Virginia Satir’s Flexibility*

by Steve Andreas


         Virginia Satir was one of the pioneers of family therapy, and probably the greatest family therapist who ever lived. She was also a major source of NLP patterns (1), and in 1985 she presented a keynote address to the National Association for NLP in Denver, Colorado. At the end of her talk, a man asked for help in applying her approach to his mental health work in a rural community, where he was encountering strong opposition from conservatives. In response, Virginia enacted a series of brief role-plays in which she demonstrated a wide variety of ways that he could respond in this situation.

         Many people think that Satir had only one approach to working with people, but here we are treated to a rare display of Virginia’s flexibility, and her willingness to do anything to evoke a powerful response, knowing that all responses can be utilized as a way to connect with someone and initiate a process of change. The transcript that follows was edited from a videotape, and is essentially verbatim.

                                                      — Steve Andreas

The Transcript

         Glen: Virginia, I live in one of those communities that’s isolated, with a lot of very protected and protective people that are lashing out at anybody that uses a word like “humanism.” And the tendency is to get on their bandwagon. And I found myself asking, “How do I respond to them–without getting into the one-upmanship and the up/down and all of that, things I know I shouldn’t do?” The temptation is so heavy to start answering their arguments, and trying to do them just one better, and that kind of thing.

         Virginia: Let me take this opportunity to do something. And remember that anything we concoct is only a possibility. However, I have reason to believe that what I’m going to share with you has a lot–many people know this, I think–a lot to offer. Anybody on the outside of me–let’s put it like that–is someone whom I can respond to. They are never the definers of me. They can only be the definers of me if I have handed over my charge of myself to them. And you can do that in many ways. “How could I think differently from somebody?” “They will be mad if I don’t.” “They will be hurt if I don’t.” Blah, blah, blah, you know. Can you fill in the “blah blah’s”? OK. All right.

         Now there are people around, people who do what you said. They’ve got certain trigger words, and those words have certain images, and all that kind of stuff. And there’s a lot of it going on, because people are scared. And they want–they think they’re going to get security in new words.

         All right. So now here’s your friend. By the way, would you do something? Just role-play with me one of your friends, and I’m going to be somebody who is very clear about the fact that whatever is outside of me I respond to, and it’s never a definition of me. So tell me, let’s have a little role-play.

         Glen: Umm. You threw me with the use of the word “friend.”

         Virginia: Well, if they’re not friends, I don’t much care about them, do you?

         Glen: The problem is, I’ve not met them.

         Virginia: Oh, you haven’t met them. OK. So this is a fantasy.

         Glen: What’s happening in the community is through letters to the editor, and through all kinds of actions that they have taken on behalf and against other people, I know they’re there. I’ve not personally encountered them yet.

         Virginia: All right. OK. So at this moment, I hear what you’re saying, you haven’t encountered them yet. Do you expect to? (Glen: Yes.) All right. OK. You are talking about a context–which is what I now call the Hitler context: that there’s a group of people who decide who shall live and who shall die. That’s Hitler–I don’t waste any time; I just simply say, “Well, you have something with Hitler.” But isn’t that something–for people to decide who shall live and who shall die? All right, so I just make the observation, and they can do with it what they want.

         All right, now there are many ways to do that. Because I could get killed that way. I could really get killed that way. Because remember when I was saying that one of the first things I learned was the difference between the verbal and the nonverbal. And that I can carry a tone in my voice that you’ll want to kill me. I can carry a tone in my voice that you’ll pity me; carry a tone in my voice in which you think I’m boring as all get-out; carry another tone in which I disrupt your central cortex. I can do another one in which you will feel connected with me, and I can talk about the same content. And one of the things that gets very hard, is that when we encounter people who are so rabid on things–but let’s just try something. All right. You give me a make-believe of somebody you expect to meet in your community. Give him a name. And you’re going to be that person.

         Glen: OK, I’ll be Don.

         Virginia: You’re going to be Don. All right. And let’s have a little context where I, Glen, and you, Don, are meeting. What’s the context?

         Glen: OK. You are active in one of the organizations in town that is working a lot to help people–I don’t need to identify it specifically.

         Virginia: No, but you need– All right, but just tell me one little thing you’re trying to do, because that will help me in how I’m going to play this.

         Glen: Help people find new ways to run their lives–for instance, working with battered women.

         Virginia: All right. OK. So you want to help the battered women. All right. You’re going to call me Glen, because I’m going to be you, now. So you can see me as being you. . . . You’re Don.

         Glen: We’ve been hearing a lot about the kinds of things you’ve been doing down there at the center, and I just need to let you know we don’t like it.

         Virginia: Oh? (interested) What have you heard about? (She leans forward towards him, mirroring his clasped hands.)

         Glen: That you’re down there trying to tell these women that they ought to leave their husbands, and that they ought to be as good as their husbands. You’re wrecking marriages; you’re doing all kinds of things.

         Virginia: Where did you get all this? Have you been down there? Has you wife been there by any chance? (laughter) Where do you get it?

         Glen: No. We know one of the women that goes to our church that has a friend that went down there, and she talked to the counselors that are down there, and she’s not with her husband anymore. They told her that she needed to get out.

         Virginia: Was that the one where the husband beat her up and cut off one leg? (Glen: No.) Not that one. There was another one like that. He just beat her up and she didn’t lose either leg. Was that the one?

         Glen: Well, he was just being a husband. That “beat her up” was her story, you know. That wasn’t really what happened; that was just her side of it. They never did talk to him to find out what his version of it was.

         Virginia: You know, I see that you’ve got a recommendation here. And the recommendation is that you want fairness all the way, is what I hear you say. You know what would be good–I don’t know if you can do it–but what would really be good– Could you find that man, and maybe we would have a chance to talk to him? Because, you know, fairness all the way is what you’re talking about, isn’t it?

         Glenn: I sure think there ought to be fairness all the way, yeah. (applause.)

         (to the audience) Now, I want to just point out something. I know that I’m at risk with something like this, that here is somebody who is a self-styled righteous person. All right. Now, when I connect with that–this is one way; I wouldn’t always do it this way, maybe I’d do it some other way. What I’m doing is recognizing what he’s telling me, and finding some kind of way to put it into a context where he is going to be able to see something, and also not feel isolated from me. Now, I just want to do this again, and I want to do it another way. So would you start out again and tell me what you’ve been hearing?

         Glen: Glen, we’ve been hearing about these women that go down there to the center and they’re getting filled with all kinds of ideas about how they’re just as good as their husbands, and that they can get off and do their own thing, and they don’t have to pay any attention to marriage vows. We just really don’t like that.

         Virginia: (apologetically) Oh, I feel so bad that there’s anybody like that who would feel that way! That’s terrible. Maybe we should change everything we’re doing. I’m so sad about that.

         Glen: Well, I think you ought to be, because that’s sure what we hear is going on.

         Virginia: Oh, gosh, I didn’t really know. Oh, forgive me. I would never have done anything wrong.

         Glen: Well, you sure have been.

         Virginia: (leaning forward) Are you going to forgive me? (laughter)

Now that’s another whole string of affairs, isn’t it? But you know that one. All right, do it again. I’m going to do another one.

         Glen: Glen, you know we really don’t like the way you’ve been doing things down there at that women’s center. You’ve sure created a mess out of a lot of marriages.

         Virginia: (arrogantly) Who in the hell do you think you are? (laughter) Down there with all those crappy people being a righteous son of a bitch? Go on, chuck it, brother! (laughter)

         That’s another one, isn’t it? And I could get a knife drawn on me for that one. All right, do it again. We’ll do another one.

         Glen: Glen, you’ve really been tearing up things in that self-help center down there. All that you’ve been doing has wrecked so many homes. It’s gotten so many women all upset; they’re off doing stuff that–you know, running away from their husbands and their kids.

         Virginia: It’s great that you asked that question, (she turns away to look through some papers on the chair behind her) because I just happen to have a report from the National Institute of Mental Health in which there are several statistics of groups in the country where there is a great deal of husband-beating going on, and I think that you would like to read that, so I think you’ll be more informed when you read it. (Virginia hands him the article and turns away). Thank you.

         Glen: I already know all I know, and all I need to know.

         Virginia: All right. Now, do it again. I’m going to do another one.

You notice, every one sends it in a different direction. But do it again.    

         Glen: Glen, I’m really upset with the way things have been going down there at the center. You’ve been taking a bunch of this new humanist psychology stuff and turning it loose on these women, and you really wrecked a lot of them.

         Virginia: (laughing loudly, rejoicing) Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha. God in heaven! I knew one day that somebody was going to come up– (Virginia taps him lightly on the chest.) You know that reminds me of a joke? (laughter) Do you want to hear a joke? (still laughing) Ha ha ha.

         And I can do that. You recognize that. Or I can do what I did before, or I can do another one. Say it to me again. It’s another form of making a connection with him, at the same time trying to do something which may–which doesn’t escalate what he’s doing, but may create a little doubt. So, tell me again.

         Glen: Glen, this kind of stuff that you’ve been working with down there at the center just really is doing a lot of damage. You’re tearing apart families, you’re tearing apart homes, you’re getting women with all kinds of modern ideas that aren’t good for them. You really ought to be doing something different. You ought to do something about that. We’ve got a lot of people that think it ought to be stopped.

         Virginia: You know–let me have your hand. (Virginia holds out her hand, looking at him, her voice soft and warm.) How do you feel about that? (Glen hesitates before taking her hand and shaking it.) One of the nicest things that anybody can do is to share what they feel. And I feel you’ve done that for me. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re together in what we’re doing, because I don’t know if I understand completely what you’re saying, and I don’t know if you understand me completely. But I really like the fact that you’ve taken the trouble, you have taken the interest to be able to share this with me. Can we talk further about it?

         Glen: I’d sure like to. (applause)

         Virginia: OK. Now, that’s another one. Now, there’s a difference, too. You notice I offered him my hand. He didn’t give it to me right away. Now I’m going to tell you what I did. I really mean what I say–always you’re better off when people can tell you where they are. And what I did–I let my body give even an extra bit of message of warmth to him. (She is looking at Glen directly, gesturing from herself to him at gut level.) Because I also know that he’s scared–Don is scared. So there is a whole lot that has to happen for him to understand the rumors that are going on.

         I’m on the board of a battered women’s refuge. The women get so guilty about what has happened. And they haven’t been able to raise themselves enough, so they talk to other people as a way of trying to validate what has happened to them. (Virginia turns back to Glen.) So the point of it is this. Your talking to me has very little to do with the organization per se; it has to do with your scaredness, and so on. And if I can find no way to make a contact with you that is going to help us to come together, (her hands gesture out to him and back to her as she looks directly at him) then we’re not going to be able to do anything.

         When I’ve worked with really delinquent, acting-out people, and the families of those people, I learned that what was underneath was the fear. And what they needed from me was some honest kind of connection. And if I could, to take a handshake. (She takes his hand again) Handshakes are very relatively innocuous–they look innocuous, but they’re actually powerful connectors. And you can feel that in my own hand here. And the responses come differently.

         Now, I wouldn’t want anybody to think you can go out and model this exactly like this, but what is possible to do, once you take somebody out of an “enemy” category and put them into a person who is responding (she gestures out and in, heart level), and behind such a person I see fear, I see anger, I see worry, I see all that kind of stuff. So the first part is to make a bridge, and to make that bridge, and when you get in those tough things–we’re gonna have more and more things like that because the cult stuff is evolving and all the rest of that–for how to really make it. You keep your own integrity. You make a contact. And I’m always glad when people tell me. But I can also say I think we have some disagreement. And also that I don’t even know if we understand each other. Because we would just be playing with words, because the one thing that people would often do is start to deny, because they feel attacked. And then they would go on. Glen, I don’t know if that helps you any, but there are all these options.


         The last role-play illustrates the approach that most people identify as Virginia’s predominant style. Many therapists have ignored or rejected Virginia’s work (often while paying “lip service” to it) because her style was not personally congruent. Others have taken on her style as a new set of “shoulds” to follow slavishly. Yet there are all these other possible ways to engage in a dialogue that is not defined by the other person, and is lively enough to offer multiple opportunities for connecting with someone and beginning a process of change. And if one way doesn’t work, you can always try another. Rapport is often thought of as matching the other person. But in a broader sense, you gain rapport by engaging them in some way, because that elicits powerful responses from them. Even if the initial responses are not the ones you want, once that connection is made, they can always be utilized and turned in a more useful direction.

         1. Andreas, Steve. Virginia Satir: the patterns of her magic. Moab, UT, Real People Press, 1991.

         *Anchor Point, Vol. 17, No. 2, February, 2003