Institute for Integrative Psychotherapy

Integrative Psychotherapy Articles

Cooperation, Relationship and Change

Richard G. Erskine 


  Portions of this article were presented as a keynote address on 10 August 2007 during the International Trans­actional Analysis Conference in San Francisco, Calif­ornia, U.S.A. The theme of the conference was “Co­op­eration and Power: Relationships, Choices, and Change.” Thank you to Karen Hallett, M.Ed., for her con­tribution in developing this speech and article.




   This keynote speech explores various as­pects of human relationships and coopera­tion that are dependent on interpersonal con­nection and involvement. Eight prin­ci­ples of relational group psychotherapy and four homeostatic functions are considered as ele­ments of cooperation, relationship, and change. The eight concepts of tolerance, hu­mil­ity, compassion, conscientiousness, curi­os­ity, graciousness, creativity, and optimism are described as enhancers to quality rela­tionships. Predictability, identity, continuity, and stability are presented as homeostatic functions.



   Dianne Maki, one of the coordinators of this conference, called me over a year ago and asked me to speak on the themes of coopera­tion, relationship, and change. Other speakers, she said, were invited to talk about cooperation and power. I told her that I had never talked about cooperation and added, “I am not sure I know much about it.” She answered, “Yes, you do. It’s in your teaching about relational group process. Your approach to group psycho­thera­py is all about cooperation and relationship and change.” Hence, the title of this keynote speech.

   After the telephone conversation, I had a year of being periodically uncomfortable, a discomfort that actually led me to do some mind­ful soul-searching. I particularly examined when I was cooperative and in relationship. I also paid care­ful attention to when I was not cooperative and when I contributed to a disrup­tion in rela­tion­ship. I explored what elements of cooperation-in-relationship were missing in my intersubjective process. As a result, I will be sharing in part my own personal journey over this past year—a journey stimulated by Dianne—and talking with you professionally about the principles of a relational group psy­cho­therapy.

   I found it interesting that in the previous keynote, “Liberating Self and Others through Cooperation,” Giles Barrow (2007a) was say­ing that a relational group psychotherapy takes the psychotherapist out of the center of the group and puts the focus on the relationship be­tween group members. With this statement, Giles provided an introduction to my pre­sent­ing some of the principles of a relational per­spec­tive on conducting group psychotherapy. I will be presenting the various methods of re­lational group psychotherapy in a future work­shop.

   When I began searching for ideas on co­op­era­tion, I went to the Dictionary of Behavioral Science (Wolman, 1973), one of my favorite sour­ces, and discovered that “cooperation” is not even listed. I turned to one of my other favor­ites, Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary (2001), because not only is the defi­nition listed, it usually also provides the ori­gin(s) of the word. This time Webster’s was rath­er short! It described cooperation as the act of working together for a common purpose and benefit. I was surprised at the similarity be­tween this definition and the principles of rela­tional group psychotherapy. Webster also de­fined relationship as a connection or involve­ment. If we merge those two definitions to­geth­er, then cooperation is dependent on our inter­per­sonal connection and involvement. Co­op­er­a­tion is based on shared experience. Just think for a moment about a time when you needed someone else to cooperate with you—and he or she did not do it. What was missing for you in that relationship? How did you need that other person to relate to you differently?

   I would like to share with you eight prin­ci­ples from relational group therapy, augmented by my own soul-searching, and suggest some descriptive terms that may provide a useful perspective on cooperation, relationships, and group process.



   Tolerance is based on the assumption that the other person’s behavior seems to him or her to be the best possible choice given his or her past experiences and motivation. Each of us is al­ways making the best choice as we evaluate it in the moment. Tolerance is respecting the oth­er person’s form of choice and providing the other with the opportunity for choice whenever possible.

   Tolerance also involves the opportunity for the other to express self-definition, an impor­tant relational need that we each bring to the other. We all require the opportunity to define ourselves in relationship with other persons. The need for self-definition is further expressed by having agency and efficacy. Agency can be described as being in the passenger seat of a car: You have the map, you tell the driver where to go, and he or she follows your directions. Effi­cacy is when you are in the driver’s seat, and wherever you point the car, that is exactly where it is going to go. We all need a sense of both agency and efficacy in our lives—the abil­ity to influence other people and to express our own choices. When we practice tolerance, we provide the opportunity for the other person to express his or her agency and efficacy.

   Tolerance involves taking the other person’s concerns, frustrations, and anger seriously. Re­member for a moment being in a situation in which you were angry at someone, and the oth­er person immediately apologized to you, but you found that the apology did not work. Apolo­gies that are made too quickly often lack an emotional connection, particularly if the oth­er person has failed to take your anger seri­ous­ly. Tolerance includes allowing one’s self to be impacted by the other person so that we seri­ous­ly accept the other’s frustration, choice, agen­cy, or anger as significant. Tolerance in­volves a language of inclusion. It is a “we” and an “us”—it is a focus on the together possi­bili­ties versus an “I” and the “you” focus on our separateness.



   Humility is the opposite of “I know best.” Humility counteracts certainty, the expression of an attitude of “I have a monopoly on truth.” Humility is the opposite of “I know what is real.” If we are less certain of the truth, or the right way, or reality, then we allow the other per­son to influence us—an element of coo­p­er­a­tion and relationship-making in life and in relational group psychotherapy. As a result, we can both grow and change.

   Cooperation and relationship include allow­ing the other to influence us. To think that we know better than the other is a human fallacy; with such a fallacy we tend to emphasize our own perspectives rather than listening to the other person’s. Humility also creates the oppor­tunity for the other to be more self-expressive. When we become more humble, we give up the attitude of certainty and our conviction of do­ing things the right way. Humility includes the capacity for empathy. When I use the term “em­pathy,” I include Carl Rogers’s (1951) concept of feeling what it is like to be in the emotional experience of the other person. I also include Heinz Kohut’s (1977) idea that em­pathy involves cognitive introspection, a put­ting of one’s self into the mind of the other. Bill Cornell (2007), yesterday in his workshop, described another form of empathy, that of “so­matic resonance.” Such an important human connection occurs when we allow our body to resonate with another person’s body while hav­ing an awareness that the somatic resonance is a way to deeply know the other. Each of these forms of empathy and humility are important as­pects of the process of interpersonal con­nec­tion.



   Compassion is based on a commitment to the welfare of the other person. It includes an emo­tion and attitude of being with and for the oth­er. Compassion is the highest form of being in­terpersonally contactful. It creates a sense of safe­ty and security in the other person and in­volves a commitment to understanding the feelings and motivations of the other. When we are validating the other—that is, finding value in his or her wishes, reactions, and/or emotions—we are being compassionate. Compassion involves valuing the uniqueness and difference in the other person and the expression of that val­ue. With compassion we communicate to the other that his or her feelings and needs are im­portant to us. Two meaningful questions that we can each ask ourselves about the possibility of compassion are: First, am I committed to the other person’s welfare? Second, am I defining the other person rather than meeting him or her with compassion? When we define people, when we ascribe motivation to them, when we cate­gor­ize them, we lose our capacity for com­pas­sion. What would happen in the quality of our communication with others if we had a more com­passionate perspective when using our trans­actional analysis theories of games, rack­ets, or ulterior transactions?



   Conscientiousness is the means by which we establish personal consistency and de­pen­da­bil­ity. Being conscientious includes making and keeping agreements that are bilateral and bene­fit each person, so that each of our desires, choic­es, and needs are reflected in our agree­ments and our contracts with each other. An­other form of conscientiousness involves follow-through or reliability: Follow-through means remembering what is important to the other per­son and keeping the uniqueness of that other person in mind. By being dependable, reliable, and consistent, we establish an en­vi­ron­ment of emotional stability. Someone asked me recently what the most important idea was that I had writ­ten. I answered that it was not an article or one of the books, but only one sen­tence in the article “Shame and Self-righteous­ness”: “What is the effect of my inner affect or be­havior on the other person?” (Erskine, 1994, p. 87). When we keep that question in mind, we lessen the opportunity that behavior will be hu­mi­li­a­ting and shaming to the other person. Of­ten we do not immediately know how we affect the oth­er, and, therefore, we must inquire and en­gage that person while bringing ourselves fully into the relationship. Through a respectful in­quiry, we demonstrate our tolerance, humil­ity, compassion, and conscientiousness.


   Relationship and cooperation include being curious about the other’s perspective, feelings, and how uniquely different he or she is from us; it involves being curious to learn about his or her point of view. Quality relationships in­volve exploring the other’s self-definition and embracing that person’s worldview, at least for a period of time. I am not suggesting that we be­come confluent with the other person, but rath­er that we get out of our own perspective tem­porarily and appreciate the experience of be­ing that other person. How do we do it? One way is to assume that we know nothing about the other person’s experience or inner life. All of our observations, all of our theories are mere impressions. They do not tell us enough about what it is like to be in the other person’s ex­peri­ence. Therefore, an ongoing inquiry is ne­c­e­s­sary to discover the other person’s per­spec­tive and feelings and what he or she needs in a relationship.

   Let me share with you another of my ques­tions of self-examination: What will happen to me if I embrace the other’s frame of reference? Will I change? Am I afraid of that change? Of­ten we are afraid of even a small change in our frame of reference because it may be the be­ginning of changing how we have structured our whole way of being in the world.



   Graciousness is built on respect. Gra­cious­ness provides a sense of security and an open­ing for others to express themselves. People become less guarded and defensive in an at­mo­sphere of graciousness. Graciousness opens the possibility for dialogue through an honoring of the other’s inherent “OKness.” It is the real ex­pression of “I’m OK, You’re OK.” We express graciousness through prosody, which refers to how we emotionally talk to each other. Prosody is not about content but about the tone of voice, the cadence, and the affect that characterizes about 90% of our communication.

   Let me give you an example: Yes……YES…..YES!!!....Yesss… Each of these is the same word when we read it in print. It is simply spelled y-e-s, but the tone tells such a different story—of confirmation, willingness, annoy­ance, or compliance. Graciousness re­quires that we pay close attention to our tone, which car­ries our affective message, not just the content of what we say. One of the most gracious sen­tences that we can say to each oth­er, when done with an attitude of open ac­cep­tance, is, “I’ll be glad to do that for you.” Have you said that re­cently to someone?

   Each of us plays an important role in the life of each other even though we may not realize it. The mirror neurons in the brain respond to the prosody of speech. They are constantly re­flecting the emotional content of how we are with each other, hence an attitude of gracious­ness creates the opportunity to enhance rela­tion­ship and cooperation.



   Creativity involves searching for new solu­tions. Creativity leads to change. We can learn creativity by embracing the perspectives of oth­ers. Creativity includes examining problems from a novel perspective. We could examine trans­actional analysis theory from what is called the “bottom-up rather than the top-down” ap­proach to problem solving. For example, would we have a different understanding of ego states and transactions if the Child ego state were drawn on top and the Parent ego state on the bot­tom of our three-circle diagram (Barrow, 2007b)? How would you explain transactions or intrapsychic influence differently from that perspective? Our theory will only change and grow by continuing to examine it through novel perspectives. Embracing a new perspective rec­og­nizes that change is inevitable.

   Transactional analysis today, both in theory and practice, is not the transactional analysis that I learned 40 years ago. It has evolved with our changing culture and our ongoing crea­tiv­ity. We still have our foundation; we still are well grounded, I hope, in what Berne and the people in the San Francisco seminar developed. Yet we are also a part of the whole paradigm shift that has occurred throughout the field of psychotherapy. The Journal of Behavioral Ther­apy now emphasizes that building a rela­tionship between client and therapist is the most important element in psychotherapy prior to focusing on behavioral change. In New York City, I am involved in an ongoing seminar at the Institute for Intersubjectivity, where I am con­stantly amazed that my psychoanalytic col­leagues frequently sound like transactional analysts when they are discussing cases from their own practices. They also reflect the para­digm shift in both psychotherapy and in other fields of human relationships. One of the re­mark­able things is that the ITAA has creatively allowed that paradigm shift to emerge. We have just given the Eric Berne Memorial Award to Helena Hargaden and Charlotte Sills for their writing on the concept of relationality in trans­actional analysis, an award that reflects changes in our theories and methods of TA. For me, the important changes I have experienced in un­der­standing theory and in creatively developing new methods have been stimulated by my cli­ents’ feedback about what is effective and what is ineffective in their psychotherapy. Each of us is part of the paradigm shift in understanding psychotherapy and human relationships. Change is inevitable.



   Optimism involves the anticipation of a posi­tive outcome and a commitment to the idea that we are going to achieve something wonderful together. My mother, who lived to be 87 years old despite a lifelong illness of tuberculosis and other adversities, faced each crisis with her mot­to, “Life will always work out, not as we pre­dict, not as we plan, but life will work out.” This motto gave her an optimistic view of the ad­versities, losses, and disappointments that oc­curred in her life. Optimism includes faith in the inherent “OKness” of both life and people: faith that people make good decisions for them­selves, faith in the choices that people make, faith in the common benefit if we all work to­gether and respect each other’s needs. Such an optimistic faith brings us to change, the last word in the title of this speech.

   What happens when our optimism and our enthusiasm for change become intense and we demand change in our clients or ourselves? In gestalt therapy theory, Arnold Beisser (1971) wrote about the paradoxical theory of change. This simple concept asserts that the more we push for change in the other person, the more he or she is secretly and quietly going to resist and the more he or she is going to stay the same because old patterns of behavior and at­ti­tudes provide several homeostatic functions.

   We stay in our old behaviors and attitudes be­cause they provide predictability, an im­por­tant aspect of structure hunger. Berne (1966) described how we all search for structure. Pre­dictability fulfills that need for structure by pro­viding a sense that we are in charge of the fu­ture. We know what is going to happen when we remain with old behavioral patterns and attitudes, and so life is predictable. Another homeostatic function is identity. Our old be­hav­ior patterns and self-protective ways of re­lating to others provide us with a sense of identity. If we change, if we do not engage in the same predictable behavior patterns with each other, then who are we? Who are you? Who am I? Our old behavioral patterns also provide continuity. When we have been en­gag­ing in the same patterns for years, those pat­terns seem natural to us; we sense that this is how it has always been. Continuity is also an outgrowth of structure hunger; it is our desire to keep our experience consistent. People often imagine that there will be pain and loss in change. Our focus needs to be on the gain and growth that is possible with change.

   Stability is another form of structure hunger. This homeostatic function provides a sense of self-comforting, self-soothing, and self-regula­tion by relying on old behavioral patterns.

   When we change our old patterns, we must rely on the quality of our relationships to pro­vide regulation, soothing, and comfort. In the human relations fields and in psychotherapy, change occurs through appreciating each per­son’s homeostatic functions of predictability, identity, continuity, and stability and in devel­op­ing a quality of relationship that provides these functions. Cooperation is built on rela­tion­ship, interpersonal connection, and involve­ment. People change when we offer tolerance, humility, compassion, conscientiousness, curi­os­ity, graciousness, creativity, and optimism. In my personal experience, that is how we can all learn and grow together in our relationships.


   Richard G. Erskine, Ph.D., was the co­re­ci­p­i­ent of the 1982 Eric Berne Memorial Scientific Award and the 1998 Eric Berne Memorial Award. He is the author of numerous articles on transactional analysis theory and methods. He may be reached at the Institute for Inte­gra­tive Psychotherapy, 500 East 85th St., PH B, New York, NY 10028, U.S.A.; e-mail: .



Barrow, G. (2007a, 10 August). Liberating self and others through cooperation: Teaching, learning, schooling, and script. Keynote address at the International Trans­ac­tional Analysis Conference, San Francisco, CA, U.S.A.

Barrow, G. (2007b). Wonderful world, wonderful people: Reframing transactional analysis as positive psy­chol­ogy. Transactional Analysis Journal, 37, 206-209.

Beisser, A. R. (1971). The paradoxical theory of change. In J. Fagan & I. L. Shepherd (Eds.), Gestalt therapy now: Theory, techniques, applications (pp. 77-80). New York: Harper & Row.

Berne, E. (1966). Principles of group treatment. New York: Grove Press.

Cornell, W. F. (2007, 9 August). Somatic resonance: A body-centered understanding of transference and coun­tertransference. Workshop presented at the Inter­na­tional Transactional Analysis Conference, San Fran­cisco, CA.

Erskine, R. G. (1994). Shame and self-righteousness: Transactional analysis perspectives and clinical inter­ven­tions. Transactional Analysis Journal, 24, 86-102.

Kohut, H. (1977). The restoration of the self: A systematic approach to the psychoanalytic treatment of nar­cis­sistic personality disorder. New York: International Universities Press.

Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centered therapy: Its current practice, implications, and theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Webster’s encyclopedic unabridged dictionary of the Eng­lish language. (2001). San Diego, CA: Thunder Bay Press.

Wolman, B. B. (1973). Dictionary of behavioral science. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold & Co.


This article was published in the Transactional Analysis Journal, Vol. 38, No. 1, pp. 31-35. Reprinted with permission of the ITAA.


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