by my friend, Afictionado
green: just a little rephrasing for clarity
What follows is a serious piece of work, but even so I hope you will find it entertaining as well as enlightening. Note that Harry Potter texts vary from a country to another- this analysis is based on the paperback boxed set of Books 1-4 I bought in 2000 plus Book 5 purchased in 2003. All are English editions and purchased in Britain.
In over 30 years of working life I've attended a lot of training courses, including several on team-building, performance management and communication. One of the most interesting tools I've come across is a technique for analysing communication; it's called Transactional Analysis (sometimes abbreviated to TA). See the references at the end for more.
At first, I'm going to demonstrate the three ego states of TA using concrete examples from the Harry Potter novels, including some from Snape of course, and then I'll move on to a deeper analysis of Snape's dialogues since the Potion Master's words are so ... arresting!
Transactional Analysis relates to verbal communication and it rests on the principle that when we talk to someone, the words we choose stem from three ego states - three states of mind. They are labeled as such:
Two key assumptions about the verbal transactions:
There is no right or wrong in Transactional Analysis - there are simply verbal transactions from different mental states. They bring about different results, and you may care to judge if each gives a constructive outcome, or a destructive or neutral outcome - but as an observer that's your decision about what is `right' and `wrong'.
The truly fascinating thing about ego states is that transactions from each state `sound' different, and evoke different responses or moods within the person being spoken to.
The Child Ego State
This embodies our creativity and emotions. The Child state subdivides into
What do the Child states `sound' like?
Communications from the Natural Child ego state feel energizing and/or dangerous; for example Professor Lockhart (GL) in Flourish and Blotts :
Professor Flitwick (PF) often talks from Child states - he favours the kindlier side of Natural Child plus Nurturing Parent, and as a result he usually sounds excited and supportive :
Ludo Bagman uses Child too - he comes across as excited but also quite often flippant, especially when contrasted with Barty Crouch's or Hermione Granger's habitual Critical Parent states.
Lord Voldemort uses Natural Child a good deal as he is unbridled in his desires and he often gives his emotions free rein. This is why he sounds so dangerous and capricious. The other great exponent of this Child ego state is Bellatrix Lestrange.
Gilderoy Lockhart's cocktail of Natural Child and Little Professor plus, at times, either one of the Parent states makes him sound flippant, manipulative, a real wind-up merchant, and at times with a hint of menace.
Albus Dumbledore also uses the Child states with students, as well as Nurturing Parent, and - when Harry's behaviour really warrants it - Critical Parent.
As for Severus Snape, he does a lot of switching from Critical Parent (i.e. when he...) to Little Professor (i.e. when he...) and sometimes to Natural Child (i.e. when he...). The result creates an atmosphere of parental annoyance coupled with a potential for far more serious punishment. Yet it is only a potential - up to Book 5, Snape has never to our knowledge punished a student other than in the accepted forms of house point removal and detentions, although he repeatedly humiliates Neville Longbottom and threatens Harry Potter with more direct action (Veritaserum in Book 4 chapter 27).
More detailed examples to follow
The Parent Ego State
This embodies our values. Real life parents nurture, control behaviour, seek to modify future behaviour, and seek to keep their offspring safe. The Parent state subdivides as follows:
Claudia: here I changed the order a tad because I thought it's simpler to divide it in a table (helps keep the important information evident). I also reordered your points like you had for the Child States. Keeping the same order is important.
What do the Parent ego states `sound' like?
Here is Professor McGonagall (MMcG) setting the tone for her classes at the start of Harry's first ever Transfiguration lesson. Like Professor Snape, she often speaks from her Critical Parent state.
Nurturing Parent is far more ready to give permission to fail. Professors Lupin (PL) and Flitwick favour that state - we've heard a bit of Flitwick and we'll hear Lupin later. (Claudia: it's not too good in such a long essay to bring up examples later. What you can do is to bring up an example not mentioned below. Then, when your other example comes up, you'll notice how it is so much more convincing)
Also note that when people transact from a Parent state they tend to cause the receptor to reply either from one of the Child states or sometimes from a matching Parent state. For example when Argus Filch (AF) came up to Snape (SS):
AF (Critical Parent or possibly Adapted Child) "You asked me to come directly to you, Professor, if anyone was wandering around at night, and somebody's been in the library - restricted section.
" SS (Critical Parent) " The restricted section? Well, they can' be far. We'll catch them. "
Although not spoken from the Adult state, both transactions have a similar balanced feeling that you'd find with Adult to Adult conversations. However Snape can easily tip the balance and re-establish his authority over Filch - he probably wouldn't allow the full equality that Adult to Adult typically embodies. Claudia: just as I was saying with my example from Book4. So if you agree, you could use this example here to prove your point that Snape would indeed very reluctantly allow an equal Adult relationship with Filch.
Here is another example of a Parent/Adult reverting to a Child state in front of a Parent speaking figure- Snape (SS) talking to Dumbledore (AD) when the students are bedded down in the Great Hall just after the attack on the Fat Lady's portrait in Book 3.
SS (Adapted Child) "Have you got any theory as to how he got in, Professor? "
AD (Nurturing Parent) "Many, Severus. Each of them as unlikely as the next. "
SS (Little Professor) "You remember the conversation we had, Headmaster, just before - ah - the start of term? "
AD (Critical Parent) " I do, Severus. "
SS (Little Professor) " It seems - almost impossible - that Black could have entered the school without outside help. I did express my concerns when you appointed - "
AD (Critical Parent) " I do not believe a single person inside this castle would have helped Black enter it. "
Claudia: I would add that Snape's resignation after such a dismiss also speaks for itself as Snape reacting in an Adapted Child way. Don't you think so?
Possibly forced by Dumbledore's high rank, Snape starts off in Adapted Child and doesn't quite succeed in achieving Adult. Claudia: Why do you say Snape is already at the Adapted Child stage? I think we need to extrapolate on this because, at first, I tended to say that his concerns are pretty much from his Adult state or Nurturing Parent state because he must be concerned for the security of the inhabitants. However, I also see from that question (very much in Slytherin style) that Snape can't really be or doesn't want to be direct with the Headmaster. He uses slyness to get the Headmaster to answer exactly what he's waiting for. Is that behaviour considered a Child state? If so, I would include this point here along with what you already wrote. Dumbledore, higher in status and possessing more information than Snape has access to, will not quite be pulled into Adult style and his use of Parent states forces Snape to remain in a Child state.
Claudia: I would add: On the other hand, there are cases where a Child can attain an Adult state, especially when encouraged by an Adult and a good dose of Nurturing Parent. Remus Lupin makes a lot of use of Adult and Nurturing Parent, especially in Harry's anti-Dementor training :
RL (Nurturing Parent) "Concentrating on your happy memory? ... I didn't expect you to do it first time. In fact, I would have been astounded if you had. "
HP (Adult) " It's getting worse... I could hear her louder that time... "
RL (Nurturing Parent) "Harry, if you don't want to continue, I will more than understand- "
HP (Natural Child) "I do! I've got to! "
As Lupin doesn't overdo Nurturing Parent, Harry achieves Adult at one point. Possibly he then switches to Natural Child to psyche himself up.
Interminably long conversations between adults that are entirely Critical Parent to Critical Parent are one of my pet hates. Thankfully they are not too common, but some people converse only in that style and I find it dispiriting, hemmed in by prejudices and (for me) lacking interest, because it focuses so much on picking over day-to-day problems. Indeed, Critical Parents don't go in for wacky ideas and flights of fancy, instead they try to put the world to rights with simplistic solutions to complex social issues. Claudia: I think you should restrain from using the first person perspective since you didn't make any use of it above. I would change "one of my pet hates" for something like bothersome, limiting or horrible. Also, I would say a good example is in order here for the Critical to Critical pattern. My rephrasing: Interminably long conversations between adults that are entirely Critical Parent to Critical Parent tend to be tedious. Thankfully they are not too common, but some people do converse only in that style, and that can be quite dispiriting, hemmed in by prejudices and may lack interest because it focuses so much on picking over day-to-day problems. Indeed, Critical Parents don't go in for wacky ideas and flights of fancy, instead they try to put the world to rights with simplistic solutions to complex social issues.
It's even worse if a strong Parent style forces one to always to speak from his/her Child ego state - that's like having a ton weight on your head! Personally, I avoid people who do that to me.
Even more, extreme overuse of Nurturing Parent can be stifling - adults won't put up with it, and children feel trapped. I've myself never heard Nurturing Parent to Nurturing Parent - but while trying to decide what such a conversation would sound like - `prissy' and `unreal' springs to mind. Claudia: I'm thinking a bit right now, and I do believe it is quite possible in a three-head conversations: two are Nurturing Parents, each encouraging more and more nurturing phrases towards the third party who would be listening to those advice. Believe me, were I to put some of my students' parents in the same room, they would come up with all kinds of ideas on how to pamper, care for and nurture their dear children!
Also, extreme overuse of Critical Parent to a child can be demotivating and demoralizing for the latter.
Finally, extreme overuse of Nurturing Parent to a child can feel suffocating and literally stifle development. Claudia: I would add, from my personal experience, that Nurturing Parents in the extreme gives us Royal or Sissy Kids! You know what I mean? Royal because they've been nurtured and taken care for all the time without having to find solutions for themselves, or sissis because they endure nothing at all. A single scratch on the knee is enough to go to the infirmary!
The Adult Ego State
This embodies our rationality.
What does the Adult ego state `sound' like?
Remus Lupin often adopts this in the classroom, in order to lift the students' game. He also uses it with Hermione in the Shrieking Shack
HG (Adapted Child) " Scabbers can't be Pettigrew ... it just can't be true... "
RL (Adult) "Why can't it be true..".
By speaking from the Adult ego state he helps her to move from Adapted Child towards Adult and their conversation approaches one of equals rather than teacher and pupil.
Here is a real-life example from this very web site and in pure Adult to Adult; it is Isabelle and Lady Claudia (owner of this site!) discussing Isabelle's Control Theory :
Isabelle (Adult) ...I strongly doubt he [Snape] could really love a submissive woman. He barely likes anyone and only respects those being at least on a par... Now, how can the person being controlled and the person in control be of equal rank?!
Lady Claudia (Adult) Nice question indeed! To me, such an occurrence is essential to any relationship between Snape and another person...
There is a free-wheeling, exploratory mood to these transactions. What comes across is that the transactors/agents are of equal rank and can take the conversation anywhere they please without causing each other offence.
And another example - Dumbledore talking to Harry :
Claudia: You really need to find back that part and mention a part where Dumbledore does talk to Harry as an Adult. I think he does just before this quote, right? You have to because you said just above that you were going to show another example of the same Adult to Adult conversation. Yet, you show only the part from an Adult to a Child
HP (Adult) "How did I get the stone out of the Mirror? "
AD (Adapted Child) "Ah, now, I'm glad you asked me that. It was one of my more brilliant ideas, and between you and me. That's saying something!. "
During that scene in the hospital wing near the end of Book 1, Dumbledore has used the Adult ego state a lot before this quotation takes place. However he is conscious that Harry has gone through a traumatic event, so after a while he lightens the proceedings with the use of a Child ego state.
The drawbacks of extreme overuse of the Adult to Adult state can result in the transactors sounding a bit flat, at least to outsiders to the conversation - a little of Flitwick's or Bagman's enthusiasm can give a lift to a transaction, but there is no doubt that `Adult' feels comfortable. Claudia: I would add that this is what lots of funny people refer to as being too tight! However, this point could be argued for a long time since it all depends on which perspective you see such a conversation with.
Snape's Communication Styles
As expected Severus Snape makes huge use of the Critical Parent state when talking to students. He may use Nurturing Parent with the Slytherins but, sadly, we are not given examples of that. We have already glanced at one or two examples of his style, so let's now take a closer look at his style with Harry...
From the outset in Book 1 and onwards Snape chose Little Professor and then almost exclusively Critical Parent when talking either directly to Harry or about him when Harry can overhear, so their interpersonal transactions were bound to be strained
SS (Little Professor) Ah, yes, Harry Potter. Our new celebrity.
and moments later...
SS (Critical Parent) Potter! What would I get if I added powered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?
and moments later...
SS (Little Professor) Tut, tut - fame clearly isn't everything.
and moments later...
SS (Critical Parent) Let's try again. Potter, where would you look if I told you...
Some of Snape's Child state utterances sound like Natural Child - they have the edge of spite you would associate with a physically young, angry child; but there the similarity ends. Snape's words are carefully chosen, the pace of delivery skilfully crafted, there is no impulsiveness; this is an unusual use of Little Professor - as if he is experimenting in how to wound by words.
Added to this and again from the outset of the Snape/Harry association, Snape, for his own private reasons, denied Harry three vital ingredients for a successful relationship
permission to fail
so in return Harry can never summon sufficient respect for Snape, and for this and other reasons as Year 1 unfolds he finds it impossible to trust Snape.
The full impact of this is not seen until Year 5 when Harry's reciprocal lack of respect and trust causes a total breakdown in their relationship.
However small changes creep in at the end of Year 4 although Harry hasn't yet noticed their full effect, and Snape may also be fighting the developments; Harry saw Snape take a risk by exposing his Dark Mark to Cornelius Fudge, and at the Leaving Feast there was a moment when Snape looked at Harry without his habitual look of hate. In Book 5 there are glimpses of moves by Snape to use the Adult ego state in the kitchen scene just after Christmas, but they show most clearly once we get to Occlumency lessons - when talking to Harry alone, Snape at times speaks from his Adult ego state!
Sadly Harry rarely responds in like form as he is under extreme emotional pressure throughout all of Year 5, and he cannot yet shake off Snape's legacy of Critical Parent plus the manipulative aspect of Little Professor and the vindictive side of Natural Child. Nevertheless for Snape, Adult is there
HP (Adapted Child) Did you see everything I saw?
SS (Adult) Flashes of it. (Natural Child tempted Snape at that point, but he resisted a cruel remark and hung on to his Adult state.) To whom did the dog belong?
HP (Adapted Child) My Aunt Marge.
SS (Critical Parent) Well, for a first attempt that was not as bad as it might have been.
Snape almost achieved Nurturing Parent with that last remark! This is an example of a Positive Stroke from Snape to Harry. (For more about Strokes click here.) Snape's next sentence shows he is still in Critical Parent style, but even so, it's a start!
Harry also gets away with an angry flash of Natural Child, in Book 5 chapter 26, as the circumstances give Snape the recognition he often lacks. He responds from his Adult state
HP (Natural Child) No - that's your job, isn't it!
SS (Adult) Yes, Potter. That is my job.
This is an example of a Positive Stroke from Harry to Snape, although I'm sure Harry didn't intend it to be positive! (For more about strokes click here.)
A few moments before that we have another example of Snape speaking from his Adult state, choosing not to be cruel even though he has such scope to humiliate. (Do bear in mind this has come at the end of a long session, and Harry is tired, and stressed by reliving painful memories. We don't know what sort of day Snape had, nor if Harry's memories are painful for him to see, but he sounds the stronger of the two.)
SS (Adult) That last memory ... what was it?
HP (Adult) I don't know ... You mean the one where my cousin tried to make me stand in the toilet?
SS (Adult) No. I mean the one with a man kneeling in the middle of a darkened room...
HP (Little Professor) It's ... nothing.
SS (Critical Parent) How do that man and that room come to be inside your head, Potter?
Snape's in information-gathering mode. Harry could have gone along with that and the conversation could have become untypically equal. Sadly, Harry decides to conceal the truth and reverts to a Child state, so Snape switches to Critical Parent. And some days later, because of Harry's foray into the Pensieve, Snape cannot forgive the breach of trust, so from then the chances of Adult to Adult communication between them are negligible.
When Snape speaks to Draco Malfoy his Critical Parent state is dampened down and gets close to Adult
DM (Adapted Child) ...They've found Montague, sir, he's turned up jammed inside a toilet on the fourth floor.
SS (Critical Parent or possibly Adult) How did he get in there?
DM (Adapted Child) I don't know sir. He's a bit confused.
SS (Adult) Very well, very well. Potter, we shall resume this lesson tomorrow evening...
The conversation with Draco sounds a good deal more equal than we usually hear when Snape is talking to a student. When he talks to adults he sounds more Adult, or at least usually more balanced
SS (Adult) ...don't see what there is to fuss about, Igor.
IK (Natural Child) Severus, you cannot pretend this isn't happening! It's been getting clearer and clearer for months, I am becoming seriously concerned, I can't deny it -
SS (Adult) Then flee. Flee, I will make your excuses. I, however, am remaining at Hogwarts.
It's good to see Snape in Adult style at this moment because this is a truly frightening development for the two former Death Eaters so we could have been treated to some histrionics. But no, Snape remains calm and analytical, which helps Karkaroff to do likewise.
Here is Snape with another colleague and students in the background
MMcG (Critical Parent) Well, I think Potter and his friends ought to have fifty points apiece for alerting the world to the return of You-Know-Who! What say you, Professor Snape?
SS (Adult) What? Oh - well - I suppose...
Snape is almost in Critical Parent there, but that might be inappropriate for his private transactions with McGonagall, and he seems not to mind the presence of the students. He speaks from his Adult ego state, sounding rational and balanced. It also takes the edge off McGonagall's next few remarks to him, pulling her from Critical Parent into Adult. Once again it's good to see Snape in Adult state because although the trademark Snape-ish Critical Parent and Child states are entertaining, we all guess there is more to him than the Gryffindor students are allowed to see, and the Adult side of his communication, whilst not what we have come to expect from Snape, gives him - to my mind - greater credibility as a true character drawn from life.
It would be unfair to discuss Snape's style without saying something about Harry's. Harry is pretty well guaranteed to speak from a Child state when talking to Snape because
he is a child (although fast maturing)
he is inferior in status to Snape (pupil to teacher), and
Snape's habitual use of Critical Parent makes a response from Child very likely.
Also, Harry's Muggle upbringing - with moronic Dudley for sibling and cruel Vernon and Petunia for parents - will have given Harry little opportunity to speak from his Adult ego state. In fact it is surprising he is so normal.
Please remember that all of the ego states have their worth:
Child - promotes our creativity
Parent - displays our values
Adult - liberates our logic from our emotions
And it is also true that `children' can wound `parents' with words just as much as `parents' can wound `children' with words.
So having said there is no right and wrong in Transactional Analysis do I have any comment to make about Snape's use - conscious or unconscious - of ego states?
Yes, I do, and here it is, plus the reasons for it...
Just as much as they inherit their parents' physical and psychological characteristics and predispositions, children tend to replicate the ego states they are exposed to - Snape was no-doubt exposed to a lot of Critical Parent from his adult role models; we see a glimpse of that sort of situation in one of his early memories. Overuse of Critical Parent to a child will therefore produce a new adult who in turn overuses Critical Parent. It is a bit like theories about cycles of physical abuse - abused child growing to become abusing parent. This, to my mind, is unhealthy and not a welcome state of affairs. I grew up under the influence of Critical Parent and know something of what it does.
Why does it matter how teachers behave? An educator does more than impart knowledge like a talking encyclopaedia - an educator helps young people to `grow' to reach their potential.
Also, an educator is in loco parentis which means standing in the place of a parent, and parents are not just instructors; and in English law a teacher has a duty to take the same reasonable care of the child that a parent would in those circumstances. This parental role takes on even more significance for teachers at residential schools.
If I was Snape's manager (and assuming his bitterness and lack of tolerance is as widespread as we are lead to believe from the narrow Gryffindor window onto him that Rowling gives us) I would be looking to ways to help Snape modify his style; a high pass rate in OWLs and NEWTs would not be sufficient for me to say his performance held no room for improvement. He can talk about his subject with a deep passion and I would want that inspiration to be emotionally accessible to all the students, not just `those select few who have the predisposition' or those tough enough to withstand his put-downs. I would also bear in mind that in wizarding terms Snape is young; also we don't know if he has been trained to teach or if he has been taken into the faculty only because of his special Death Eater spying task.
(I would also be looking at McGonagall's rather heavy use of Critical Parent.)
However there is more going on at Hogwarts than at a real-life school. Dumbledore is preparing for war. He has employed Snape for more reasons than just to teach Potions and Head a House. And Dumbledore, as Snape's manager, may not be a particularly good manager himself - he may not give many positive strokes or show enough trust. Furthermore, Harry Potter has a particular destiny that maybe affects who says what and in what way - the tools of TA only apply if people are responsible for their thoughts / feelings / behaviour.
Meanwhile, back here in the real world it is worth remembering that everyone - be they educators, managers of people, or individuals who enter into private-life associations with other individuals - have more successful relationships if they can interact constructively rather than destructively. That doesn't mean they have to countenance bad behaviour. Nor do they have to compromise their own standards. But there is always a benefit for them in looking objectively at the outcomes of their chosen communication styles and deciding rationally if a change of style would bring improved results.
The Last Word about Transactional Analysis
So, knowing about TA, does it mean I weigh every word and plan every sentence? No, certainly not. I wouldn't want to, and if I tried that I'd never have time to speak to anyone, and maybe never have the courage to open my mouth! People speak as they need without pre-planning their ego state; the most they do towards it is to fall automatically and almost subconsciously into an appropriate frame of mind, for example into Critical Parent if they are vexed by repeated bad behaviour.
Even when writing fan fiction I've never planned exchanges by mapping out proposals for ego states. I don't know how other writers work, but I create conversations in my head and as a plotline develops I try to decide if I'm still on track with where I want my story to go and the scenes I want to put over, whilst at the same time giving the characters words to say that either I want them to say or that seem credible with their personalities.
So is TA useful?
Yes, in the world of work I've found it useful because it has helped me to understand why some relationships work better than others, and why some exchanges give the outcome the participants want and others don't.
I've also found it useful in my personal life, helping me to be rational about difficult relationships and to understand how I come to be carrying certain emotional and attitudinal baggage around with me from my childhood.
TA is not the last word in analysing communication (and communication is not only verbal) but TA is a useful tool in the toolkit of interpersonal life.
Afictionado, March 2004
Dr Eric Berne (who you will find mentioned at the end, under the heading `Background') believed that every person has the need to be recognised by others. Any recognition of another person's presence is known as a stroke. Strokes can be
anything - good or bad - that says “I know you are there.”
As a child grows older he/she learns to substitute words and gestures for physical strokes. Each person seems to have a `stroke reservoir' that must be kept sufficiently well filled in order for people to feel good about themselves. Different people seem to have different sized reservoirs (Gilderoy Lockhart's must be huge!).
Positive strokes leave the other person feeling alive, alert, and significant.
Negative strokes, which include put downs, insults, laughing at someone, and physical abuse, are not nearly so useful as positive strokes, but they are a lot better than no strokes at all ... at least the person's presence is recognized. But obviously only positive strokes help people to feel good about themselves.
I have read that people who have difficulty accumulating sufficient positive strokes may become adept at setting others up to give them negative strokes. They become accustomed to negative strokes - negative strokes become a way of life that makes sense to them.
As you might have guessed there is a lot more to learn about Transactional Analysis (TA), including Games, Scripts and the outcome of crossed transactions as well as masses more detail on Ego States and Strokes; and TA has applications in psychotherapy as well as communication skills.
The Significance of an Event's Associated Feelings
Dr Berne observed that the human brain functions like a tape recorder. Everything that has ever happened to an individual is indelibly recorded in his/her brain along with the feelings associated with the event. The work of neurosurgeon Dr Walter Penfield backed up this observation, confirming that the human brain does function much like a tape recorder, playing back events and associated feelings. The associated feelings are critical - which is why I made a comment about wounding with words. It seems to matter more to people how they felt about a particular event rather than whether the event was actually good or actually bad. Hence the significance of the different moods created by speaking from the different ego states.
Further information about TA can be found from the books by Berne, Harris and many other authors, and many websites including
To those of you that want to know more of the theory I wish you “happy hunting”. To those of you who are merely obsessed with everything about Severus Snape I say this - “Worry not - you are not alone!”