I was in a group meeting with some wonderful people the other day. As I reflected on it this morning, I remembered Virginia Satir. She is often called the “mother of family therapy.” As a doctor of marriage and family therapy, she has done a little mothering of me, too. You can read her Wikipedia page for interesting details. Today I just want to share two things she offered the world that would improve most of the groups we are in: workplace, family and the beleaguered church.
Tell your own story
One of the things that made me think of Virginia Satir is the fact I was sounding a bit like her in our group. We were group of Christians from around the country reflecting on a new statement about how to follow Jesus these days. (I’m reserving the name of the group because it is not the point). Like Satir, I was trying to encourage people to tell their own stories with confidence, not worrying what someone else might be thinking all the time they are sharing.
Virginia Satir knew how to share what she had to say. I have always admired her for creating a theory and forming a school of thought to explore her insights, even though, as a woman in the 1960’s to 80’s, as soon as she raised her voice, people called her “tyrannical” and considered her theories “unscientific.” She used her theories in her therapy and taught her disciples anyway, and we are still appreciating what she created.
I don’t think I agree with some significant things in her well-known declaration of self-esteem: “I Am Me,” but I am thrilled with the spirit behind it. My comrades in our group had brilliant things to say, but the present atmosphere in which we live and the captivity of recent Christianity to modern thought induced them to pose most of what they said in relation to an imagined opponent or a critical expert. I think we should all begin, as Satir encourages us to do, with “I am me and I am okay.” Especially if one is in Christ and can say, “There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus, no fear; in the Spirit I am who I am.” We don’t need to make an argument all day, even if people who don’t love us are out there somewhere, supposedly ready to take us down.
There is room for a good argument, of course, even gainst “straw” opponents. Working out common goals allows us to come from all sorts of places and end up on a mutual path. It usually takes some time and effort to get to harmony — and presenting my sacred opinion, standing alone with its chin up, is rarely the best place to start. Instead of setting up an argument with how we talk and act, I think we should begin with our own story and receive another’s and so allow our vulnerability to seed the group (and the world!) with the possibility of real love.
Be aware of your communication style
Satir continues to be well-known today for her five communication styles. By now, you probably know your Myers-Brigs letters, your Enneagram number/wings and all sorts of other labels that might chafe like a wool sweater sometimes. Satir’s labels came from observing families and seeing the same patterns arise again and again. She generalized the variations so people could consider how to make one another better humans, not just clutter the family system with dysfunction and debilitating pain.
As we went through our group the other day, I periodically got a glimpse of myself putting on one of these communication styles or fending off, in my mind at least, some dysfunctional style from someone else. Our group was super polite and not that intimate yet, so we were not treated to anything extreme. But our process made me wonder how the church keeps going when we are often stuck in the four less-functional styles of communicating and often despair of getting to the best style (Or think we are already best, but no one will tell us we aren’t because they think too poorly of themselves to reveal their experience!).
I aspired to be a “leveler” in the group according to Satir’s model. The leveler is “congruent,” meaning their internal states match what is communicated externally. For Satir, that means they are OK being themselves and are open to others being themselves. They are aware of self, other and context in a way that allows them to mentalize about what is happening instead of just reacting out of fear. In the chart (that blurry thing at the left), the leveler’s stance s open, arms welcoming, legs relaxed, and their facial expressions and tone match their internal state. We are not all likely to be the “non-anxious presence” we hear about all the time, but trying to stay aware helps a group stay connected, even when times are hard. Satir followers often quote the Roman poet Horace to that end: “When things are steep, remember to stay level-headed.”
Satir had first hand knowledge of how communication styles could hurt. In the “family” of the first family therapists, the blamers accused her of all sorts of things, the placaters fawned over her, the rationalists were disappointed that she did not come up with a theoretical model to meet their expectations, and the distracters considered her irrelevant.
You may have had the same experience during a Zoom call for work this week, or in a small group of the church, or at your family dinner table. I was having a little taste of all the dysfunctional styles coming at me in my group the other day (and coming from me, too!). In the chart above, you can see that each style is missing congruity with something — and irrelevant misses them all!
The four off-kilter types
Blamers defend by pointing the finger at someone else. They use words like “you should have” or “if you would try harder, then I wouldn’t have to…” or ” I do it right so this couldn’t have been my fault.” Most Christians are clever enough to do this subtley. They would be more likely to quote the Bible or the latest critic of the church to put you in your place, which leaves them blameless. They set an atmosphere on edge.
Computers (the super-reasonable or rational) often position themselves with their arms crossed and use super reasonable words, like “I tried to tell you”, or “according to so-in-so.” or “when we last had this discussion.” They defend by ignoring feelings and other information, relying on logic to sound all put together. In the chart above, they are all context, but not personal or relational. They make an atmosphere feel distant or cold.
When I get around a group of Christian leaders, it is often the blamers and computers versus the placators and distracters. That might just be the way of all flesh. But it also might be becasue their family systems operated like this. Married couples are more likely than not to have a “pursuing” partner and a “withrdrawing” partner. The withdrawers often have communication styles like placators and distractors. Truth without love kills. Love without truth lies.
Placators defend by trying to marginalize conflict in order to protect themselves or stabilize relationships. They sound like “please, won’t you just listen” or “now, it wasn’t that bad,” or “I don’t want to fight,” or they just stay quiet, sometimes letting their facial expressions say what they are not willing to put out there. I was on Zoom the other day with my group, which is a good venue to observe how faces tell things people are not yet willing to say. The make the atmosphere a bit unreal or desperate.
Distracters (the “irrelevant” style) attempt to derail the conversation when they are uncomfortable. Their postures are more like rapid movements, or laughing at inappropriate moments. Words they use sound like “not to change the subject, but” or “did you see that new movie?” Maybe more, they feel so irrelevant or are so irrelevant to what is hapening they can’t keep their attention on it, they are easily distracted. I think people kept shutting off their video during our meeting the other day because it was hard to keep up the energy it takes to connect that way. I took a phone call from the City of Philadelphia myself. Distrcter make the atmosphere feel insubstantial, even foolish or shameful.
Being a leveler is hard. It is a lot easier to stay reactive and most of us prefer that, even when we feel called to love our neighbors as ourselves. Virginia Satir believed if we would all get congruent and live as levelers, world peace would be ushered in. As soon as she said that, she was criticized for being a naive woman who ignored the needs of the “Third World” (as Eurocentric people called it then). She went around the world telling her story, anyway. As a result, her present influence might be more significant outside the United States now than it was inside then.