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Virginia Satir: Family Therapy

You may be wondering why the Management Pocketblog would take a look at a woman whose principal contribution was in the field of social work, relationships, and family therapy. The answer is that others have found in her work valuable tools that can help you in your leadership and communication roles.

Virginia Satir
Virginia Satir

Short Biography

Virginia Pagenkopf was born in 1916, in Wisconsin, and went to high school in Milwaukee. She graduated from the Milwaukee State Teachers college in 1932, with a degree in teaching and started started work as a teacher. There, she started visiting students in their homes, and meeting families.

A few years later, she retrained as a social worker at University of Chicago and received her masters degree in 1948. Satir went into private practice, conducting her first family session in 1951. Towards the end of the decade she moved to California, and co-founded the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, California, where she became the Training Director, and started the first formal family therapy training program.

Satir’s innovation and eminence as a family therapist are well documented elsewhere. There is a thorough biography and much additional material on the Virginia Satir Global Network site.

Satir died in September 1988.

Three Aspects of Satir’s Work that Managers can Benefit from

At the heart of Satir’s family therapy was powerful listening and questioning. It therefore came to the attention of the founders of Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP), John Grinder and Richard Bandler. They studied Satir, documented her process, and co-wrote a book, Changing with Families, with her.

The ‘Meta-Model’

The model they created by observing Satir’s questioning is one of the foundation stones of NLP. Whilst it comes in and out of fashion, popular books about NLP are widely used by managers and professionals looking to be more influential.

NLP also receives mixed reviews for its efficacy, but the meta-model, as a codification of Satir’s questioning approach, is one of its stronger aspects. In the model, practitioners listen for clues in what people say and the way they say it, to help understand the presuppositions that may be in their minds. These filters come in three types:

  1. Generalisations, in which we take an event or situation, and presuppose it is more widely applicable, or applies in a specific circumstance, for which there is no evidence.
  2. Deletions, in which we unwittingly ignore some of the facts, feelings, or evidence and therefore place too much reliance on one part of what we observe, so biasing our beliefs and behaviours.
  3. Distortions, in which we make assumptions that are not founded in the evidence. These are the most insidious of the filters, because they cause us to assign meanings or causes to actions and events, which are unhelpful and not accurate.

The Satir Categories

These are five types of behaviour that communicate to others non-verbally. Originally Satir categorised these behaviours for their effect on family dynamics and, in particular, on disputes. For managers, if you understand the postures that go with these attitudes, then you can deploy them to better assist your communication, by supporting your message with congruent non-verbal behaviours. The five categories are:

  1. The Blamer
    A dominance posture that asserts power and authority. It can be aggressive, even offensive, and signals that the other person has done something wrong and is being called to account. It is characterised by a square-on posture, leaning in to the accused person and often supported by a pointy finger.
  2. The Placater
    This is almost the opposite – a submissive, maybe even pleading posture. It signals weakness, so only use it when you intend to be confrontational. The weaker your true position or status, the less you should use it. It is characterised by a direct appeal to the other person, with palms upwards.
  3. Computer
    This behaviour suggests rational thought, and people therefore often use it to disguise emotion. Also use it to slow a discussion down, by signalling you are considering what you have heard. The vital postural clue is that one hand supports the chin, with the other supporting it, crossed over the body. The hand supporting the chin often has a finger pointed upwards to the temple.
  4. Distractor
    Use this posture to attract attention, and create a non-threatening, humorous mood. But be careful, because it can undermine a serious message, and also signal lack of candidness – even untruths. The key to this posture is asymmetry – often very marked.
  5. Leveller
    Use this posture to calmly assert control. Slow down, stand to your full height, and face your audience. This posture convey honesty, integrity and openness. Gently move your hands downwards, together, with your hands open, palms downwards.
The Five Satir Categories - Virginia Satir
The Five Satir Categories – Virginia Satir. Click to enlarge.

Virginia Satir’s Model of Change

The last model is the one I find most useful.

People expect, when they plan organisational change that, at the point of change, things will start to get better, and settle rapidly into a new, improved equilibrium. Satir said no. She identified five stages of change:

Late Status Quo

This stage is marked by established norms of behaviour. The situation may not perform as well as it should, but everyone feels comfortable. Encourage people to test their assumptions and seek ideas from outside the group.

Resistance

The perceived threat of change triggers resistance, as people feel their power and their control challenged. Help people to evaluate their feelings and overcome their instinct to deny, avoid or blame.

Chaos

Now that things are changing, the group is distracted from the day-to-day, and performance dips. Create a safe environment that enables people to acknowledge and explore their concerns. Avoid the temptation to rush this stage with instant solutions.

Integration

Gradually the new ways of working bed in, and people start to feel back in control. The group will start to iron out problems, and find new norms of behaviour. Be supportive and focus on recognising and celebrating successes.

New Status Quo

All is well again (until next time) and people feel energized by their success. Help people feel safe in continuing to learn and improve their performance.

The Satir Model of Change - Virginia Satir
The Satir Model of Change – Virginia Satir
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2 thoughts on “Virginia Satir: Family Therapy

  1. Virginia Satir is one of my heroes. She joins the ranks as one of the most powerful innovators in the field of family therapy. Thanks you for bringing her work to the public.

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