What approach do you use to evaluate your interactions and conflicts with others? Let’s look at managing our “stroke economy”, the exchange of positive or negative signals in our social interactions.


By making some simple changes you can improve the outcomes of human interactions in your work and personal life.

The way we interact with each other matters in our professional and personal life. There are many different approaches to human interactions and conflict management. The “stroke economy” approach is one of them.

Analysing how our methods of interaction can enrich or deplete us, by observing our “strokes”, and then changing our strokes, we can improve our interactions, conflict management and overall relationships.


The background to units of recognitions, aka “strokes”

In 1951, Renee Spitz studied 91 infants who were placed in orphanages after 3?4 months of living with their biological parents. In these orphanages only one nurse was available for 812 children. As a result of the lack of social stimulation, many children experienced ’emotional starvation’.

Social contact is essential for our development, as is bonding with a caring adult. Tragically, the lack of social contact in the orphanage led to physical, mental and emotional deterioration, and many of the children there died.

Our need for social contact and stimulation doesn?t disappear when we grow up. Researcher/Psychologist Eric Berne, looked at the orphanage based research and at studies on our need for touch as infants. He further developed his theory about a type of recognition called “strokes”. The “stroke” can be verbal or non-verbal, positive or negative, conditional or unconditional, and it can also be mixed.


So here is what it looks like, in the case of an office worker receiving feedback from a boss:


Strokes Positive Negative
Verbal Non-verbal Verbal Non-verbal
Unconditional It’s great to have you in the office





You are a waste of space Glare of disapproval
Conditional This draft looks better than the last one Smiling while giving the report back This report has even more mistakes than the previous one Rolling eyes


Of course, we also have mixed strokes, for example: “Well, given that you are never here, this report is not that bad,” said with a smirk on the face.


Why do we need to pay attention to strokes?

It is important to notice what kind of strokes we are giving out and what we are receiving. When we experience conflict, often the strokes we give out become more negative, whether conditional, unconditional or mixed.

If lately, you were generous with your negative strokes: criticising, complaining and so on; reflect on whether you achieved a positive outcome. Did you get what you wanted out of that interaction?

Take a moment now and think about your recent difficult interactions and write down your recollections of the exchange of strokes below:


Strokes Given to Verbal expression Non-verbal expression
Positive Conditional Self
Positive Unconditional Self
Negative Conditional Self
Negative Unconditional Self
Mixed/ Contradictory Self


The mix of strokes we give and receive is often referred to as the “stroke economy”. Think about all the different relationships in your life: friends, parents, partners, colleagues and bosses.

Reflect on your relationships: what do you usually give and receive? It is difficult to imagine responding with a positive stroke (conditional or unconditional) if you have received:

  • negative conditional strokes: “This report is not as bad as the last one”; or
  • mixed strokes: “This work is okay, given that you were never in the office”; or
  • negative unconditional strokes: “You are just not showing what we need to see in order for you to take this to the next level of responsibility” or simply, “You just don’t have it in you”.

We often think that by being negative or sarcastic in our approach we motivate other people to change, but the truth is it often demoralises the person and makes them feel dejected.

Think about your last conflict and write down your “strokes”, to the best of your recollection, on the worksheet below.


Stroke economy between me and ______


My interaction (conflict) between me and _______________





I said/did/behaved _________________________________________________________________________







I said/did/behaved _________________________________________________________________________








I said/did/behaved








·      After you have recorded the strokes you received and gave out, write next to each interaction:

PC – Positive Conditional

PU – Positive Unconditional

NC – Negative Conditional

NU – Negative Unconditional

M/C – Mixed / Contradictory


Use these worksheets to evaluate your interactions. If you are not getting what you want in your conflict management or interactions ? pay attention to the exchange of strokes. Become a better manager of your “stroke economy”. Simple changes can lead to amazing results.