m-purintun-02sAfter the holidays, I am frequently reminded of how power games can affect communication. There is nothing quite like a game of Monopoly, or a good card game to help us form a group dialogue that can build relationships and a real sense of family. I am also aware that some games that people play do not come with a board, dice, or cards, and are not nearly so benign.

One communications tool that I have been using lately to observe and learn from is to watch the games that we play with one another in communication. My framework for this probably rests on my early experiences with Transactional Analysis. In Transactional Analysis (TA), one of the ways to talk about communication is the games that people play. It can get pretty detailed very quickly, but the basic texts I read (MANY years ago) were: Games People Play: The Basic Handbook of Transactional Analysis by Eric Berne and I'm OK-You're OK by Thomas A. Harris. This article is not a book report on those or written by an expert at all.

While there are many games, some of the ones that I have observed most recently include the fear game (not strictly speaking, a game by TA standards), the blame game, and "Now I've got you, you son of a bitch" (NIGYSOB). I lift them up because they seem to iterate or reinforce our meme that we are without power, and yet are focused on our power. I want to examine each of these individually and then explore some solutions.

One of the more frequent games in our modern world is the fear game. The fear game dynamic is like this, if I can get you to be afraid of something or someone, I can manipulate the outcome, getting you into doing what I want. The Terror, at the height of the French Revolution, was a perfect example of rule by fear. People were so afraid of execution and one another, that they avoided even the most rudimentary contact, and put one another into harms way. The witch trials in Salem are another example of fear being used for gain. Our fear of the American Indians and their lack of proper religion led us to nearly exterminate them. Fear can lead us quickly to a desire to eliminate the perceived cause, possibly even the person or group.

The question we ask as an observer is "who wins in that situation?" Once you ask the question, the answers come like a flood. When people were told they should be afraid of American Indians, the response was to move them away from the land they were on and work to educate them to be like us. Ultimately the response was just short of genocidal. Why? Was it becuase they looked different or did not speak English, or was it because they had something someone wanted? Using fear to manipulate people is a blunt and dangerous tool that we see used all the time.

The blame game arises out of the great misconception that someone is always responsible. We use the blame game to assign blame for things big and small. It's always someone else at fault. Did you find drugs in my system, it was the coach's fault. The impeachment of a president is always the fault of the party in power in Congress. We seldom admit that the world is much more complicated—we may all bear some responsibility. In Nazi Germany, terrible things were done, but it was always someone else's responsibility. In my own life, I am occasionally late for meetings and events, and though I know better, I seldom take responsibility and make a change in the micro-planning that leads to tardiness. 

I was recently in a meeting where the blame game quickly got out of hand, with accusations and accountability being hurled as weapons. Each person ended up blaming the other for something that was bigger than the two of them. Those of us present later described it as a train wreck. We could see it coming. Wasn't there anything that we could do? Certainly doing nothing did not help.

The last game I want to talk about is "Now I've Got You, You SOB" (NIGYSOB). Have you ever found yourself in a situation that felt like a trap, or that seems like it happens all the time? Maybe you were hired for a job with a contract, and one small part went over cost. The next thing you knew, you're fighting a battle with your employer over it. The you are setting a trap for your boss, to show how they are bad. NIGYSOB. You use this to get out your anger at them, the world, etc. And it is cyclical. You can see the game in macro if you watch the world and see places where one side or the other in a conflict is always claiming victimhood. The ultimate purpose for this game, frankly, is death. To kill the one who hurt you. But people generally play it to their own level of comfort, so the "death" may be firing someone, or divorce, or cutting your parents off. The T.V. show Revenge has some great examples of NIGYSOB. But how do we get out of it?

What do we do? How can we avoid these and other games? The most critical part of dealing with games is first recognize that they are happening, and then to take the power out of them. We need to ask a simple question of ourselves: do I feel like the persecutor, the rescuer, or the victim? A yes answer to any of them tells us that we are still in the game. The roles we take in a game can change, but as we become more alert, we can chose to stop the game, whatever phase it is in. Seeing the games that people play can open you up to see your own agency in them. Once the scales fall from our eyes, we can begin to change what happens.

For example, fear runs on our fear energy. We can choose how we react. We are not agents without power. As part of it, we can stop it. We can refuse to engage our fear, or we can put tools in our hands to mitigate it. We can refuse to be afraid of people who are different, and strike out in a different path. In this way, we can be part of the solution. We need to face our fears openly, to understand that we can be manipulated by them, and choose not to let that happen.

In the blame game, we can accept that sometimes there are many people that are responsible, varying layers of responsibility, and sometimes bad things just happen. If I mess up a performance, I bear some responsibility for it. I can take action to apologize, but there may be more going on. Perhaps I was not properly rehearsed. Perhaps as a group we need to problem solve to prevent such future mishaps. If I am told the only way to get stronger is to take this little pill, don't I have some choices here? How much information have I collected?

In interpersonal communication, it is easier to stop the blame game when it is happening. Often when we go back to the blame game, we get sucked back into it. If we always blame the other for the situation that we are in, why are we surprised when it keeps repeating with different people? One group I know keeps cycling through directors every two years or so. Yet, it is always their fault, and seldom do we analize what we could do differently.

Many games depend on us not recognizing what is going on. Their invisibility and our lack of recognition of our part in the game keep it going. Yet that is actually good news. If we are not partly responsible for what is happening, then the other always has power over us and we have no power to effect change. However, if we are part of the game, we also have some hope that we can change what we do. We can claim our own power in the game and chose a different outcome.

For example, if it is always some other agency that is responsible for lack of weight loss or lack of health, then I have no real hope. I rely on the universe to make it happen. Dr. Chris Hammon talks a lot about how he is the author of his health. He talks about how he is in charge of his continuing to live with cancer. Instead of railing against God, the government, the medical establishment, or a spouse, we need to take the blame out and live with what is.

NIGYSOB is a classic maneuver that escalates minor disagreements into major ones, and major ones into catastrophe. We try to get back at people that we think have done us wrong. Whether or not they have, stepping back a moment, and observing whether we really want to go to this place might help us to diminish the tensions present in our communication wars. There are many other, better ways of expressing anger and hurt. And we can continue to ask ourselves whether we feel like persecutor, rescuer, or victim, thus identifying whether we have disengaged from the game.

These are just a few ways our interpersonal connections are fraying. To make the world a better place, we need to pay greater attention to our own interpersonal communication, and avoid buying into the games. The fact is that we ARE connected. When we act out of that place, we can move mountains. We can choose. We can either stay where we are, wondering how come twenty years from now things are the same, or we can start making those changes now.

This column is made possible by the contributions to the Oates Institute through the Two Lattes Club. Join the Two Lattes Club or Make a Donation to the Oates Institute.