When we recognise another person, be it with a look, a smile, a frown, or a greeting, we are giving that person a stroke.  Stroking can be defined as any act that implies a recognition of the other person’s presence. 


Researchers in human and animal development have found that infants deprived of handling over a long period of time will tend to sink into an irreversible decline and succumb to disease.  Physical death from a condition known as Marasmus once was a frequent occurrence in orphanages where there was a deprivation of early stroking. *

There was no physical cause to explain these deaths except the absence of essential stimulation.


In other words, emotional deprivation can have a fatal outcome. Experiments have shown that deprivation of physical contact in grown-ups results in transient psychosis, or temporary mental disturbances.  That is why solitary confinement is one of the punishments most dreaded by prisoners who are even hardened to physical brutality. 


It is also found that emotional and sensory deprivation tends to bring about biological changes.  It is found that stimulus-hunger has the same relationship to survival of the human organism as food-hunger. 


In some remarkable experiments by S. Levine*, it was found that not only physical, mental and emotional development, but also the biochemistry of the brain and even resistance to leukaemia were favourably affected by physical handling.  The most significant aspect of these experiments was that gentle handling and painful electric shocks were equally effective in promoting the health of the animals.*


Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis called the need for physical contact “stimulus hunger”.  His use of use of the word ‘stroke’ refers to the infant’s need for touching.  As grown-ups, we still crave physical contact. As we grow up, we replace the need for physical contact with the need for any sort of recognition that we can get.  We are more likely to survive if we are given negative strokes than if we are given no strokes at all.  We respond to whatever types of strokes we can get, be they physical touch or simply a form of recognition such as a look, smile, or greeting.


What this all means for us is this:


·         We all need strokes

·         Strokes can be positive or negative

·         We will do whatever we have to in order to get strokes, either positive or negative ones

·         The more we stroke/recognise a certain behaviour, the more that behaviour grows

·         Therefore, to get the best out of others, stroke, acknowledge, and recognise the best you see in them.



Strokes may be classified as conditional or unconditional. The traditional view of organisations implies a conditional form of stroking - recognition is something that results from performance of the task. Unconditional strokes add an important dimension; such strokes do not have to be 'earned’ through achievement or appearance. Asking someone about their family or their spare time activities is a powerful form of stroking that involves relating to aspects of them which may otherwise be neglected during work time.


The term ‘stroke’ as a word for ‘unit of recognition’ arose because physical stroking is so important to us as babies before we learn to speak. Once we grow older, we learn to accept our strokes in non-physical ways as well. As adults any form of recognition serves as a stroke: catching someone's eye; having a conversation; receiving pay and commission; allocation of a company car. Indeed, as adults 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.


Strokes have different degrees of value to us. It depends on the nature of the interaction, our feelings about the stroke giver, and our personal preferences for what aspects of our personality or behaviour get stroked. Some of us like our recognition to be about work performance and achievement; others are more comfortable with strokes about our families and personal relationships; yet others get more of a kick when people show an interest in our hobbies.


We also vary in our sources of strokes. Being part of a team means that strokes are available to us from many directions. Working alone yields fewer strokes. 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. Each change in our circumstances will cause a corresponding deficit in our stroking pattern until we can re-establish a new source of interaction. Of course, if we are dissatisfied with such a relationship we may welcome the opportunity to begin elsewhere.


Why do we have these difficulties? One way of understanding this process is to look at the effect of change on our relationships with other people. In the course of a normal week, we are likely to have contact with colleagues, friends, family - these interactions add up to a pattern of recognition from others that confirms our sense of identity. Change disrupts this pattern. So, even a holiday alters the normal weekly quota, as we rely on our holiday companions to counterbalance the lack of interaction with colleagues and customers.


*Thomas A. Harris, M.D. “I’m OK-You’re OK” Pan Books Ltd, London, 1973

*S. Levine, “infantile experience and resistance to physiological stress” Science, 126: 405, 30 August 1957

*Eric Berne M.D. “Games People Play – The psychology of human relationships”, Penguin Books Ltd, Middlesex, England, 1982



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