Human psychological hungers and strokes

8.1 Introduction

This chapter describes human psychological hungers (Berne, 1964) and expands on one of them, called strokes. This framework is useful in informing the coach how to affirm and encourage the coachee in an empowering rather than patronising way as well as provide the filter through which the coach listens for strengths and resilience in the coachee. Used explicitly, it is useful for coachees to gain awareness of their own styles of motivating and leading others as well as considering meeting their needs in a healthy way.

Human hungers – recognition, structure and stimulation

The three basic human hungers are for recognition, structure and stimulation. The most basic hunger in the infant is for physical contact as a way of recognition. As people grow into adulthood, they still need some form of recognition and appreciation. Another hunger is for structure - having a sense of order and predictability each day. A third hunger is for stimulation - a sense of excitement and novelty. All people have some degree of each hunger but probably have one that is higher than others. The spread of hungers also changes at different stages of people’s lives.

Consider for a moment if someone in advertising has a strong hunger for structure (and advertising needs high levels of experimentation and creativity) or an accountant has a strong hunger for stimulation (and accounting needs high levels of structure) - neither person will probably be doing their best work since their strongest hunger is being ignored!

This is a useful tool to use, especially with team coaching. A simple awareness of each person’s strongest and weakest hunger can help understanding about the suitability of the roles and tasks that each is doing.

Stroke theory

The psychological hunger for recognition has been expanded into stroke theory. A stroke is defined as a unit of recognition. It is a way of demonstrating to another human being that they exist and are appreciated (or disapproved of). Strokes can be positive (life-giving, supportive and encouraging) or negative (belittling and destructive). They can be verbal ('Well done!’ or Thank you so much!’) or non-verbal (a smile or a handshake). They can be conditional (based on what somebody has done) or unconditional (based on respect for who somebody is, irrespective of what they have done or not done) (see Figure 8.1).

  • • A positive conditional stroke could be Thanks for a great report delivered on time!’
  • • A positive unconditional stroke could be T appreciate your being part of the team’.
  • • A negative unconditional stroke could be ‘You are such a loser!’
  • • A negative conditional stroke could be There are some things that you need to do differently for the team to succeed in this project’. This type of stroke is what happens when giving constructive feedback. This model stresses the importance of separating the person from their behaviour when giving feedback - T appreciate you ... and this is what needs improvement’.
Strokes quadrant

Figure 8.1 Strokes quadrant

As recognition is a basic psychological hunger, people will rather set themselves up for negative strokes (the end result of psychological games; see Chapter 9) than get no strokes at all. At least they feel alive and noticed!

Another aspect of this theory is that where we put our attention is what will develop - colloquially stated as ‘what you stroke, grows’. People are quick to notice what isn’t working. If we notice only what goes badly and name it, that is what will grow. If we begin to notice when the behaviour is what we want instead and name and appreciate that, however infrequent it might be at the current time, it will increase. As coaches, we listen to what is already going well, even if it is not yet flourishing, and we champion that.

Different people grow up getting a different ratio of positive to negative strokes. They develop a stroke filter which will filter out the types of strokes that don’t fit their accustomed ratio. So if somebody from a challenging home background got mostly negative strokes and very occasionally a positive stroke, when they meet a manager who gives them lots of positive affirmation, they might ignore this as it doesn’t fit in with their accustomed ratio of more negative than positive strokes. We need to package strokes in the way that will impact the receiver.

Stroking in action

Usefulness as a tool for the coach’s self-awareness

One of the roles of the coach is to champion new behaviour in the coachee. This needs to be done in a manner that keeps the responsibility for success firmly with the coachee and doesn’t give the impression of a parent figure praising a young child for good work.

The communication style of the positive stroke will be key to its coming across in an Adult-to-Adult style (see Chapter 4). For example, ‘You did it!’ - compared with a Parent-to-Child style - ‘That was so well done - you really are making lovely progress now’. It’s a subtle shift in language, but the unconscious shift of power is real. The Parent-to-Child version can subtly invite dependence on the coach, and a possible shift into the Compliant Child mode as the coachee does things to ‘please the coach'.

Usefulness as a tool for the client’s learning

Explicit exploration of the four different types of strokes can give insight to a coachee who might be working on her leadership style. She might wonder why she receives antagonism from some of her team when she gives what she considers valid and challenging feedback.

A realisation might be that constructive feedback is best given within a trusting relationship built up with an appropriate level of positive strokes and that there would be a better response by keeping the feedback conditional ('What you did needs improvement’) rather than unconditional (‘Who you are is not acceptable!’).


Strokes are like water to a growing plant! Humans thrive when they have the right style and proportion of genuine positive strokes. People soon see through inauthentic 'plastic’ strokes!

To explore a practical tool using the stroking profile, see Chapter 21.


Berne, E. (1964). Games People Play. London: Penguin Books.

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