U OK hun?
No. Not really. Everything is not okay. But the worst thing is, everyone else seems to be okay about it.
There’s too much to do and not enough time to do it. You’re going to mess up. You’re going to fail. Everyone else has a different idea about what should take priority and why. We’re stumbling when we should be making progress. It’s chaotic and we need some order. Why is no-one taking this seriously? And on top of everything, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic.
U OK hun?
Let’s take a breather.
Back in 1972, a book hit The New York Times Best Seller list and stayed there for almost two years. Today it is estimated to have sold in excess of 15 million copies. But the book wasn’t a piece of blockbuster fiction ready-made for Hollywood, it was a self-help book titled I’m OK – You’re OK.
Its author, Thomas A Harris, was a pioneer in the branch of psychotherapy known as transactional analysis, which helps us resolve emotional problems by understanding our behaviours.
In the book, Harris outlines four standard ‘life positions’ that we all adopt from time to time. One of them is the ‘I’m OK – You’re OK’ of the book’s title. This is the position we all hope to achieve. It’s a positive and confident assertion of our abilities and emotions, grounded in an understanding of our own behaviour, and the behaviour and others.
Next, there’s ‘I’m OK – You’re Not OK’ – we are confident in ourselves, but recognise others may be less so. Third, there’s ‘I’m Not OK – You’re Not OK’, which would certainly be a cause for worry – and perhaps something we all feel as the coronavirus is wreaking its havoc.
The most common position humans adopt, however, is the final position: ‘I’m Not OK – You’re OK’.
When we adopt this position, we think those around us are competent and strong, but imagine ourselves to be weak and prone to making mistakes. We’re hard on ourselves, and this toxic thinking affects the way we communicate and behave with other people. Harris calls these interactions with other people ‘transactions’.
Those four life positions inform how we develop and maintain all of our personal and professional relationships, and the transactions form the basis of everything we do within them.
Think about that. Imagine being at work and constantly holding the ‘I’m Not OK – You’re OK’ position. In fact, it’s incredibly common, and can be the root cause of many petty resentments, arguments, mistrust and misunderstandings.
Wouldn’t it be better and more productive to reach a position of trust – ‘I’m OK – You’re OK’? Of course it would.
Analysis of these transactions grounds our understanding of behaviour in everyday reality. The thinking is, if we break down what we do and how we feel into simple units, the challenges we face become simpler to address, and changes become easier to make. It means that if we spot a pattern of behaviour that looks problematic, we don’t have to rush in and make wholesale changes, we can attend to an individual transaction and build from there.
In the world of work, this makes sense too. The problem is, we don’t always have the tools to break down the big challenges – the all-consuming projects, the broader business goals – into manageable chunks.
And when the challenges feel insurmountable and that fear of failure strikes, someone in your team – and maybe even you – is going to adopt that ‘I’m Not OK – You’re OK’ position. At such a moment, negative feelings can spiral throughout a team.
But it’s not all bad news. Being transparent and agile in our communications can set things on the right track. In his book, Harris describes two classes of communication that occur between individuals. First, there are complementary transactions, which are generally positive and productive, and that can therefore continue indefinitely in a progressive manner. Then there are crossed transactions, which cause arguments and a breakdown in communications.
When we learn how to do the former, the channels of communication remain open, a standardised language emerges that everyone understands and trusts, and from which everyone benefits. We remain in dialogue, learn about each other, and work towards our common goals.
Of course, all this thinking comes from the world of psychiatry, and the 1970s is a long time ago. But Harris didn’t intend his insights to be a tool for specialists in psychotherapy, and their inherent truths have practical applications in many settings today, the workplace being one of them.
When we place open communications and manageable tasks at the heart of what we do, we find it easier to structure our time and add meaning to our work. Harris could only have imagined how technological advances in the 21st century could help give us the tools to deliver on his understanding of human behaviour. He may not have foreseen how those tools would be needed more than ever in this time of Covid-19.
But if he heard a colleague asking, slightly patronisingly, ‘U OK hun?’, he would quickly be looking for a way to turn ‘I’m Not OK – You’re OK’, into ‘I’m OK – You’re OK’.
U OK hun?