The Five Ego States – Which Role do You Play?

The Five Ego States – Which Role do You Play?

It is widely theorised, thanks to Eric Berne, that in any situation we humans are always in one of five ego states – or states of mind. In the context of a conflict, these states can affect the outcome by determining who may have the ‘upper hand’ or who will ‘back down’. Here at IKON Training we don’t like these outcomes, and this outcome can happen by one person assuming the role ofcritical parent and the other assuming the role of adapted child. All of these states have their place, and you will be able to think of a time when you have assumed each role. Below are the five ego states, with an explanation:


  1. Critical Parent

Firstly, critical parent.  This ego state can be seen when people use words and phrases like ‘never’, ‘always’, ‘don’t to that’ and ‘stop’. You may remember words and phrases like that when getting shouted at as a child.


  1. Nurturing Parent

This ego state is the caring side of parenthood. Imagine if, as a child, you got shouted at then started crying your eyes out. Your parent would likely enter a nurturing parent state and offer sympathy, using words such as, ‘good’ and ‘nice’. What’s happened here is the parent has realised the critical parent role has affected you, and changed state to adapt to the situation.


  1. Free Child

This one is probably how you spent the majority of your childhood. You possibly had exaggerated words and movements, for example‘love’, ‘hate’, or ‘amazing’. This use of hyperbole, along with a wildly spontaneous mood makes up the state of free child. Have you ever been a happy child, then when you realise your parents are like putty in your hands you’ve asked for some sweets; and they’ve said no so you’ve started the ‘crocodile tears’? That’s the free child, too.


  1. Adapted Child

After you’ve lost your battle with your parents you’ll give in; you’ll stop crying and be in a ‘mood’, this is adapted child. You will use words like ‘please’, ‘sorry’ and ‘can’t’. This state is the state that taught you how to adapt and act in reaction to your surroundings – whether that be by sulking or learning how to act to get what you want.


  1. Adult

And finally, adult. This is the one feel we should all be/think we are at all times. That isn’t the case though and we all move through these states whilst thinking we’re being adult.  Simply put, adult is reasoning, negotiating, empathising and caring. You will use words like ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘who’ because you’re likely to be asking questions to understand the situation better.


In Summary

In a conflict situation the best method is to attempt to retain the state of a rational adult. This works by probing and asking clarification, and empathising with the situation. If you retain a state of adult, your opponent will usually also adopt that state.  When you both move to adult, you can start to overcome the objection as, well, adults.

If you allow someone to vent at you, they are trying to make you enter the adapted child phase.  While allowing people to vent is good practise, allowing them to force you out of an adult phase is counter-productive. Simply, they would ‘win’ the argument as you back down.

Now, you can look around you and see which ego states you and others enter in certain situations. It is good to consciously be mindful of these phases, as you can then successfully tackle the scenarios as adults.

IKON Training offers specialised and bespoke training courses for people on Conflict Resolution. The ego states, and the information in our other blog post 10 Ways to Avoid Conflict at Work, feature in our courses to help individuals overcome conflict. Please Contact Us if you would like to discuss enrolling onto one of our courses.


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Holden, C. (2013) The Ego States. Publisher: Whole Deen Publishing

Berne, E. (1996) Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy. 2nd Edition. Publisher: Souvenir Press Ltd.

Published Tuesday, August 25th, 2015
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