A conversation with Virginia Satir and Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove on The Thinking Aloud.
JEFFREY MISHLOVE: Hello and welcome. With me today, to discuss communication, is Virginia Satir. Probably it would be fair to say that Virginia is a living legend — one of the founders of the whole movement for family therapy, author of nine books, including Peoplemaking, Conjoint Family Therapy, Satir Step by Step, and many others. In fact, an entire discipline of psychology called neurolinguistic programming was virtually founded as an effort by other psychologists to study the incredible therapeutic work by Virginia Satir. A book called The Structure of Magic describes the underlying principles behind her work. Welcome, Virginia.
VIRGINIA SATIR: Thank you.
MISHLOVE: It’s a pleasure to have you here. We’re going to be focusing in on communication. One of the points that you make about communication is that we very often fail to communicate what we’re really feeling inside — that we don’t really express what our deepest feelings are.
SATIR: That’s true. And if that happens, do you know how often we can be misunderstood?
MISHLOVE: All the time.
SATIR: And so you don’t understand me, and you make me up. So I say that when we aren’t really understanding each other, we hallucinate each other, and then we behave as though our hallucinations are fact. That’s how we do it.
MISHLOVE: And growing up in a family where that’s going on can be very tricky.
SATIR: Oh sure. One of the things I have found — I found this all over the world, Jeff — I think it’s all because we were born little; I think that’s the real problem. Probably it won’t happen when we’re all born grown up, which I don’t expect to see happen. But all over the world, the same problems are present. What are some of them? People are expected to know what somebody else means.
MISHLOVE: We want other people to be clairvoyant, to read our mind.
SATIR: Sort of, yes.
MISHLOVE: Of course we don’t really want them to do that either.
SATIR: But let me tell you something. If you love me and you don’t read my mind, it must mean you don’t love me. I encounter that a lot.
MISHLOVE: I shouldn’t have to ask.
SATIR: That’s right, because if you love me, or I love you, we will know ahead of time.
MISHLOVE: I should be at your beck and call. Without your ever having to tell me what you need, I should just be there for you.
SATIR: And you know, when we’re talking about that right now, it sounds so ridiculous and absurd. And yet, this is how a lot of people function. You know where I think that came from? I think it came from when we were little kids. I often use this example: mother was at the top of the stairs, and we were putting our hand in the cookie jar. Somebody said, “Take your hand out of the cookie jar.” And we got the idea that people could read our minds. Or we were very unhappy at a moment in time, and mother came in just at that time and patted us, or something of that sort. And so, people could read our minds.
MISHLOVE: You know, I’m a parapsychologist. I have no problem with the fact that we are clairvoyant some of the time, but to demand that all of the time — it seems to me that maybe we’re afraid to ask because of a fear of rejection or something of that sort.
SATIR: See, there’s a difference, Jeff, between being able to connect with somebody else, and acting on that information without checking. Because if we didn’t have this thing called rapport between people, we wouldn’t be able to even make connections. But the idea that I read your mind, and then I do what fits for me in relation to you, without ever checking with you, becomes a terrible thing.
MISHLOVE: It could be especially tricky if you read my mind and you’re getting a message which is totally different than what I’m telling you.
SATIR: Exactly. And I still say to people, we haven’t developed a science of ESP that well. So let us not go into a basis of thinking that this is what we can do. Let’s check things out. If I have a sense with you about something, instead of acting on that I’ll ask you, “Is this so?” See, that to me is loving, it’s considerate, and it opens up a chance for me to learn something about you, and also a chance for us to commit in a deep way.
MISHLOVE: In other words, that’s a normal part of healthy communication — checking with a person.
SATIR: Sure. I think so.
MISHLOVE: Because very often we can misunderstand what a person means.
SATIR: Oh yes. It happens all the time. In fact, I think that I can demonstrate the relationship between communication and health and illness, between intimacy and distancing, between competency and incompetency, and between making sense and not making sense. And it can all come within the frame of how we handle communication.
MISHLOVE: In the school of family therapy that you founded, conjoint family therapy, a lot of focus is on just studying the way communication occurs in a family, to diagnose what that family’s problems are.
SATIR: That’s right. And as long as we’re on that subject, let me tell you something that came out so clearly after I worked with many, many people. There are two dialogues that go on. One is the dialogue of the words, and the other is the dialogue of hearing. And many times those are different. I’ll give you a little illustration. Ask me how I am.
MISHLOVE: How are you?
SATIR: I’m fine, Jeff.
SATIR: Now, when I said that, tell me what happened to you.
MISHLOVE: Well, you had a very cold tone to your voice, so I thought you were trying to distance.
SATIR: But didn’t you hear the words — that I was fine?
MISHLOVE: Yes, uh huh.
SATIR: All right. See, this is typical. Or ask me again if I like something, whatever it is.
MISHLOVE: OK. Do you enjoy being here on TV today, Virginia?
SATIR: Oh, I think that it’s just wonderful.
SATIR: Now I’m doing something else. I’m sending out another message about the words that disclaim what I’m doing. Now, just like in the first illustration, the thing I found out is, those two levels of the dialogue come from two different places in the person. They are not an attempt to bring trouble to other people. That’s not where it comes. These are totally unconscious.
MISHLOVE: Yes. I think you call one level the metacommunication level. In other words, every time we communicate we have a message, and we’re also communicating a message about our message.
SATIR: That’s right. Exactly. See, a lot of people — I think it’s even been true of psychologists — when people give what we call double-level messages, which is where my body and voice say one thing, different from my words, they think that this is deliberately done. It isn’t. The words come from the left brain — what you should do. The other part comes from the right brain. Now, suppose that I have a rule that says that I should never complain to you. Let’s suppose I’m in terrible pain and you ask me how I am, and I say, “Fine.” What am I doing? This says I’ve got a rule that I should never complain. And it says I have pain. But I’m giving the message of what I should do, which is I should never complain.
MISHLOVE: Then it’s as if underneath any conversation, no matter I suppose how abstract or intellectual, there’s always a human being under there with emotions, often needing to be validated.
SATIR: That’s of course one of the things I try to teach people. I have to tell you something. I go to lectures, people presenting things. I listen, and all of a sudden, they may be talking about all this erudition, and underneath I hear: “I’m hurting. I feel disapppointed. I would love for you to help me.” And it comes out in these very erudite terms. Now, if I were to go to one of those people and say, “I’d like to help you,” the chances are that they would say, “How did you know I needed help? What makes you think I need help?”
MISHLOVE: They might even deny it.
SATIR: Sure, because usually people like that have rules they shouldn’t ask for help — not that they don’t need it. And this is the kind of stuff that goes on with people all the time. See, I can always hear and see better in you than you can hear and see in yourself, simply because I’m outside of you. And then when I share with you what I’m seeing and hearing — if, for instance, it happens to meet one of your rules, which is, “I should never ask for anything; I should always be right,” etc., then you have to deny what’s going on. And then if I am not careful, I have to prove my point, and pretty soon we’ve estranged ourselves.
MISHLOVE: And in our culture, I suppose one of the very common rules is never to reveal what you really feel, especially the vulnerable parts.
SATIR: Yes, that’s absolutely true. If you think about it, people’s feeling about what’s vulnerable is their deep feelings. But most people give themselves “credit” for only having bad things inside, not good things. You know, I’ve even found people who felt that they couldn’t talk about love feelings because somebody else will be jealous. So as a result, we don’t communicate the thing that is really what human beings are about. You can put people on a computer, and they can talk back to each other, but they have no arms, nothing else, you know. But we are behaving a lot of times as though that’s what human communication is, and I know better than that.
MISHLOVE: One of the things that I’ve enjoyed, is that you have developed these caricatures of the stances that people take characteristically, like the blamer or the placater, when we’re constantly trying to cover up what we really feel inside. And when people are always that way — pointing a finger at someone else, or always pointing it at themselves, or getting very intellectual or distracting and being silly all the time — these are modes of operation in which people aren’t being — you use the term congruent. They’re not communicating how they really feel.
SATIR: Well, this is a way that people have of protecting themselves. I don’t know, I have hunches about where it came from. Why do we have to be so worried about protecting ourselves? One of the conclusions I came to is that I must never get myself into a position where I might have to protect myself, so I lie all the time. I say yes when I feel no, and I say no when I feel yes. So as a result, it’s kind of like I am standing on a tenterhook all the time, worrying about what’s going to be found out, or who is going to criticize me, or something of that sort. And so the very things that would make it possible for you and I to connect — any you and I — we can’t, because we can’t be truthful. And I’m now talking about truth in the emotional sense. I’m just saying how I feel.
MISHLOVE: It’s hard to imagine we are going to be able to run our governments, and deal with each other in politics and business and nations, when we have this problem in our families.
SATIR: Well, I have said this. We couldn’t even begin to heal the world until we learn how to heal the family. And we’re beginning to learn how to heal the family. One way we don’t heal the family is by taking sides. And yet, that’s been one of the ways that people have traditionally done it. And then, which side is right? So as we move into learning how — and now I can tell you about something that I think we’re moving into, I know I am, and that is how to make an emotionally nurturing triad, where nobody has to win over anybody else, and nobody has to lose, and everybody contributes. See, I wonder what would happen if China, Russia, and the United States were able to be a nurturing triad for the world; or France and England and Russia — any three countries. Because one of the things I’ve found out when I work with families is that I have to work at making a nurturing triad for people.
MISHLOVE: A triad is almost like a basic family unit.
SATIR: It is the family unit — Ma, Pa, and the kid. There isn’t anything else. Do you realize that three is all there is in the world? There isn’t anything else. Everything is a multiple of three. Think about the trinity, that’s a religious symbol. Buckminster Fuller — he was always one of my heroes; I’m delighted to hear Brendan O’Regan talk about him. What was the triad? The triad was the basis of the most sturdy building that there is.
MISHLOVE: The tetrahedron.
SATIR: And so the triad is a complete unit. And it’s composed of three complete units. One thing is that if I grow up, and I have not come to a place of feeling an equal part of a triad, then what I always have to do is either feel guilty, or rageful, when I leave.
MISHLOVE: And this is something that we all go through in dealing with our own parents, I guess.
SATIR: Yes, if that’s the way we were brought up. And you know how to do that, if you’re brought up by parents who have a submissive-dominant role relationship, and that can either be mean or benevolent, kind. But it’s still a discrepancy.
MISHLOVE: Between the two of them.
SATIR: Yes. And that’s the big thing that we have to take a look at now, so that we have relationships that are equal. I was just in Prague. They had the first symposium of family therapy that was ever held by the socialist countries, and I was asked to be the president of it. And as the president of this, one of the first things I did was to introduce the ideas of how equality between people would result in good family relations and peace. See, those two things go together. And it was very welcomed, very welcomed, because everybody knows on some level that if they feel equal, a sense of value with the other, that this is going to make a very strong growth link, not a link in which I have use the gun to you.
MISHLOVE: One almost senses that the relationship of a government to its people is like the relationship of the parents to the children. It can be healthy or unhealthy. And there’s a sense in which young children are told, for example, they must obey because the father says so. And the same way with the government. You must obey when the president tells you to do things, must not question. Or you can question. It’s as if a model for a healthy government would also be a model for a healthy family.
SATIR: Exactly. That’s one of the things I found out. If you are brought up to conform and obey, you are never brought up to become an independent choice maker. And at this point in time, the ones who really are willing to stick their necks out and to say, “This is what I believe,” and at the same time are not putting other people down, will eventually rise to the top.
MISHLOVE: In effect what you’re saying is that in a healthy family, at some point the triad evolves to the point where it’s no longer parents and children, but it’s three equals.
SATIR: That’s right — in value. And then one of the other important things about the equality is, each one is unique. And really revealing and considering and respecting our uniqueness. You know, a lot of people forget that my fingerprint will identify me anywhere in the world.
MISHLOVE: That’s right.
SATIR: We have five billion people today. We had 74 before that — 79 billion different fingerprints. Now, isn’t that a case for uniqueness? And so we forget that we are unique beings, and we do not ask people to become the cookie cutters — you know, like a cookie cutter. But we have a way in which all of us can value each other and learn about our uniqueness and value it, so this is one of the big challenges. And I’m glad to be aware, because I stand for this.
MISHLOVE: I think what you’re getting at is self esteem. When we can recognize ourselves and everyone around us as unique people, then we can all feel self esteem for our uniqueness.
SATIR: It’s certainly a big piece. You know, I’ve just been nominated — not nominated, but picked with 26 other people to be on the Governor’s Task Force for Self Esteem and Social Responsibility.
MISHLOVE: Yes, I think that’s very important work.
SATIR: Well, it is important. But you know, I was thinking the other day, we’ll never find a thought or a feeling on the operating table. You just can’t find it. But we know that thought and feeling exist. We’ll never find self esteem on the operating table.
MISHLOVE: Or under the microscope.
SATIR: No, we never will. But you see, it’s an effect, and things follow. It’s both an effect and a cause. And so the interesting things that not only we but other people have, the things that count in the world, you don’t have left-brain ways to put them out. You only have the effect of what’s going on.
MISHLOVE: When we were talking earlier about people not communicating what they really feel, it’s often because what they’re trying to cover up one way or another is low self esteem, isn’t it?
SATIR: Sure. And you know, right now, when anybody tells me that they want to just be good, I get an awful sinking feeling inside, because I hear them say, “I want to fit in, and I don’t want to rock the boat.” And self esteem for me is the willingness to say where you are. And if that rocks the boat, I’m not going to blame you for it, and I’m not going to be happy that the boat is rocked. But right now, I read something the other day that if we love our country, if I love myself or love you, we have to be free to criticize it.
MISHLOVE: We have to be free to rock the boat.
SATIR: Free to rock the boat. I think once we are willing and able to give out criticism in a real way, without blame, we can also love in a real way.
MISHLOVE: It’s a tricky thing. You know, I read an article recently by one public speaker who was telling people, “I don’t want your advice unless I ask for it.” A lot of people have this attitude, that they don’t want any criticism, that any criticism is really an attempt to put them down.
SATIR: You see, I can do that. I know four ways to criticize you in which you’ll feel like a worm. All right, just for fun, I’m going to take something that has no effect at all. You have a wonderful tie. I want to tell you that’s what I feel, for me, Virginia. Now I’m going to make believe that you could have a better choice for a tie, OK? So if I start out with you and I say, “Jeff, I have something to tell you. I don’t know if I should tell you or not, but it’s really quite . . . well, maybe I won’t tell you.”
MISHLOVE: Oh, you can tell me.
SATIR: That tie you’re wearing. I wish you wouldn’t be doing that. But then, who am I to say anything about your tie? I don’t dress that way.
MISHLOVE: Oh no, your opinion is important.
SATIR: Are you ready to feel what’s going on inside of me? I’ll take another one. My God, you’re coming out with that tie again. I don’t know why you wear that thing all the time, just because your mother gave it to you.
MISHLOVE: That one really gets to me. I don’t know how to come back on that.
SATIR: What do you want to do? What’s the feeling inside?
MISHLOVE: Well, I wouldn’t mind punching you.
MISHLOVE: But of course I wouldn’t ever say that.
SATIR: No, but the point of it is, you see, because we don’t say the feelings doesn’t mean that they’re not there. See, you tighten them in your teeth, and maybe one day you put a knife in me, or you dream about bad things for yourself.
MISHLOVE: Or if I live with you, I get an ulcer.
SATIR: Exactly. Or I could say to you, “Jeff, I just took this article out from Esquire. It has to do with the choice men make of ties. I just thought that you might want to have this. It has in detail what you need.” How do you feel about that one?
MISHLOVE: Well, it’s a little easier. I can sort of put it off on an intellectual plane and not take it personally — Esquire magazine.
SATIR: Do you feel very good about it?
MISHLOVE: Not great.
SATIR: But at least it’s a little less.
MISHLOVE: More my style.
SATIR: Or I could say to somebody in your presence, “Did you get a load of that? Just imagine, here he is, a fantastic guy, but look at that tie! Can you imagine?” How do you feel about that?
MISHLOVE: Not too good.
SATIR: Or I can say, “Jeff, I have something I’d like to share with you. Are you willing to listen?”
SATIR: I just was looking at your tie, and I thought, “You’ve got better ties than that.” How do you feel about my telling you that?
MISHLOVE: That’s . . . all right. It’s not so bad.
SATIR: See, one of the things is that criticism is never pleasant, but it can be without blame.
MISHLOVE: I think you were demonstrating here the different personality styles that you’ve enumerated — the placating, blaming, intellectual type, the silly type. The last one seemed a little bit more real.
SATIR: Well, it’s between two people who value each other. What did I do? I asked you, could I share with you. You said yes. I didn’t come in and do what I did before. And then I shared with you. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to do anything about it, but at least it’s clear. We both have the freedom to comment, and you know that on some level.
MISHLOVE: In other words, what you’re saying is that when people are really connecting at this level of being real with each other, being really congruent with each other, then criticism can be constructive, it can be healthy and normal. But when people come at each other trying to hide what they really feel, maybe their own low self esteem, then maybe what they’re doing is taking out on the other person some of the bad feelings they may have for themselves.
SATIR: We even have a term for it. What I won’t accept in myself which is there, I can project on you. And this is happening.
MISHLOVE: Technically it’s called dumping.
SATIR: Or dumping. In other circles it’s called projecting. I dump on you what I will not accept for myself. So this is a very important piece. You see now, what I said at the beginning of our talk together, that communication from me can be related to the difficulties in intimacy, in health, in making sense, and in being competent. I was at a conference that John Naisbitt and Patricia put on in Telluride not so long ago, and they talked about some of the new ideas about choosing people to work for corporations. And one of them is Gore-Tex, which does a wonderful thing.
MISHLOVE: It’s an amazing corporation, yes.
SATIR: You know what their criteria are for choosing people? To be kind, fun to be around, and competent — all three. So I always ask myself, what stands between myself or anyone else in being kind, fun to be around, and competent?
MISHLOVE: It almost seems like a natural state.
SATIR: It is a natural state. And I say to myself, why are we busting our necks to do something that’s that simple? What is it that stands between people and being kind and fun to be around?
MISHLOVE: We often have trouble, I suppose, accepting our natural state. I mean, there’s parts of ourselves that we deny, and then we get off balance, and we’re not kind, we’re not fun, we’re not always competent.
SATIR: Well, I think we can be. One of the things I’m interested in now is a vision of a new consciousness about people, where we can say and do, we can be kind and we can be fun to be around and competent. There’s no reason why we can’t.
MISHLOVE: No matter what kind of families we came from.
SATIR: Exactly. And I’ve spent a lifetime demonstrating that, actually. You see, people oftentimes think this is so simple-minded. But maybe it’s the simple things that are going to make a difference.
MISHLOVE: That are the most profound. And I suppose it really is very hopeful for people just to accept, from a person with your background and your experience, that underlying all of the sometimes twisted complexities that we feel inside of ourselves, is basic kindness, basic fun, basic competence.
SATIR: And with that, you can get at the truth. You can get at the truth, and you don’t have to hit people over the head. You just don’t.
MISHLOVE: One of the things you told me before we began the program, and it may be a good note to close on, is that if life can’t be fun, what’s the point?
SATIR: Yeah. That’s what I believe.
MISHLOVE: The best ways to grow and to move towards that kind of competency are the gentle.
SATIR: And with that I just would like to add, plants never grow because you tell them you’ll hate them if they don’t. We’re plants.
MISHLOVE: Well, Virginia Satir, it has been an extraordinary pleasure sharing this last half hour with you, and looking at the profound and complex realms of human communication, and yet the underlying simplicity underneath it all. Thank you very much for being with me.
SATIR: You’re welcome.