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The True Genius of Virginia Satir

by Steve Andreas:  About eight years ago, Virginia gave a workshop in San Francisco with Richard Bandler and John Grinder, two men who had closely studied her work and made it a central element in a model called Neuro-Linguistic Programming. teacher virginia satirOn the morning of the first day, Virginia conducted a moving and very effective interview with a family. That afternoon Bandler and Grinder analyzed Virginia’s behavior in the session, pointing out exactly what she did at each point, both verbally and nonverbally, to elicit specific changes in family members. She was, they concluded, a master at systematically manipulating people and creating experiences that could change them in predictable ways. Virginia was appalled. To her, “manipulation” was a horrible word. She saw herself as responding to people’s problems with warmth and authenticity, bringing out their own inherent goodness.

The next day, Virginia did another demonstration interview with a family. This time, not wanting to be seen as demonstrating techniques of manipulation, she did not use most of the methods that Bandler and Grinder had pointed out the day before. This second interview went nowhere. Her warmth and loving presence were very much in evidence but, without the specific methods she so seamlessly wove into her work, she was not able to produce significant changes.

I thought of that workshop last month while attending the annual conference of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. There was a very touching tribute to Virginia at one of the plenary sessions and much discussion of her as “the Columbus of family therapy,” someone who had shaped the direction of the field.

But, as I went from session to session and watched the work people were doing, I saw very little use of the methods that she had developed. In fact, nearly every workshop I attended demonstrated the exact opposite of the patterns Virginia used: most presenters were oriented toward tracing the roots of problem behaviors in the past, offering descriptions of clients that were replete with blaming and presupposition of bad intentions. The therapists I saw on videotape stayed glued to their chairs; there was no touching, action, or enactment. Instead, I heard a flood of words, most of them intellectual abstractions and diagnoses about the past.

Those who wish to preserve Virginia’s legacy for family therapy need to recognize a basic discrepancy between what she taught about her work and what she actually did. Her descriptions of what she did were very general, lacking clear and specific instructions. In fact, she often criticized those, like Bandler and Grinder, who focused on specific therapeutic methods as being overly technical and insensitive to their clients’ humanness. Thirty years in the field of therapy has led me to a different conclusion. Although I have occasionally seen people with highly developed technical skills use them in insensitive or exploitative ways, I have seen the reverse much more often—compassionate, well intentioned clinicians being ineffective because they lacked technical skills.

In what follows I want to describe in some detail the essential elements of Virginia Satir’s approach to therapy. Each will be illustrated with verbatim examples· to cut through the ambiguities that surround any description of therapy, particularly an approach as purposefully non-technical as Satir’s.

Unless otherwise noted, all examples within quotes are taken from a verbatim tanscript of a family session in Satir: Step by Step by Satir and Michelle Baldwin.

A solution-ortiented focus on the present and future
Although Virginia would listen to complaints and problems long enough to maintain rapport with the speaker, a central tenet of her approach was immediately turning their attention to solutions or desired outcomes:

“I just want to find out right now, for you, from you, what at this moment—never mind the past—what at this moment would make life better for you if it could happen, living in this family?”
‘That’s what you don’t like. Could you say what you do?”

Positive Intensions/No Blame
One of the most powerful aspects of Virginia’s work was always to assume that everyone’s intentions were positive, no matter how awful the behavior. Long before Mara Selvini Palazzoli and her group popularized the term “positive connotation,” Satir used the attribution of good intention to evoke positive feelings, communication, and behavior in a family. A mother’s nagging became evidence of how much she cared, a father’s punishment for curfew violations became loving protectivenes” etc. I’ve heard that she once said to a teenager who had gotten two of his classmates pregnant, “Well, at least we know you’ve got good seed,”.

Even when it wasn’t verbalized, Virginia always presupposed positive intentions and made a distinction between intentions and behavior, constantly assuming that people mean well even when they do cruel things:

“….. one of the things I’m discovering is a tremendous feeling of concern and caring from your father to all of you children and from your mother to all of you children. But I don’t think that always comes through as much as it could”

“I heard you say that this {yelling at the kids} started out with you trying to please your wife …”

Perceiving that someone has good intentions changes your response to the problem behavior. because now you can agree with the intention even though you still don’t like the behavior. It opens the possibility that two adversaries can join together in a cooperative search for alternative behaviors that can satisfy both. Most of Bandler and Grinder’s book Reframing is a distillation of the reframing and negotiation patterns that Virginia used to bring family members together into a shared and workable world.

Virginia never blamed anyone. She perceived the therapist’s role as that of an educator: teaching and demonstrating to people how they could perceive, respond, and act in ways that were more enjoyable. She saw hurtful or destructive behavior as simply a result of people not having learned to respond differently:

“You were mad. Well, those things happen sometimes.”

“Okay. Now what if it would happen that none of this could happen without everybody’s help.”

Positive Alternative Choices
Despite centuries of evidence to the contrary, many people still believe that punishment stops problem behavior. But if billions of rat/psychologist expermental hours haved proved anything, it’s that punishment can never totally extinguish a learned behavior. Punishment only suppresses a behavior by creating a conflict between opposing motivations. Virginia knew that if you teach people more satisfying ways to interact, they will never want to go back to the painful and destructive ones. As Mammy Yokum said years ago, “Good is better than evil because it is nicer.”

In a session with an embattled couple in which the husband finally reaches out to his wife and she responds positively, Virginia says, “Is that a new idea?

That you could be that impactful to somebody?”
CASEY: Yeah.
VIRGINIA: So maybe there’s a piece here for you to learn about what your impact really is. You’ve heard an awful lot about when you yell. You know that impact. But there’s lots of other things [to do]. Here’s one of them, so … I [recognize this alternative] too.

Virginia always operated from a position of equality, both verbally and nonverbally. She would bend down so that she could speak to children eye-to-eye, and she often put children and shorter people on chairs so that they could be on the same level as taller grown-ups. She often included herself as an equal in the family’s struggles by using the pronoun “we.”

”We all have to struggle with that” (controlling anger) …. “When we’re angry, we can’t see.” Often she would mention an experience of her own that was similar to something someone in the
family had described.

When family members might be likely to disagree, she’d say something like, “Everybody’s got their own picture,” or “It’s all right; these are human problems.” She was very direct, yet always tentative when stating her understanding of family interactions, always asking the family to correct her:

“Let me show you a picture that I see at the moment. I just want to get the picture out and then you help me to check it … This is my picture in my bead from what I learned, and it may not fit at all, but it could.” (She goes on to create a ”family sculpture, “)

When someone disagreed with her, I’ve often heard her say simply, “Oh, so I was wrong,” and move right on to something else.

Verbal Patterns
Virginia consistently used ways of talking that allowed her to gently enter the family and gather precise information about the interactions between family members. Although each small verbal pattern in itself makes a relatively small difference, taken together they have a very powerful impact. Her book, Changing with Families, co-authored by Bandler and Grinder, delineates many of these linguistic patterns in a way that makes them easy to learn.

Often Virginia would begin by speaking to the children about something inconsequential, such as where everyone sits at the dinner table, making it easier for her to elicit the patterns of interaction. As she did this, she used specific questions to pinpoint exactly what occurs in the family, asking who, what, when, where, how, specifically. Often she would go on to request a demonstration, so that she could see the actual behavior itself and have something real to work with:

“When you see this happen, would you come and show me what you do when this is going on?”

Another very powerful element of Satir’s effectiveness was her insistence on action in the therapy session. She understood that words change people only if they are supported by the full experience to which the words point. She got family members to actually try out new ways of communicating to find out how well they worked. She would often suggest both what to say and how to say it. As they tried out her suggestions, she paid close attention to the nonverbal communication to be sure of congruence. Whenever she noticed signs of incongruence, or any other nonverbal behavior that could interfere with clear communication, she would pause to clarify or resolve it.

In a session with a husband and wife, Casey and Margie, this is how Virginia coached the couple towards trying new behaviors:

VIRGINIA: So, if you acted on your wish—do it and see what happens. (Margie leans over and touches Casey’s knee.) Now what you’re doing—you could make that a lot easier if you moved over here.
MARGIE: Okay. Instead of reaching out. (Margie is now sitting across from Casey, close to him, touching his knee, smiling at him.)
VIRGINIA: Now, I noticed something. Notice what happened when you did this. What happened?
MARGIE: He kind of shifted back a little.
VIRGINIA: Is that what you saw?
MARGIE: Maybe he didn’t quite know how to feel.
VIRGINIA: I saw a couple of movements and I don’t know. Then you can ask Casey what he thinks he did. I saw him first move forward and then a little back. (Looking at Casey.) Is that what you were doing?
CASEY: Uh huh.
VIRGINIA: Okay. How did you feel about Margie taking the risk of moving under her own wishes toward you?
CASEY: Strange.
VIRGINIA: Okay. That’s a new thing.
CASEY: Uh huh.
VIRGINIA: Now that you’ve gotten over the feeling of strangeness, how does it feel to have her here?
CASEY: Like it used to.
VIRGINIA: And that means … ?
CASEY: Well, it’s nice.
VIRGINIA: I’d like you to tell her that.
CASEY: It was nice, like a warm fuzzy …

“Family Sculpture” was another one of Virginia’s well-known ways of transforming words into action, and depicting the family system. She would mold family members into a tableau that depicted family members typical ways of interacting with each other—their supporting, clinging, blaming. placating, including, excluding. etc.. Sometimes she added ropes to dramatize the ways in which members restricted each other. At other times the initial sculpture would become a moving sculpture. demonstrating a sequence of interaction.

Virginia also moved around a lot herself in order to contact different family members in turn, and often to interrupt unproductive interactions by physically getting between people to block their view and make it easier to elicit a more positive response. (When I first saw Virginia in the early ’60s her six-foot frame was augmented by three-inch high heels and several inches of bouffant hairdo—truly a giant among therapists.)

When Margie and Casey, in the session described in Step by Step, reach an impasse in which they are each reacting badly to how they see each other responding, Virginia handles the situation this way:

VIRGINIA: Okay. Now wait a minute.

(Casey shakes his head, laughing with a disbelieving expression.) I am going to do this right now because I want us to connect. (Virginia moves her chair in front of Margie, blocking Casey from Margie’s view. At the same time, Virginia moves her right band in back of her in such a way that she touches Casey’s knee.). You have a wish and your wish is … I’m doing this on purpose, you know that (referring whimsically to the fact that she is biding Casey.)Uh, your wish is that you’d like to be in touching contact with him.

MARGIE: Uh huh. And I won’t let myself because I’m stubborn, because I get rejected by him.
VIRGINIA: (Laughing; Margie, too. starts laughing) All right. Before you give yourself so much credit, let’s give credit for the right things. Okay, all right. You have your wish.
MARGIE: Uh huh.
VIRGINIA: Okay. And then, you stop yourself.
MARGIE: Uh huh.
VIRGINIA: Okay. Then you say to yourself, I stop myself so I won’t get hurt.
MARGIE: That’s right.
VIRGINIA: Okay. How willing are you to act on your wish now and take the risk that one of you might get hurt?
MARGIE: (Laughing) That’s it.
VIRGINIA: Now, I want to know if you’re ready to take that risk right now.

Virginia seized every opportunity to get family members to notice and express feelings and behaviors that would tend to bring the family closer, carefully and patiently knitting the unraveled family back together with loving hands.

Virginia also used every opportunity to interrupt any communication that would tend to tear the family apart. The previous excerpt is one example; here is another: Right after Casey says, “It was nice. Like a warm, fuzzy … ” Virginia turns to Margie and asks, “How do you feel about that?”

MARGIE: I disagree with him.
VIRGINIA: What do you disagree about?
MARGIE: Whenever I approach him—
VIRGINIA: (Interrupting) Wait a minute, we’re right here, right now.
MARGIE: Yeah. I agree.
VIRGINIA: I want you to look at me now, and I want you to listen very carefully. There’s a lot of history—I know there’s a lot of history and I don’t know what it is, and I have a hunch that oftentimes you don’t see what’s right in front of your nose, because it is all covered up with what you expect, because you almost did it right now. Are you with me?
MARGIE: Uh huh.
VIRGINIA: Okay. Now I’d like you to look at Casey and feel his skin through your hands at this moment and tell me what you feel. (Casey explodes into a smile.)
VIRGINIA: Okay. Tell it to him, because he’s there. I know all this already.
MARGIE: (Looking into Casey’s eyes) You’re warm and you’re soft. It feels good.
VIRGINIA: Now how do you feel, telling that to Casey? Right now.
MARGIE: Good and whole.
VIRGINIA: And how do you feel, hearing it?
CASEY: It feels pretty good.

Whenever anyone in the family was expressing feelings that brought the family closer, Virginia would resonate with them and her voice would change in a specific way: it would become quavery, and the d’s would tend to drop out of her speech. Later, any time she wanted people to be in touch with their feelings, her voice would quaver again, functioning as a subliminal signal to become sensitive to feelings.

One of the most obvious hallmarks of Virginia’s work was her use of touch. I mention it last because although it is perhaps the most controversial aspect of her work, it is one that she thought was very important. Anyone who experienced Virginia’s touching will tell you that it was simple, direct, and felt completely natural.

Touch has a way of getting your attention much more effectively than sounds or sights, and Virginia insisted on using touch to amplify any important communication. She knew that troubled families either don’t touch at all, or only touch when angry or frustrated, and need to be reeducated. Virginia would often begin by making physical contact with the children, and soon she would be touching everyone. She probably did more touching in one session than most therapists do in a year, reestablishing positive feeling connections where loving touch had been lost altogether, or had been replaced by roughness and violence.

In her videotape “Of Rocks and Flowers”, Virginia works with a blended family with a history of abuse. In a very moving segment in which she interacts only with the two young children, she has them touch her face gently with their hands, returns their touch, and then asks them if they would like to do the same with their parents. Then she brings the parents back in and coaches both the children and the parents, suggesting that the children initiate this kind of contact several times a day. Then she goes on to demonstrate with both parents the difference between grabbing roughly in anger, and holding firmly yet protectively when they want to stop the children from doing something. She continues until both parents demonstrate behaviorally that they know how to do this.

Talking about the session afterwards, Virginia commented, “My touch is not going to send much to you unless I am integrated myself, unless I really feel whole myself: then energy moves out. If I feel I have to touch, or have to be careful about touching … that won’t work. Because it’s not a gimmick, and it’s not a strategy. It’s a living kind of passing back and forth of energy. Now, when that condition is there, then I know that one touch with energy passing back and forth—a real feeling of one human being really touching another in a literal sense—is probably worth hours and hours of something that doesn’t contain that.

“You know about throwing the baby out with the bath? Well, some touch is used for sex purposes and aggression purposes. And so many people have thrown touch out because it got used for those purposes, instead of saying, ·Okay. That’s not the touch we want.” … And I frankly have to say that if I couldn’t have the energy that comes with touch, I am certain I could not have the kind of really good results that I have.”

I believe that these are the major patterns that made Virginia’s work so effective. Each of them could be divided into smaller pieces and described in much more detail, and there are also other supporting elements. Her subtler nonverbal perceptions and behaviors are much harder to write about —her timing, for example, or the cues she used to know whether a family member was likely to be receptive to a particular intervention.

Since Virginia placed so much emphasis on the importance of her personal and spiritual attitude, I think a lot of people may have assumed that they had to personally become ersatz Virginias in order to be successful with families. Since she was so extraordinarily warm, this would be very incongruent for many people, and they may have concluded that it was impossible for them to do the kind of work. Virginia did. However, I have seen trainees work effectively using Virginia’s methods with clients, even when they begin awkwardly and without the congruence or the depth of feeling that Virginia provided.

After practicing these methods for some time, trainees become more spontaneous and find an approach that is congruent with their personal style. My wife and I have been teaching people how to do this for over a decade now. The result is not a lot of Virginia Satir imitators but capable people who are able to incorporate the methods that Virginia used with their own style, improvising and building on the magnificent foundation that Virginia provided.

To make sure his students had a little humility in using what he taught, my old teacher Fritz Perls used to say, “Just because you’ve got a chisel, doesn’t make you Michelangelo.” On the other hand, how much could Michelangelo have accomplished without any chisels at all? Imagine Michelangelo trying to carve a marble block with only his fingernails to release the vision imprisoned within the stone. Great work needs both the tools of the trade and the vision and humanity to direct those tools. Virginia Satir demonstrated an extraordinary measure of both. If we truly want to honor her genius, I know of no better way than to learn how to do what she did and carry on her work by using it and adding to it.

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