The Stroke Exchange – Trade Like a Pro!

- By Rag Ranjan

January 30, 2023

The theory of Transactional Analysis places great importance on the quality of recognition among people as fundamental to healthy psychological development. I was drawn to the idea of strokes in TA 101 itself – my first introduction to Transactional Analysis. It seemed like a simple and profound way to enhance OKness and increase motivation in self and others. In this blog, I share my understanding of strokes and how I have used the this theory to make a difference to myself.

What strokes are

Eric Berne, the creator of Transactional Analysis defined a “stroke” as a “unit of recognition”.
Neil Bright in his book, Rethinking Everything, says: “A stroke is a verbal, nonverbal, or physical stimulus sent out and received by another person. It is a unit of attention, recognition, or stimulation as when someone says your name, laughs at your jokes, smiles at you, embraces you, cooks your favorite meal, criticizes your intelligence, applauds your efforts, frowns at you, responds to you verbally, or listens attentively to what you have to say.

Simply put, a stroke is any contact or connection acknowledging another’s presence. And such stimulation is more than something people enjoy or simply a form of attention at least marginally confirming one’s worth. That is, in nourishing and revitalizing the Child ego state, strokes are essential for the healthy emotional life of children and adults and are even more crucial for the psychological and physical well-being of newborns. So clear is this biological connection that the term “stroke,” to caress, was coined because of this inherent need for tactile contact during the first months of life.”

Types of Strokes

Strokes can be categorized mainly into conditional or non-conditional, and verbal or non-verbal. A conditional stroke is the one that is offered for doing something whereas an unconditional stroke is the one that is offered for being. An example of conditional verbal stroke is, “You have drawn this painting beautifully”. Whereas an unconditional verbal stroke is, “You are talented”.

Verbal strokes are expressed through words whereas the non-verbal strokes are expressed through facial expressions, touch or actions. For example, organising a birthday party for a friend is a non-verbal stroke.

Strokes can be either positive (e.g. “You are handsome”) or negative (e.g. “Your hairstyle doesn’t look good”. Positive strokes invite an “I am OK” feeling. Negative strokes invite an “I am not OK” feeling. However, it is the receiver who decides whether a stroke is experienced as positive or negative.

A person must receive a certain amount of strokes to be able to survive, known as the “survival quotient”. “Strokes are necessary for human survival, and when people can’t obtain positive strokes, they will settle for negative strokes because they too, even though they feel bad, are life supportive. Capers and Holland point out that when peoples’ stroke sources fall below a certain point which he calls the Survival Quotient, they become more and more willing to accept negative strokes because they need strokes, any strokes, for survival. Taking negative strokes is like drinking polluted water; extreme need will cause us to overlook the harmful qualities of what we re- quire to survive. Thus, a negative stroke is better than no strokes.” (Steiner, 1974)

The Stroke Economy

Our culture introduces some limiting rules about strokes to us as children. The adults in our life, in order to retain control over us, send us a message that only when we act that particular way, we will get the strokes we want and not otherwise. We carry forward these unconsciously learnt rules into our adult life. We unconsciously continue to apply the same limiting rules when it comes to giving or receiving strokes.

There are following five limiting rules:

  • Don’t give strokes when you have them
  • Don’t ask for strokes when you need them
  • Don’t accept strokes when you want them
  • Don’t reject strokes when you don’t want them
  • Don’t give yourself strokes.

In the TA 101, and as part of one of the exercises during my own TA training, I discovered that the Stroke Economy rules that I had adopted the most prominently were: a) Don’t ask for strokes and b) Don’t give yourself strokes. I also understood that I applied a stroke filter to let in only certain kinds of strokes.

“In the process of deciding upon a script, each person’s Little Professor creates a stroke filter. It lets in strokes that fit and support a script. Thus the filter is a discounting mechanism and maintains the person’s frame of reference.” (Woollams, 1978)

I noticed that whilst it was difficult for me to accept positive strokes (felt embarrassed or doubted the authenticity of the stroke or even sensed a hidden agenda), when it came to negative strokes I would take them in with very minimal resistance. This filtering out of positive strokes caused an acute stroke -deficit in my personal as well as professional life. As I explored my childhood through the training and later through personal work, I understood that my beliefs about strokes were decisions that I had made as a little child and I could change them.

Through my awareness, I have modified my stroke filter and changed my stroke economy. Here are some examples of how that has played out for me and for those around me.

Exchange of Strokes at Workplace and Home:

On the professional front, I increased the free exchange of strokes in my department. I introduced the Stroke Economy to my colleagues and mentees. I invited them to discussions on strokes as a tool for employee recognition. This helped the managers look at recognition with an altogether different lens – beyond the tangibles or the monetary rewards. Within my own team, I conducted stroke exchange sessions with senior managers. As part of group activity, the team got introduced to this concept in a fun yet deeply insightful manner. They opened themselves up to give and receive strokes freely. It was very interesting to deliberate on the application of stroke economy in the ways we could offer recognition to our colleagues during routine, day to day interactions.

Taking a cue from this, team members launched a number of initiatives such as Happiness Currency (virtual coins you earn and spend by exchanging strokes) and a Wall of Gratitude (where employees thank one another by putting up a post-it sticker).

On personal front, I developed a habit of offering strokes by creating daily reminders to thank or appreciate my colleagues. I also started giving strokes more freely within my family (for example I hug my daughters more often than before, and also ask for their hugs whenever I feel like!).

When the Jar Opened:

One of the most memorable moments of my TA training was when Aruna Gopakumar, our trainer was taking us through the concept of Strokes. I was suddenly reminded of a jar that my daughter Pakhi had made for me and my wife, on our wedding anniversary. She had kept dozens of colourful, handwritten chits inside the jar, each one of them thanking us for a small little thing (right from not scolding her for losing her new pencil to buying her a new dress on her birthday!). Unfortunately, it was five years since then and I hadn’t cared to read each of those chits. I recognised this as a manifestation of “Don’t accept strokes.” Surely enough I went home from the class, opened the jar and carefully read out each of those strokes that my seven year old had offered me long ago. I carried the jar next day to my TA class as well, where everyone took turns to open and read those beautiful and heart-warming messages of gratitude.

Incidentally, the concept is now branded by my TA friends as Pakhi Jar and has become a favourite gifting idea for special occasions!

Never Good Enough for the Critical Parent:

I have grown up with a loud Critical Parent voice in my head. This voice belongs to my father who, owing to his own Parental injunctions hardly celebrated any achievements – neither his own nor of any of us in the family. My father’s Try Hard driver has meant that by the time he accomplishes something, all he can feel is a relief from the struggle he has inflicted upon himself through the process of accomplishment. He had modeled this to me since early childhood.

Until being introduced to Stroke Economy I never knew how uncharitable I was being to myself and to others by applying my stroke filters. Whilst the social mirror reflected my indifference to those positive strokes as humility/ modesty, what was happening is that I wasn’t able to celebrate, relax or feel good about myself. This constant self-criticism also inhibited my expression of creativity, as anything that I wrote felt good, but wasn’t good enough to be published. With my TA awareness I got in touch with the source of this constant self-criticism and realized that I had a choice to dissociate myself from this tendency. I got to know that this voice in my head did not belong to me but to my father. It did not serve me well. As a child, I believed it, but as an adult I could challenge the voice and disagree with it. I have been pleasantly surprised with the creative “flow” that I have entered into, thanks to this awareness. It has also come to my realization that all along I was discounting others’ ability to be respectful and non- judgmental.

Pre-empting a Mass Stroke Deprivation:

“Eric Berne’s well known colloquialism “If you are not stroked your spinal cord will shrivel up” was first put up in writing in 1964 in Games People Play. He was referring to the hospital studies by Spitz (1945). Spitz found that in an orphanage where the children were raised in a sterile environment with minimal nurturing or handling, motor or intellectual development were markedly depressed, mortality was high, and physical growth was retarded.” (Steiner, 2007)

The concept of strokes came alive for me in yet another work related situation with the onset of COVID-19 situation leading to all our employees working from home. Backed with my TA knowledge, I was quick to understand the potential impact this would have on the employee morale, given that they were going to be far removed from the physical team environments for prolonged durations. This would mean no handshakes, no pats on the back, no exchange of glances and smiles in the corridor, no shout-outs for thank-you and sorry, no sounds of laughter coming from across the floor, no whispers and murmurs…

This appeared to be a perfect setting for the potential dissolution of the stroke patterns that were so familiar to the team mates. Putting the TA theory to use, I formed a communication protocol which among other things, included a daily call to each staff member from their line manager focused solely on their personal and family well-being, availability of daily essentials, adequacy of technology and other infrastructure. Most importantly, each call would end with a vote of thanks on behalf of the entire management team, acknowledging the efforts and hardships the staff were going through while keeping the service standards high.

Most of the happy employees owe their job satisfaction, to a large extent to the daily dosages of being seen, heard and touched. I felt glad to have applied the concept of strokes so effectively – the approach yielded a very positive response from the teams and was acknowledged as a best practice in various forums.

That being said, I am on a journey and continue to work on my ability to offer and receive strokes.

These patterns are so deeply ingrained that just awareness often isn’t enough for transformation. “Don’t Stroke Yourself” and “Don’t Ask” are the two stroke economy injunctions that are still high for me, often reflected in my self-effacing behavior such as minimising my contribution and maximising the positive contribution of others (Don’t Stroke Yourself) and not asking for more responsibilities even though I deserve them (Don’t Ask). This is something that I am seeking help on, through my personal therapy sessions.

About the author:

Rag Ranjan has been leading large and diverse teams for his entire career spanning over two decades. He is a passionate advocate for diversity inclusion at workplaces.

Rag is a certified coach, an aspiring psychotherapist and a Hindi poet. His collection of poems titled “Khulti Rassiyon Ke Sapne” was published last year. He also holds a diploma in Transactional Analysis and is a certified Mental Health First Aider.

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    One response to “The Stroke Exchange – Trade Like a Pro!”

    1. Manisha Singh says:

      Hi Rag, thank you for think wonderful article – the key concepts of TA along with instances from your personal journey made it a very special read.
      Your passion for coaching and for understanding the workings of the mind was palpable – it deeply resonates with me.

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