Virginia Satir: The Patterns of Her Magic

by Steve Andreas

DESCRIPTION: This book provides a detailed analysis of how family therapy pioneer Virginia Satir–one of the greatest therapists of our time–helped people solve problems in relationships.

The first section of the book describes 16 key themes in Satir’s work–the techniques and ideas she used to move people from their current situations to their desired outcomes. Satir skillfully reframed perceptions and attitudes, and installed useful presuppositions about positive intentions, alternative choices and learnings. She did this using physical contact, exaggeration, and humor. She directly challenged limiting beliefs and overgeneralizations, and used a wide range of hypnotic language patterns to help clients see events in new ways.

The second section is a richly-annotated verbatim transcript of a 73-minute videotaped session with Linda, a woman who started out with great resentment toward her mother, but who ended with a deep appreciation and loving understanding of her mother’s behavior and attitudes.

A follow-up interview with Linda, conducted three years later, shows the permanent impact of the changes Satir had achieved with her.

Steve Andreas’ insightful commentary reveals the subtlety, precision, and wisdom of Satir’s methods, both verbal and nonverbal. Therapists and other professionals who seek positive change in their clients can learn a lot from his book.

EXCERPT: I would like all of us to live as fully as we can. The only time I really feel awful is when people have not lived a life that expressed themselves. They lived with all their “shoulds” and “oughts” and their blaming and placating and all the rest of it, and I think, “How sad.”

I once was with somebody I liked very much–an older person, when I was considerably younger than I am now. That person said, “Spend at least fifteen minutes a day weaving dreams. And if you weave a hundred, at least two of them will have a life.” So continue with a dream and don’t worry whether it can happen or not; weave it first. Many people have killed their dreams by figuring out whether they could do them or not before they dream them. So, if you’re a first-rate dreamer, dream it out–several of them–and then see what realities can come to make them happen, instead of saying, “Oh, my God. With this reality, what can I dream?”

I proceed from the theory that my therapeutic job is to expand, redirect, and reshape individuals’ ways of coping with each other and themselves, so they can solve their own problems in more healthy and relevant ways. Problems are not the problem; coping is the problem. Coping is the outcome of self-worth, rules of the family systems, and links to the outside world.

Human contact is not about words. Human contact is about eye connection, about voice, about skin, about breathing. Words are something you can read in a book, you can see on a billboard, and they can be totally differentiated from human beings. Words help when people are congruent.

And I suppose that before I leave this world, one thing that I would wish for all the world to know, is that human contact is made by the connection of skin, eyes, and voice tone. These are the things that taught us before we had words. How our parents touched us, how they looked at us, what their voices sounded like, were all recorded in us.

Foreword by Richard Bandler
The Major Patterns of Satir’s Work
The Transcript: “Forgiving Parents”
Appendix I: Presuppositions
Appendix II: Physical Contact (from “Of Rocks and Flowers”)
Appendix III: Eye Accessing Cues
Appendix IV: A Satir Meditation

BACKCOVER: (From the Forward by Richard Bandler) In the transcript that Steve Andreas has analyzed here, he has taken to heart not only Virginia’s caring attitude toward people, but the specific ways in which she achieves the outcome she seeks. The most powerful thing you can learn from this transcript is that Virginia never wavers from what she sets out to do. And what she sets out to do is what the client asks her to do. She tries everything she can, and everything she does relates directly to the client’s desired state.

The terminology and the way in which Steve studies Virginia are perhaps different from how most people would, and perhaps similar to the way in which I would approach a study of her. But I think what this book offers the sincere student of Virginia Satir is more than just an attitude. It offers a profound example of how tenacious, persistent, and resourceful Virginia was, and at the same time, how precise and methodical. If Virginia was one of the people you ever envied in your life, or would ever want to emulate, rather than emulating her tonality, style, and jargon, or the kinds of things she said, I think it is time we got serious enough to emulate her skill. And that requires that we sit down and break it into pieces, and find out what this genius was doing, so that we can do the same kind of work with the same kind of tenacity and heart.

Steve, I think you have done a beautiful job. For those of you about to read this book, read on and learn. The wisdom of Virginia Satir will be worthy of study for centuries to come. I think this book stands as a real tribute to what she did and what she cared about. And although this is different from her own teaching style, as Virginia said, “We are all slow learners, but we are all educable.”

AUTHOR BIO: Steve Andreas, and his wife Connirae, are internationally-known trainers and researchers in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). They were the co-founders of NLP Comprehensive in Colorado, through which they conducted training seminars and Certification Programs, and also produced videotapes and audiotapes.

The Andreases have written two other books about NLP: Heart of the Mind: Engaging Your Inner Power to Change With NLP and Change Your Mind-And Keep the Change. They have also edited four books by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, the co-developers of NLP.

Steve Andreas–under his former name, John O. Stevens–wrote Awareness: exploring, experimenting, experiencing, based on his work with Fritz Perls and Gestalt Therapy. He also edited Fritz Perls’ Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, Perls’ autobiography In and Out the Garbage Pail, and Carl Rogers’ book Person to Person, co-authored by his mother, Barry Stevens.

During the last twenty years the Andreases have focused principally on developing new NLP patterns of intervention for personal change, and teaching them to others. They have developed specific processes for resolving experiences of grief, shame, guilt, anger, resentment, and being criticized.

The Andreases live with their three teenage sons in Boulder, Colorado.

PUBLISHER’S COMMENTS: (Introduction by Steve Andreas) Virginia Satir is almost universally acknowledged as one of the most powerful and effective therapists of the century. Throughout a career spanning some forty-five years, she developed systematic ways of helping people grow and change. Her remarkable warmth and precision in working with people was developed by her fine ability to observe what worked–and what didn’t–to move people closer to their desired outcomes.

When learning from experts, it is usually much more important to observe what they actually do, than it is to listen to what they say about what they do. Our descriptions of our own behavior are often biased and myopic, and we all know how to do much more than we can explain to someone else. This was particularly true of Virginia, who was continually moving away from her psychiatric-based training of the 1940s, and intuitively pioneering new ways of helping people learn how to deal with life’s inevitable problems.

Most therapists’ descriptions of their therapy tend to be global and unspecific. Virginia, for instance, would talk about “gaining trust,” “making contact,” “building positive self-worth,” and the importance of the “human connection” and an “I-thou relationship.” Although she demonstrated these skills exquisitely, she was much less able to specify exactly how she accomplished them, either verbally or nonverbally. To learn how she actually achieved these things, we have to study her work itself.

Although few therapists are willing to demonstrate publicly what they do–they prefer to practice privately–Virginia was a happy exception. Not only did she conduct thousands of public demonstrations during her long career, she also freely allowed videotape recording. Probably as many videotaped hours of Virginia’s work exist as of all other prominent therapists combined. Used with a verbatim transcript, a videotape makes it possible to analyze the fine details of verbal communication, the accompanying nonverbal communication which is even richer and more complex, the ongoing interplay between the verbal and nonverbal communication, and the flow and sequence of the session as a whole. Repeated review brings an ever-deepening understanding of the process of change.

The heart of this book is a verbatim transcript of a 73-minute videotaped session of Virginia working with a woman, Linda, in a weekend workshop held in 1986 at the peak of Virginia’s power and skill, only two years before her death in September 1988. In this particularly moving individual session, Linda moves from great anger at and resentment of her mother to feeling compassion and love for her. A follow-up interview with Linda over three years later verifies the lasting positive impact that this session had on Linda’s life and her relationship with her mother.

This session is particularly interesting for at least two reasons. Virginia was known primarily as a family therapist, and in family sessions she alternately focused her attention on different family members. In contrast, this session focused only on Linda, so it is much easier to follow the patterns and sequence of her work.

The second reason is that Linda was not an easy client. Although very expressive and willing to share her feelings, she also had what Virginia described during the session as “a highly-developed ability to stand firm on things.” Since Virginia had to work very hard to change certain understandings in Linda, we are treated to a particularly rich display of her versatility and persistence.

Commentary and descriptions have been added to the verbatim transcript to clarify and characterize what Virginia was doing at each point as she patiently leads Linda step by step toward forgiveness. The first chapter describes the important themes of Virginia’s work, making it easier to understand their significance as they appear throughout the session.

Many therapists have the warmth and compassion that Virginia demonstrated so abundantly, yet they are largely ineffective because they don’t know what to do. Others have technical communication skills; but without the nonverbal human qualities Virginia emphasized so much, their work is much less effective than it could be. Virginia is a particularly worthy teacher because she possessed warmth, compassion, finely-honed perceptions, and specific skills and techniques.

To make sure his students had a little humility in using what he taught (something many might say he lacked himself), 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 want to honor her genius, I know of no better way than to study her work carefully and learn how to do what she did so beautifully.