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Different strokes for different folks

Different strokes for different folks
Professor Julie Hay explains how understanding the concept of 'strokes' can help you build better relationships with clients and colleagues.

‘Stroke’ is a jargon term for a unit of human recognition. We all have basic human needs to be in contact with people.

This is why solitary confinement is such a severe punishment. It is also why babies left without attention and stimulation, as they were years ago in Romania, fail to develop normally.

Although as individuals we vary in the amount of recognition we need, we must all get at least some attention from others if we are to function as healthy human beings.

Any form of interaction with others is an exchange of recognition. To stroke someone, we may touch them, speak to them, or simply catch their eye and look away.

Even the glance has shown we know of their existence and is therefore a stroke, though it is one that has very low recognition power. People who lack sufficient contact with others will respond disproportionately to a minor stroke, such as when we nod politely to a stranger in a lift and then find ourselves listening to their life story.

Power of touch

At the top end of the scale is touching, which research has shown to have major impact even when we are not aware consciously that we have been touched.

One candid camera type study in a library found that, if staff ‘accidentally’ brushed someone’s hand as they handed them their books, people were far more likely to comment favourably on the staff at the library, and on the selection of books available, the lighting, and various other elements that had no link to the touch or the people.

As babies, physical strokes are also necessary because we cannot yet understand what people tell us. Once we grow older and acquire speech, we learn to accept our strokes in non-physical ways as well.

As adults any form of recognition serves as a stroke: being smiled at or frowned at; having a conversation; having an argument or a cuddle. We recognise that our society places restrictions on how we touch each other so the majority of strokes at work are conveyed through sight and hearing.

We see a smile or a frown; we hear the comments made and questions asked of us. In the UK our strokes via touch tend to be restricted to shaking hands, although in other countries it may be customary to have much more physical contact with colleagues.

Handing out handshakes

Handshakes also demonstrate how we appear to treat strokes as if they were money. Watch what happens when a group of senior managers and their subordinates are gathering for a meeting. Quite often, a pecking order of handshakes appears! The senior people shake hands with other senior people. The junior people are expected to shake hands with other junior people.

It’s as if we are signalling that our handshakes have a certain value and can only be given to people who will return a stroke of the same value. We know we’ve arrived when the top managers are prepared to shake hands with us.

Incidentally, this was one of the ways in which sexual discrimination commonly showed (and does so less now). Male managers would often fail to shake hands with female managers on the same level.

This was because they were making assumptions – female equals lower grade, lower grade does not get one of my high value, high status handshakes. Women sometimes compounded the problem inadvertently by not expecting to shake hands, and therefore neglecting to initiate such contact themselves.

If you doubt the truth of this, think about how you feel when someone neglects to shake hands with you. Our response to this is usually quite dramatic – we may feel snubbed, put-down, angry, bitter or despairing. We will generally not want to interact with that person in the future.

This is because the touch element is so significant to us. Indeed, this same significance of touch is what leads to some complaints of sexual harassment; we are willing to receive such powerful strokes only from people with whom we have an appropriately close relationship.

Positive or negative 

As well as varying in their level of intensity and mode of communication, strokes may be positive or negative.

Positive strokes invite us to feel OK about ourselves and others. Negative strokes invite us to feel not OK about ourselves, about others, or both. 

Complimentary remarks about our work, our appearance, our family, our hobbies, will all be positive strokes. Questions are also strokes; paying attention to someone by asking for their opinions, their concerns, their ideas, or their latest news, is a powerful way of recognising their existence as a human being.

Positive strokes are not always ‘nice’ comments; a positive stroke may also consist of constructive criticism even though we may not feel it is positive at the moment we receive it.

When phrased in a way that tells us how to improve, such criticism carries with it the implication that we are OK – and can therefore do still better than we have – and will only be offered by someone with our best interests in mind and who is therefore also okay.

Negative strokes, too, are more complex than simply saying something unpleasant. In addition to interactions aimed at inviting us to feel bad in some way, there are also negative strokes involved when we are encouraged to feel that we are one-up.

Being invited to look through the I’m not OK, You’re OK or the I’m OK, You’re not OK window is not a psychologically healthy way to maintain our sense of self-worth.

We may also experience strokes that leave us feeling that no-one is OK. These are the cynical comments along the lines of “Whatever makes you think the idiots will listen to you of all people!”, so that we shift to the hopeless I’m not OK, You’re not OK life position.

Stroking patterns

Our personal stroking pattern consists of the strokes that we give and receive. We develop patterns of interactions between us and the people we are in contact with so that we receive a supply of strokes to match our needs.

It is not random. We will unwittingly establish relationships with people who are likely to provide the levels and types of strokes that we became used to during our childhood.

These have become integral to our way of being in the world; if our customary balance is upset we feel uncomfortable and seek to re-establish it. Unfortunately, this applies even if we have become used to a preponderance of negative strokes.

We will of course vary in our sources of strokes. Being part of a team means that strokes are available to us from many directions. Working mostly alone yields fewer strokes. Depending on our own preferences, we will therefore opt for the situation that is most likely to produce the pattern we want.

We will also differ in the groups of people with whom we choose to exchange strokes: it may be our work group, our family, our friends, the people at night school, the local amateur dramatic society...

We will operate different intervals between strokes; some of us want frequent strokes while others can go for long periods provided we can ‘stock up’ occasionally.

The structure of an organisation can have a significant impact on our options for obtaining strokes. For instance, working closely with customers may lead us to rely on the customer instead of our colleagues for our recognition, so that our loyalty to our own organisation is weakened.

Changing the people we work closely with means that our stroking pattern also must change. This is why it can be stressful to start a new job: we had an established stroking pattern with our old colleagues that suddenly stops – and we need time to get to know the new people and establish a new stroking pattern that relies on us knowing the strokes they prefer and, most importantly, them knowing the strokes we prefer.

This dynamic explains why clients often want to bring their ‘old’ agency with them when they transfer to a new company.

Test yourself: 

  1. List the five or six people you work most closely with: team members, colleagues, your manager, clients, etc.
  2. Draw up a chart on which you can note your stroke exchanges.
  3. Afterwards, consider the following prompts for each person in your chart:
  1. What strokes do you typically give them?
  2. What are they about – the weather, their work, something personal, etc? Note the words that are said.
  3. What intensity of strokes do you typically give each person – low, medium, high?
  4. How many strokes do you give them, e.g. one a day, one a month?
  5. Are the strokes you give them usually positive or negative?
  6. Can you identify any of the stroke myths in operation (not giving, not asking for, not accepting, not rejecting, not stroking self)?
  7. What do you think of your stroking profile with each person?
  8. What changes have you made since you learned TA?
  9. What changes do you still need to make?
  10. What do you think of your overall pattern of giving strokes?
  11. Do you stroke some people more than others?
  12. Can you explain this in terms of understanding their stroke preferences? If not, do you need to make changes?

Now repeat the above but for the strokes you get from them:

  1. What are the strokes you receive about?
  2. What intensity?
  3. How many?
  4. Positive or negative?
  5. Any stroke myths in operation?
  6. What do you think about the profile from each person?
  7. Think about whether you are lacking in any strokes you need. If you are, how will you get these strokes elsewhere?
  8. How has learning about strokes made a difference to the way you relate to your colleagues, to management, to clients, etc?

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Photo credit:  Aidan Jones / Flickr 

Last updated 14/10/2013

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