IN SHORT: People say life’s all about give and take. It’s not – givers and takers are game-players. Life is all about SHARING…
“Games are a compromise between intimacy and keeping intimacy away.”
[Eric Berne, 20th-century Canadian psychiatrist & author, creator of Transactional Analysis]
(1315 words – approx 7-12 minutes to read. It’s a long one this time!)
Last time we talked about the perils of running on empty and how important it is to take responsibility for refuelling before we hit the ‘red zone’ on our personal fuel gauge.
I promised this time we’d talk about the games people play – that’s not just other people though, it includes you – in order to try to get other people to meet their needs instead of taking responsibility for themselves and sorting out how to meet their own.
Obviously I’m not talking about board games or video games here, but rather games that involve mental and emotional manipulation. However, one really important thing to bear in mind is that more often than not, these games are not played deliberately, i.e. they’re not consciously chosen strategies. Instead they’re the unconscious mind’s way of trying to get a perceived need met by the shortest and quickest possible route that it’s aware of.
I’d just like to re-emphasise that first point before we go any further: people are usually completely oblivious that they’re playing these games, and may even wholeheartedly believe that what they’re doing is totally normal, logical and acceptable.
The second point I need you to get your head around before we get into the deeper stuff is that the type of games we’ll be discussing are what’s known as ‘zero-sum’ and ‘negative-sum’ games. In a nutshell, that means they’re competitive, i.e. the more one person wins in terms of support, time, emotional commitment, effort etc. the more the other person loses out or is required to give up. In the case of negative-sum games, both parties are losing out simply by engaging in it.*
You could think of it like two people arguing over how to divide a cake – the more one person gets, the more the other has to give up or do without and if they struggle over slicing the cake too much, some of it ends up on the floor so they both miss out.
Some of you may be familiar with or have heard of the field of ‘Transaction Analysis’ (TA for short). This is, in my opinion at least, a fascinating way of looking at the kinds of games people play, their motives for playing them and the structure of various classes of games. However, it’s a little beyond the scope of this article, but if you do want to know more, take a look at the Transaction Analysis Wikipedia entry as a good place to start.
We’re going to keep it a little simpler.
There are three basic roles we take or try to push others into taking, often unawares, in our interactions with others.
You could also think of these as positions on a continuum that measures how selfish you are – how focused you are on meeting your own needs first vs. meeting others needs first – from totally selfish (TAKER) through balanced (SHARER) to completely unselfish (GIVER).
The definitions of these roles are fairly self-explanatory. A TAKER is seeking to have a need of theirs directly fulfilled. A GIVER is seeking to fill, or being forced to fill, a need someone else has expressed. A SHARER attempts to balance their own needs with those of others and seeks a way of filling both side’s needs at maximum benefit and minimum cost to all.
As you’re thinking about that now, you’ll come to realise that the best games are played between two SHARERs who’re looking to play in a positive-sum frame of mind. That means that they’re willing to give of what they can, and graciously receive what the other offers without forcing or demanding. Even if they have a legitimate need, it’s always phrased as a request, with an explanation if necessary, and they always allow the other person choice.
However, all too often we take the position of TAKER and focus on our own needs whilst trying to convince those around us to play GIVER for us. Sometimes we, the TAKER, masquerade as or even believe we are a SHARER or GIVER, but the giving is a veiled strategy to get a deeper need met with the minimum of giving on our part.
As human beings though, we’re quite selfish and when someone else tries to TAKE, we can try to TAKE too, resisting being pushed to GIVE.
For example, I recently came across a mother experiencing ‘empty nest’ syndrome once her children had gone through university and into working life, and who began first of all complaining to her husband that he didn’t appreciate her, and then complaining to her son and daughter asking why they weren’t married yet and that she’d love a grandchild.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that she was a TAKER masquerading as a GIVER. When her children were young she was a legitimately willing GIVER and SHARER, but since her children didn’t need looking after any more, she turned on her husband to try to get him to appreciate her care-giving, and her children to try to recreate a new version of the mother role for herself as a grandparent. All the time she was actually trying to TAKE appreciation from those around her – to force them to GIVE it – so she could feel she had purpose and meaning.
It should be getting obvious as you mull this over that the more strongly you take the TAKER position, the more you shove the other person(s) into the GIVER position. To compound the issue, even if we’re not consciously TAKING, the more we’re focused on meeting our own needs, the more likely we are to TAKE.
I mentioned before that you might not be consciously aware of game-playing, so how do we spot when it’s happening?
Well, there are two absolutely huge clues in the language we use when we’re interacting and they’re:
- UNIVERSAL QUANTIFIERS – making one time or a few examples true of all cases or all time
- MODAL OPERATORS OF NECESSITY – giving the impression that some course of action is imperative or vital, or the only sensible one
OK, so I realise that those are fancy expressions that come from logic and linguistics (and they’re part of the NLP language model too), so let’s simplify them:
- Using expressions such as, “You’re always…”, “You never…”, “Every time you…”, “Why don’t you ever…”
- Using expressions like “I need you to…”, “You have to…”, “You should…”, “You must…”
SHARER language is much more about explanation and choice – “I’d like you to… because…”, or “I’m wondering if you’d… ?”, “Could you… ?” And instead of those ‘always’ and ‘never’ words, they’re more focused on here and now or the future rather than the past.
So, here’s my fairly simple challenge this time:
- Start listening to yourself during conversations, especially discussions and arguments.
For example, you might be arguing with a friend who’s late for something you had planned.
- Notice when you’re using the kinds of expressions listed above – where you’re using TAKER language and therefore game-playing.
For example, you might say “You’re always late – you never let me know!”
- Ask yourself, at the time if you’re aware enough, what need of yours you’re trying to get the other person to meet or fill.
For example, you might feel you might miss whatever you had planned, or you feel unappreciated because they didn’t let you know. You may feel let down because you’d organised it and they didn’t bother to turn up on time, or perhaps even worried, wondering what might’ve happened that’s made them late.
- Change your language to that of a SHARER, and notice what happens.
For example, “I got a bit worried when you didn’t turn up on time – could you let me know next time if you’re delayed?” or “Is everything OK – we’d planned to meet at 8 and it’s 8:30?”
Remember, despite what people might believe, life is NOT about GIVE and TAKE – it’s about playing the SHARING game.
Until next time,
*As you might expect, positive-sum games are often more collaborative in nature and when played properly are of benefit to both sides.