Stroking People to Success

by Julie Hay©2003



Julie Hay's biodata appears at end of article, or can be read now by clicking here.

Julie's upcoming event may be found here.


Probably the most widely known theory about expressing appreciation and motivating others is the concept of stroking.  This idea was developed during the ’sixties by Dr Eric Berne and the term is now used throughout the world.  

A stroke is a ‘unit of recognition’, or an interaction between people.  It is anything we do that demonstrates in some way to another person that we recognize their existence.  This may be something as simple as glancing at someone or as intense as hugging them - with talking to them coming somewhere in between in terms of intensity of the stroking.  Strokes may also be positive or negative. 

Dr Berne pointed out that strokes are a biological necessity.  Human beings experience great difficulty in living without them.  Babies do not develop properly if they are not given strokes, as has unfortunately been demonstrated in recent years in orphanages where children have been neglected.  People kept in solitary confinement also experience high levels of stress due to the lack of human contact  - this is probably why we use this as a punishment. 

Only a few of us can manage to become hermits.  Most of us need human contact - and some of us need a great deal of it.  We still do not know for certain whether this is due to nature or nurture.  However, we do know that individuals vary in their need for strokes.  The more we can match the individual need in a positive way, the better the person will be able to function. 

Positive and Negative Strokes

 In order to stroke people effectively, it helps if we understand the different types of strokes that we can give.  The most significant distinction is whether the stroke is a positive or negative one.  Please note that this is not the same as saying that the stroke is something that sounds nice or something that sounds unpleasant.   

A positive stroke may be a compliment but it can be many other things too, such as:  a routine greeting (this would be a low intensity stroke); asking a question to find out about the other person or their views; sharing something about yourself with them; or inviting them to join you for coffee.   

A positive stroke is, in fact, any form of interaction that invites recipients to feel OK about themselves and about others.  A negative stroke is an interaction that invites the recipient to believe that someone is not OK - this may be them, another person, or both. 

These definitions are important.  They mean that constructive criticism is a positive stroke.  We are not saying, therefore, that you should never criticize someone.  Obviously, this may well be necessary if their performance is not satisfactory.  However, there is no need to give destructive criticism.  Instead, your remarks can be phrased in a way that concentrates on what they need to do to perform better.  This format of constructive criticism lets the person know that you believe they are competent and that they can improve.  You might like to think about how you feel when someone gives you feedback in this way, compared to how you feel when they make purely negative comments about what is wrong with what you have done. 

The positive and negative definitions also mean that praising someone by comparing them to someone else will generally be a negative stroke.  This is because that kind of comment usually invites the recipient to feel that they are somehow better than the other person. This is psychologically unhealthy for them.  So, comments like “You do that so much better than your colleagues can ever hope to do.” or “I wish that Kevin were as good at this as you obviously are.” are only likely to lead to arrogance on the part of the person you are stroking.  This type of stroke may also create bad feelings within their team, especially if it gets repeated to the people who are being described as less effective.   

Conditional or Unconditional Strokes 

Another classification for strokes is whether they are conditional or unconditional.  Conditional strokes are interactions that occur on condition that someone has done something.  Unconditional strokes are given without any conditions.   

Conditional strokes, therefore, tend to be those strokes which are about things that the person has some control over.  Examples of this are performance, the way they are dressed, whether they are late to work, comments about specific behaviors, and so on.  The key here is that the person is only given the stroke if they have actually done something to deserve it.  Conditional strokes may be positive or negative. 

Unconditional strokes, on the other hand, are given for something over which the person has no control or simply because the person exists.  Unconditional strokes are much more powerful than conditional strokes as they are about the person.  Some people will find that unconditional strokes are a bit too powerful - they may prefer not to feel quite so close to someone.  You may notice that they only seem comfortable when they are accepting conditional strokes. 

Unconditional strokes include examples such as telling someone you enjoy working with them, commenting on aspects of their appearance that they cannot change (like the color of their eyes or their height), asking them questions about themselves as human beings.   

Stroking Patterns 

Because strokes are such an essential part of life, we all establish patterns of interactions so that we can be sure that we will get enough recognition.  What happens is that we tend to establish relationships with a fairly limited number of people who tend to provide the types of strokes that we are used to.  We will, of course, have contact sometimes with other people but it is quite likely that the strokes they give us are rather like a bonus on top of our regular diet.   

We may have several patterns in different areas of our lives.  Most of us, for example, will have a stroking pattern established at work that is based on the colleagues that we have most contact with.  We are likely to have a separate stroking pattern based on our family - although if we are not in regular contact with family members then we will seek to make up the deficit elsewhere.  We may also have several different stroking patterns associated with our friends.  Perhaps we have one set of friends that we play sport with, another that we invite to our home for parties, and maybe others that we do not see very often.  Or we may have no clear boundaries so that all of our friends meet each other, and perhaps they meet our family and work colleagues as well.  All of this will depend on our individual preferences.   

Whatever our personal patterns are, we will seek to have enough people involved in them so that we receive the appropriate quantity and types of strokes.  This is why some people have such a wide circle of friends while others seem to manage with very little contact.  Neither is right or wrong; people are different. 

We suggest you  take some time to check out your own stroking patterns within your work team.   Note down who is in the team, when do you stroke them, what format do your strokes take, what are the strokes about?  Do the same in reverse – as well as reviewing the strokes you give, check out the strokes you get. 

Who did you include in the pattern?  Did you include only people that you like? Did you include your manager - it is surprising how many people do not think of their own manager as someone they work closely with.  Did you have any difficulty in thinking of enough people to include - perhaps you need to consider how you can widen you circle of contacts.   

When and how often you give strokes to the people in your chart.  Do you give strokes fairly regularly or are there some people where you have trouble remembering the last time you gave them any significant recognition? 

How much intensity and impact do you think your strokes are likely to have?  Are you doing little more than ritualized greetings and, if so, what does this do to your relationship?  Or are you giving very powerful strokes - and could these be more intense than the recipient feels comfortable with? 

Are the strokes you give positive or negative? Be honest with yourself!  Are you sometimes giving negative strokes, perhaps when you feel stressed or when someone else has been nasty to you?  If your strokes are all positive, check whether any are constructive criticism. 

What are your strokes about?  An effective stroking pattern will have variety - the strokes will be targeted to the individual recipients.  If your strokes are all much the same, check that you are not simply giving out the type of strokes you like to receive.  What evidence do you have that you are giving strokes that are appreciated - do people accept your strokes or do they try to push them back at you? 

Finally, what prompted you to give the stroke?  Was it something the other person said or did?  Perhaps they offered you a stroke and you responded by giving one back.  This can be okay at times but check that it is not a customary reaction because it can make your strokes seem artificial.  Check also that your stroking pattern is not influenced unduly by your own moods.  We all know people who only praise others when they themselves have been praised  -  and managers who come to work in a bad mood and then find fault with everyone around them!  

Improving your pattern 

Now that you have analyzed your stroking pattern think how you might improve it: ·       

Ř        Do you need to include more people within your general interaction pattern?  Who might they be?  Start with one or two people only and gradually find opportunities to stroke them.  Do not add lots of people to the pattern at once  -  you will not have enough time, you will find it too stressful, and people will begin to wonder what has happened to you!

Ř      ·        Do some people need more strokes than others?   Don’t expect that everyone will respond to exactly the same stroking format.  Notice who are the ones who like many strokes  -  they may also be people who are content with lower intensity strokes given more frequently.  Identify others who may prefer a much higher intensity stroke on an occasional basis.

Ř      ·        Should you change the content?  The content should be important to the recipient.  Check that you are not just talking to them about what matters to you  -  for example, your hobbies or your work.

Ř      ·        What about negative strokes?  Change these to positives!  Inviting someone to feel bad is not a good recipe for a relationship.  Either look for positive things to comment on instead, or change to constructive criticism and let the person know what you want them to do in future rather than what you did not like in the past.  


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Julie Hay is an internationally-accredited trainer in both NLP and transactional analysis, specialising in developmental applications rather than psychotherapy.  She is Managing Director of Psychological Intelligence Ltd and works world-wide as an organisational training consultant.   A prolific author, Julie's books are available from (TA, NLP, Coach/Mentoring) and (assessment and development centres). 

She can be contacted on 07000 234683 or by email to 

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Put this in your diary.

Julie Hay is  the inaugural Chairperson of the newly formed Institute of Developmental Transactional Analysis.  The IDTA is running its first conference, entitled Coaching & Mentoring – What can transactional analysis contribute? in Birmingham on 6th November, 2003.  For details of the IDTA and/or the conference, contact Julie as above or go to