The ‘OK Corral’ – Choosing a positive attitude

Organisations will often have values about always treating customers and colleagues with respect but sometimes, in the cut and thrust of the real world of work, this can seem like a big ask…When the going gets tough, what helps us develop this attitude without being disingenuous?

When things go wrong at work or I am feeling frustrated by a difference of opinion it is so easy to feel that either the other person is clearly WRONG or to feel GUILTY that somehow I must be to blame for letting the situation arise in the first place…or even to WITHDRAW and think it’s not worth the bother of trying to sort it out. These thoughts and feelings are very real and expecting myself to ‘be nice’ to others or just to ‘feel better about myself’ can feel dishonest.

When I work with groups to develop their emotional intelligence, I use Franklin Ernst’s ‘OK Corral’ model (based on the work of Eric Berne) because it offers a common sense way to convey the choices available in our own attitude to our self and others.

So what is the OK Corral and how can it help you make the right attitude choices?

At any moment we are taking one of four positions in relation to our self and another person:

I'm OK, You're Not OK


Someone taking this position comes across as self assured (sometimes to the point of smugness or superiority). They slip into unhelpful competitiveness, look for errors by others and there is the prickle of hostility even if only subdued.

I’m not OK, You’re OK


Someone taking this position gives out signals that they have feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness; they may withdraw and certainly demonstrate, an undervaluing of their own skills and abilities. They may also run away from problems.

I'm not OK, You're not OK


Someone in this position conveys a sense of hopelessness and getting nowhere. They often communicate cynicism, along with stubbornness or obstinacy, and even a sense of quiet glee when things go wrong.

I'm OK, You're OK

Someone in this position conveys mutual respect. They exhibit a constructive approach to problems and disagreements, conveying optimism and energy for collaboration. They come across as self confident and have a resistance to putting themselves or others down.

So how does knowing about these positions help us?

Certain situations, moods and the behaviours of others can trigger us to shift into one of these positions BUT we always have a choice about how we respond. One of the ways we define ourselves is by staying in control of who we are regardless of the situation we are in. As I was starting to write this blog my book group was reading ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Victor Frankl. In this book he writes about his experiences of surviving internment in concentration camps. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” So if he can do it under those most extraordinarily difficult circumstances surely I can do it when the photocopier breaks down – even if it breaks down because my colleague spilt their coffee over it.

Choose 'I'm OK, You're OK'

So we can choose the 'I'm OK, You’re OK' position regardless of the circumstances…although obviously this can be hugely challenging at times. In our customer service and people-management training we help people to become aware of their more negative ‘default’ position so that they can make more conscious choices how they respond to individuals. This helps them take a more objective stance and recognise that the position they are taking may not be objective reality.

We can then ‘hook’ ourselves up to the 'I’m OK, You’re OK' position by using constructive language, whether giving non-critical feedback or suggesting a way forward. Using those communication tools (even if we don’t initially feel particularly 'I’m OK, You’re OK') is similar to the NLP approach of acting ‘as if’ something was true. I find that when I talk ‘as if’ I am adopting the 'I’m OK, You’re OK' position in most circumstances, in a short time I have genuinely made the shift.

Understand the other person's behaviour

In addition, the more we can understand another person’s behaviour- even if it is ‘difficult,’ the easier it is to be respectful to them without condoning their behaviour. So paraphrasing their views (but if necessary dropping all their judgmental language) helps me see the situation through their eyes and helps trigger my respect for them as a person – even if I don’t agree.

In reality we move around these positions in different circumstances and with different people, but the more time we spend in the 'I’m OK, You’re OK’ position, the better for both our mental and physical health. Once in this position, our communications are likely to come across as authentic, more effective and more conducive to building strong working relationships.

So, next time you feel that you are so completely right about something, or feeling like walking away, try the ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ position on for size and see whether your attitude shifts to match.

Posted by Shona Ward

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