An ability to be empatheticCommunication meaningfully with othersReadiness to challenge one’s own emotions and beliefsWhere relevant, is honest about their own emotional process

Games Trainers Play

In the article “games people play”, we learned about some psychological games that can be played by people in general, and what can be done to avoid playing these games and the resultant lack of authenticity and real communication. Trainers are not beyond playing games as well, and actually because of the position of relative power a trainer has, it’s very likely that they can fall into the trap of playing these games, perhaps without even realizing it, or that participants or coaches will instigate these kind of games and we may be roped into it. Awareness is power, so even just being aware of these potential games, can help us to recognize them in their early stages and hopefully stop them before they cause any damage.

Why did I choose this tool?

I’m so happy to have found this book, “Games People Play” by Dr. Eric Berne. Although it is expressed in a language that is a bit old fashioned and belongs to the field of psychotherapy, I still found it very applicable and relatable. Since reading it I have come across a few situations that I have been able to identify as “game playing”, and this has taught me how to deal with them. It has given me the foundation I need to know whether to confront, divert or just ignore. It has made me feel more confident in my communication skills, particularly being assertive and protecting myself from getting drawn into other people’s games.

How does this apply to being a trainer?

If we recognize when we are playing a game (or when someone is trying to play a game with us) in a training setting, we can stop it in time and steer the training back in a productive direction and one that leads to authentic sharing rather than game playing. Being authentic as a trainer is very powerful, and participants will intuitively know whether you are being authentic or not and will respond accordingly. Game playing is the opposite of authenticity. It is like putting a wall between you and the participants, a wall which can even make you look good and protect your feelings but will make it impossible for genuine connection, learning and growth to take place.

Main content:

Why do people play games?

According to Dr. Eric Berne, games are created to meet one or all of the following needs:

Time structure-hunger

We need to have something to do with our time, and it needs to make sense to us and feel worthwhile. Playing psychological games is one of the ways, although possibly not the best one, to fill our days with some kind of purpose and something we can win at.


Infants crave love and affection; it’s how they survive and if they get enough of it, they can thrive physically and psychologically. Interestingly, this need doesn’t exactly go away when we grow up. What happens is that the love and affection we relied on before we now have to earn it , rather than having it guaranteed (like food).


When others recognize and acknowledge us, our sense of identity is reinforced, as we know ourselves that we exist as individuals and we have an accepted place in the society. Recognition is related to both belonging and esteem, as we are accepted into groups and then we gain status within them.

Our “hunger” can be met in either positive or negative ways, or rather “high quality” or “low quality” ways. To take stimulus-hunger as an example, it can be met either through invigorating relationships, work pursuits and hobbies, or it could be met through taking drugs. The challenge of our lifetime, I believe, is to find the healthiest and most productive ways to meet all of our needs, and sometimes this is easier said than done.

The following games are a few of the games listed in “Games People Play” by Dr. Eric Berne, who also created the theory of transactional analysis (also known as “I’m ok – you’re ok). In fact, “Games People Play” builds on transactional analysis by dissecting the games played by people in all 3 ego states (child/parent/adult). To find out more about transactional analysis, check out the article “Understanding Power in Relationships” included in the intercultural competence.

There are many more games listed in the book, and even more games referred to, but not explicitly described. I’ve chosen a few of the games that I found most relevant and/or that I have actually seen being played in real life, unbeknownst to the players. I have played some of them myself, without even realizing

The book also lists a few games that he describes as being “good”, in a way that they can be helpful to the one playing the game and also to the ones they are playing with. But for the sake of brevity I will stick to the games that are considered to be negative as I think becoming aware of them is more urgent. To read about all the games, check out the full book. To read about some games that could be played by trainers, check out the article “Games Trainers Play” also included with this competence.

Included with each of the games are some suggestions as to how you can stop the game or make it fizzle out on its own. Like the regular games, these games also require more than one player. If you refuse to play, it may feel a bit awkward or uncomfortable at first, but it is only by not playing these games that you can have authentic communication and genuinely support the growth of participants.

I’m Only Trying to Help You

“This game may be played in any professional situation and is not confined to psychotherapists and welfare workers. However, it is found most commonly and in its most florid form among social workers with a certain type of training.

The worker or therapist, of any profession, gives some advice to a client or a patient. The patient returns and reports that the suggestion did not have the desired effect. The worker shrugs off this failure with a feeling of resignation, and tries again. If he is more watchful, he may detect at this point a twinge of frustration, but he will try again anyway. Usually he feels very little need to question his own motives, because he knows that many of his similarly trained colleagues do the same thing.

If he runs up against a hard player, such as a hostile obsessional, he will find it more and more difficult to avoid felling inadequate. Then he is in trouble, and the situation will slowly deteriorate. In the worst case, he may come up against an angry paranoid, who will rush in one day in a rage, crying: “Look what you made me do!”. Then his frustration will come strongly to the fore in the spoken or unspoken thought: “But I was only trying to help you!”. His bewilderment at the ingratitude may cause him considerable suffering, indicating the complex motives underlying his own behavior.”

I have seen variations of this game being played with trainers, where the trainer takes too much responsibility for trying to help a participant and where this later backfires in an unpleasant way. This may happen particularly with new trainers, who want to prove themselves and show that they can offer valuable advice. The problem is not with the advice itself, but with the intention and the way that it is given. There is a difference when a trainer does something just to contribute, and when they do it to try and prove themselves in some way and takes responsibility for the outcome that the participant will experience as a result.

I was once approached by a man who said he needed coaching urgently, and that he was thinking about killing himself. An earlier version of me would have freaked out and dropped everything to help him. But this version of me knew a bit better, so I agreed to coach him but on my terms. He never showed up for the session, and soon revealed his true motives which were not at all related to coaching or genuine personal development, and that it was all an attempt to manipulate me. This could have easily turned into a game of “I’m only trying to help you” (by offering my knowledge and resources) and “look what you made me to” (with the threat of suicide or other self-harming behaviors).

The only way that we can avoid playing this game is by not letting ourselves take responsibility for participants’/coaches’ behavior. We need to know that we are only accountable for our own behavior and words, and that in reality the results of our efforts are not in our hands and they don’t prove that we are/aren’t “good enough”. We also need to accept that we can’t help anyone that doesn’t want to be helped, as much as we may gravitate towards lost causes in an attempt to “save them”.


Psychiatry as a procedure must be distinguished from “Psychiatry” as a game. The game of “Psychiatry,” is based on the position “I am a healer,” supported by a diploma: “It says here I am a healer,” It will be noted that in any case that this can be a constructive, benevolent position, and that people who play “Psychiatry” can do a great deal of good.

It is likely, however, that there will be more gain in therapeutic results if therapeutic ardor is moderated. The antithesis was best expressed long ago by Ambroise Paré, who said in effect: “I treat them, but God cures them.” Every medical student learns about this dictum, along with others such as primum non nocere, and phrases such as vis medicatrix naturae. Nonmedical therapists, however, are not so likely to be exposed to these ancient cautions. The position “I am a healer because it says here that I am a healer” is likely to be an impairment, and may be replaced to advantage with something like: “I will apply what therapeutic procedures I have learned in the hope that they will be of some benefit.” This avoids the possibility of games based on: “Since I am a healer, if you don’t get better it’s your fault” (e.g., see game “I’m Only Trying To Help You”), or “Since you’re a healer, I’ll get better for you” (e.g., see game in book “Peasant”). All of this, of course, is known in principle to every conscientious therapist.

On the other side, the game of “Psychiatry” is more apt to crop up with patients who have previously been treated by less competent therapists. A few patients, for example, carefully pick weak psychoanalysts, moving from one to another, demonstrating that they cannot be cured and meanwhile learning to play a sharper and sharper game of “Psychiatry”; eventually it becomes difficult for even a first-rate clinician to separate the wheat from the chaff. The duplex transaction on the patient’s side is:

Adult: “I am coming to be cured.”

Child: “You will never cure me, but you will teach me to be a better neurotic (play a better game of ‘Psychiatry’).”

Even though as trainers we are clearly not psychiatrists, it will not necessarily prevent people from trying to play the psychiatrist game with us. They can play it by saying things like “let’s see if what you have to give will have any effect on me”, or by sharing their personal issues a lot in the training with the expectation that you will “psychoanalyze” them, or by putting the blame on you when they don’t get what they want from the training.

The best way to understand whether they are playing a game of psychiatry or actually being honest can be to ask ourselves these questions:

Why is this being shared?

Does it fit in the context of the training?

Are they trying to find solutions to their own problems, or are they looking to me to just give them an answer?

Did I make my role in this training clear, not just with an explanation at the beginning but also with my verbal and non-verbal behavior throughout?

Most of all, am I clear on the fact that although I have a lot to offer it doesn’t mean that I can “cure” or even help anyone, but that they have to use these resources to do it for themselves?

Do I have an unmet need for recognition that I might be looking to meet by being a trainer? If the answer is yes, you are at risk of being a prime candidate for participants to play this game with you, and it would be wise to find a way to deal with this so as to be less vulnerable.


“Thesis. This is a variation of “Psychiatry,” which is played hardest by young social scientists, such as clinical psychologists. In the company of their colleagues these young people tend to play “Psychoanalysis,” often in a jocular way, using such expressions as “Your hostility is showing” or “How mechanical can a defense mechanism get?” This is usually a harmless and enjoyable pastime; it is a normal phase of their learning experience, and with a few originals in the group it can become quite amusing. As patients in psychotherapy groups, some of these people are apt to indulge in this mutual critique more seriously; but since it is not highly productive in that situation, it may have to be headed off by the therapist. The proceedings may then turn into a game of “Greenhouse.”

There is a strong tendency for recent graduates to have an exaggerated respect for what they call “Genuine Feelings.” The expression of such a feeling may be preceded by an announcement that it is on its way. After the announcement, the feeling is described, or rather presented before the group, as though it were a rare flower which should be regarded with awe. The reactions of the other members are received very solemnly, and they take on the air of connoisseurs at a botanical garden. The problem seems to be, in the jargon of game analysis, whether this one is good enough to be exhibited in the National Feeling Show. A questioning intervention by the therapist may be strongly resented, as though he were some clumsy-fingered clod mauling the fragile petals of an exotic century plant. The therapist, naturally, feels that in order to understand the anatomy and physiology of a flower, it may be necessary to dissect it.”

In trainings I do my best to normalize the expression of genuine feelings, whether negative or positive. Unfortunately, sincere expressions of emotions are quite rare because society it seems is rather prejudiced toward emotions and a lot of people are not taught to be very expressive about them. Because of this, I’ve seen that emotions are either pathologized or idolized, rather than treated as the normal part of everyday life that they are. This is what can lead to the greenhouse effect described above, treating feelings as if they were some sort of honored abnormality. The way you can prevent this is by being very relaxed and easygoing about emotions. If someone starts to cry and automatically says “sorry” for it, tell them not to apologize because expressing feelings is normal and healthy. But then don’t make a big deal about it. And if someone is very excited or happy about something, let it be also and don’t try to squelch it or make a big deal about it. Allow people to feel whatever they feel, acknowledge their feelings if necessary and integrate the emotions that naturally appear as a part of the fabric of the training which will give it life and color but which are not meant to stand on their own.

Reflection questions:

Which of the above-mentioned games have I played?

I’m only trying to help you



What could have led to playing these games?

Do I have unmet needs that might have caused me to play these games, or that may cause me to play them in the future (ex: time structure hunger, recognition hunger, stimulus hunger)?

How might playing a game like this negatively affect the training?

What would be a more healthy and genuine way of fulfilling those needs?

Do I want to deliver trainings that are game free?

If so, what steps do I need to take to make that happen?


The next time you attend a training, observe if there are any games being played. If you aren’t the trainer you don’t need to do anything about it, just observing it will help you to be more aware of the possibility of game playing and the potential outcomes of game playing in a training setting.

Leilani van Rheenen

has been active in youth work, training and coaching since 2008. Her specialty is emotional intelligence, emotional fitness, since it is the primary ingredient in competences such as inter-cultural competence, learning to learn, cooperating successfully in teams, etc. Leilani’s contribution will combine the information and methods she has created with the vast array of tried and tested materials available. Leilani has developed herself as a trainer from the Salto training for trainers, but also from renowned coaches and authors, and adapted methods learned from these sources to meet the needs of youth workers.

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Berne, E. (1973). Games People Play. Penguin UKTop of FormBottom of Form (n.d.). Games People Play | Eric Berne | Creator Of Transactional Analysis. Eric Berne M.D.. Retrieved July 9, 2019

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