The concept of strokes is a way to measure the attention one person gives to another.
A stroke was defined by Eric Berne, the founder of transactional analysis, as a unit of recognition. This means that, whenever we make eye contact with someone, we acknowledge them and we give them one unit of recognition, or a stroke.
The same happens when we smile at someone, say hello, or frown at someone. Each time we acknowledge the other person in a small way or big way (A big way could be saying “I love you” to someone) we give them a stroke.
Strokes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. We distinguish between positive or negative strokes, verbal or non-verbal strokes, and conditional or unconditional strokes.
Positive or negative is an easy distinction: positive strokes are those that are deemed positive by the giver and receiver, negative are the ones that are not. A positive stroke could be a smile, whilst a negative stroke might be “I don’t like you”.
Verbal and non-verbal are distinguished in a similarly obvious way: a verbal stroke could be “I like your jeans”, a non-verbal one might be a nod of the head when you see someone you recognize.
The distinction between conditional and unconditional strokes is a bit more interesting. Unconditional strokes are those that are given without reference to what the receiver is doing.
This means that unconditional strokes can’t be earned and are given for “being”. An unconditional stroke could be “I like your eyes” or “I love you”, or in the case of a negative one “I don’t like you”.
Conditional strokes are given as a response to what the receiver is doing for us. They can be earned and we tend to call them praise if they are positive.
Examples include someone saying “Well done” or “You need to improve on that”, or a smile to approve of a child having taken their shoes off at the door.
As a society in which appropriate behavior is so important, we tend to give conditional strokes more easily than unconditional ones.
Although this is good and useful, we also need to affirm the people around us for just being there. At the end of the day we are called “human beings” not “human doings“! The fact that we are (i.e. that we are “being”) is more important than what we are doing.
A lot of people experience lacks in the types of strokes they receive, mostly when it comes to the unconditional ones.
Strokes are necessary for us. This links with our inbuilt hunger for relationships and contact. As human beings we are designed to be social creatures and we need attention, love and recognition from others. If we don’t get any we feel lonely and miserable, maybe even abandoned and despairing, which is why negative strokes are better than no strokes.
Even negative attention constitutes some sort of attention, and it’s easier for us to tolerate that than being ignored completely. This is an easy explanation of why children would rather go for negative attention than none.
Negative attention at least affirms one’s existence, even if it is in a rather unpleasant way, whilst being ignored stands for abandonment and simply not existing in the other’s eyes.
Giving and receiving positive strokes (or helpful negative ones which constitute useful criticism, such as “Please don’t spill your drink, hold your glass straight”) really increases the feel-good factor in our lives. Often, when we feel miserable or when a relationship doesn’t work, it’s because people don’t stroke each other.
There are reasons why we do this (see the section on the stroke economy), however, we’d all be better off if we were more forthcoming with praise and attention for each other.
If you want to know more about strokes, look at “stroke economy”, “applying the concept of strokes”, “stroke profile” (an exercise to help you reflect on the strokes in your life), and the related concept of “affirmations”. Good luck with increasing that oh-so-important feel-good factor in your relationship!