and details of the price of me purchasing a judging pack! Apparently there was the standard full price (four figures), but – ONLY if I acted now – I could take advantage of an early-bird discounted rate. After re-reading the email a couple of times, I considered the ‘offer’ and hit delete. Maybe I’d passed up an opportunity to showcase my company’s services to a vast audience of potential business clients? I’ll never know.
There seemed to me to be something a bit disingenuous about the original invitation and its implied flattery, because it didn’t state that this involved a financial transaction. Of course, the words of recognition and praise still stand (sort of), but any assumed altruism has been negated. This got me thinking about the concept of conditional strokes: that is, a compliment given to the receiver with some form of expectation.
Most of us have used the phrase “positive strokes” at some point in conversation, so it’s something we’re familiar with. It’s a fairly catch-all expression that refers to the giving of encouragement, praise or ‘feel-good’ feedback to another person. The idea itself comes from the Transactional Analysis (TA) field of psychology; put simply, a stroke is a unit of recognition.
Eric Berne – a psychologist and the original creator of TA – suggested that humans have a range of needs or ‘hungers’. Two of the key needs he identified were ‘recognition’ and ‘stimulus’, which are typically met in babyhood through physical touch; from this, Berne coined the term “strokes” to describe appropriately physical, or verbal, or non-verbal forms of combined recognition and stimulus. We all give and receive strokes to/from other people every single day, and some of these will be positive (e.g., a smile, a kind comment) and some of them will be negative (e.g., a visible sneer, a spoken put-down).
When we’re on the receiving end of a positive stroke, it’s essentially an opportunity to feel good. However, this assumes that the stroke is offered to us without any expectation of something in return and without any need for additional action on our part; this is known as an ‘unconditional’ positive stroke. This is a stroke for being, signifying that people do not have to do anything to earn this stroke. It is given simply for the person being present.
Examples of unconditional positive strokes are:
- It’s really good to see you; I love your company.
- The room lights up when you’re here. I’m so glad you’re my son.
- I love you.
At times, we give and receive something known as a ‘conditional’ positive stroke, which is a stroke for doing (rather than being). This usually happens when the recipient has done something (or is expected to do something) in order to earn that positive recognition/stimulus. This isn’t an inherently bad thing – in fact, they can be useful strokes as they teach people how to do things well and the recipient is likely to feel recognised and gratiﬁed.
Examples of conditional positive strokes are:
- You have done well with your football, I like how you’re playing well with your team.
- Thank you for doing ‘X’.
- You did a good job with that report/task.
Several TA authors (e.g. Claude Steiner, Neil Bright) have written about the idea of ‘counterfeit strokes’, which are superficial forms of recognition that resemble positive strokes but aren’t really meant and typically aren’t believed. Counterfeit strokes are often found in communication where there’s an ulterior motive at play and they provide absolutely none of the satisfaction that comes from a genuine stroke.
The original LinkedIn message I received falls into the ‘counterfeit stroke’ category, I think!
If you are a corporate trainer, education professional or coach who would like to develop your skills in the application of Transactional Analysis (TA) within adult learning, please get in touch to have a chat about what you’re looking for. Basic TA forms part of our trainer development workshops and we’re always happy to find ways to offer people bespoke sessions to learn about using TA in organisations (models such as Life Positions, Ego States, Motivational Drivers and the Drama Triangle).
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