Call Virginia Satir a pioneer. Call her the “Mother of Family Therapy.” No matter the title, Virginia Satir influenced Gestalt’s psychotherapy development in three ways: through Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), in natural curiosity, and by asking powerful questions. In each of these examples, I will reflect upon Satir’s ideas and approaches and showcase the impact of her lasting methods in my Gestalt training experience.
Neuro-Linguistic Programming — NLP
Virginia Satir (1916 –1988) and Fritz Perls (1893 –1970) were significant contributors to Neuro-Linguistic Programming, the pseudoscientific approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in California in the 1970s. Bandler and Grinder combined their skills in Gestalt therapy, computer science, and linguistics, along with their abilities to copy non-verbal behavior. Their objective was to co-create a new “language of change.” To achieve their goal, the men carried out a considerable amount of research, experimentation, and studies utilizing the work of three therapists and their clients, two of which were Virginia Satir (pioneer of family therapy); and Fritz Perls MD (Gestalt Therapist and Psychiatrist). Satir and Perls knew each other. They were an integral part of the humanistic psychology movement: Given Satir’s proximity to Perls, it was natural for her work to influence Gestalt.
Bandler and Grinder’s studies’ outcome was the publication of two books, Structure of Magic I and II, published in 1975 and 1976. These books encapsulated Satir’s and Perl’s collaborative research into developing a new understanding of the human process we call communication. The model they developed is known as the Meta-Model. This framework provides the therapist with questions to help the client move from the communication’s surface structure to understanding their deep system — unconscious beliefs, values, and decisions. The model provides a way to discover the true meaning of communication that is not always accurately conveyed in the spoken word alone. This methodology offers various tools to allow more precise meanings derived from any contact.
While it is difficult to pinpoint who the precise creator was of the NLP model, the book, Tidings of Comfort and Joy: An Anthology of Change (1975) speaks to the work of Virginia Satir, Fritz Perls, and two other therapists. The book was published and edited by Dr. Robert Spitzer the same year he published Bandler and Grinder’s books Structure of Magic I and II. In Tidings of Comfort and Joy, it becomes obvious Satir provided Bandler and Grinder with much of the content for the Meta Model. In the chapter “When I Meet a Person,” Virginia elaborates upon her beliefs and attitude as a Family Therapist. Satir’s dialog allows us to understand her approach:
All messages have requested in them; they are not always expressed verbally. These are meta-communications.
The request, which is part of every message may or may not be expressed denotatively.
Satir’s contributions to the Meta Model have a lasting influence on Gestalt. For example, the NLP model is eclectic and draws on professional practitioners’ knowledge, or ‘praxis’ (connecting learning to ‘real-life’ situations). Gestalt practitioners remain conscious of the importance of skilled questioning and to avoid the danger of colluding with or influencing participants. In working with clients, Gestalt therapists positively evolve through their involvement, exploration, and recommendations for therapists’ personal and professional development, research, and practice.
Personal Reflections on NLP Concept
- Neuro — the way I use my senses to understand what is happening around me. For example, when conflict emerges between the Gestalt group therapy circle members, I feel the air’s tension, similar to an inaudible electric buzz hanging in the room. A recent experience was an encounter with the group when discussing personal impacts on the COVID-19 pandemic. A flurry of anxious chatter echoed the walls, and I felt tension, fear, and uncertainty in the field.
- Linguistic — process describing the way we use language and how we communicate with others and ourselves. In my journey, a key figural realization is an understanding of how I think before speaking with another individual or in a group setting. This communication style has been ingrained in me for 20 years from working in the corporate world. I formulate what I will say in my mind, edit and adjust according to the audience before speaking from my mouth. This winter, I took the Enneagram Test, a self-assessment tool for personal growth. The results revealed (what I suspected), I’m a prominent type 3 called ‘The Achiever.’ Where I find relevance to linguistics is my tendency to think before speaking because I’m image-conscious and concerned with how I’ll be perceived. The key takeaway I learned from the Enneagram and in the reflection of NLP is to exercise caution with excessive linguistic processing between head and mouth. I don’t want to present myself as being “phony” out of a desire of being too polished.
- Programming — is concerned with the way we organize ideas and actions, producing expected and unexpected results. Continuing with the COVID-19 example, fear is not a factor in my family of origin. My father tucked me into the back of cornfields from infancy and went off to shoot pheasants and grouse. By the age of 5, I was skinning fish with sharp knives. I grew up in an age before helicopter or bulldozer parenting, and the world was there to explore with ample freedom. I am programmed to be resilient and choose to live with little stress in my life. Throughout the pandemic, I chose to be outdoors in the country, meet people (while using safe social distancing protocols, and remained excited and energized with the abundance of alone time to complete personal tasks.
Virginia Satir was a naturally curious person. Good Therapy describes her early years as:
A bright child with an explosive sense of curiosity, she taught herself how to read at the age of three and recalled wanting to become a detective when she was very young.
Satir concludes humans are born with all of the resources we will ever require. To her, it’s a matter of activating the resources and increasing the degree we can access and use our help. And in asking the questions and being curious, resources initiate. Through Satir’s belief system, it is of little wonder; curiosity is a foundation of Neuro-Linguistic Programming.
In Gestalt, curiosity is a cornerstone to building a relationship with the self and the other. Curiosity is a mindset, but it is also the desire to learn and know or inquire. Curiosity expands the way we think. The more I am aware of myself and the other, my interest strengthens.
The Gestalt cycle incorporates curiosity when there is insufficient information to complete the simulation. The process is considered a map for how a person becomes aware of a need, mobilizes to meet that need, and achieves satisfaction.
In Gestalt Therapy, An Introduction, Gary Yontef, Ph.D. relays Fritz Perls conclusions;
The gestalt (cycle) wants to be completed. If the gestalt is not completed, we are left with unfinished situations, and these unfinished situations press and press and press and want to be completed.
When the Gestalt cycle is unable to end, curiosity and exploration set in. Humans seek comprehension and clarity, and questions are one way to achieve this.
Curiosity’s influence on Gestalt is most evident in the Hot Seat. Here, the act of curiosity, not judgment, is the essential competency for Gestalt. Christine Stewart Price, an American Gestalt Teacher and Spiritual Practitioner, describes the Hot Seat as an “open seat,” with an Initiator and Reflector, the latter considered the Guide. The Reflector lends themself to curiosity and awareness of the Initiator. The Reflector has varying skills in how to explore whatever is arising between the two.
My role as a coach and writer lends itself to natural curiosity. I am also intrigued by those who experience wonder with me. One recent example where inquisitiveness had a direct impact was during a recent Hot Seat practice evening. A woman named Jane was the Reflector and I, the Initiator. At the beginning of our encounter, Jane recognized my accelerated heartbeat and how I drew in deep breaths. Given we were situated at the front of the room with a large audience, we both acknowledged our mutual nervousness.
Jane inquired why I felt nervous. I explained how I felt all eyes in the room were staring at our every interaction and movement, like the feeling of being under the microscope.
Later in our Hot Seat interaction, Jane noticed the lower half of my body was static, and she asked if I was able to feel my legs. No, I wasn’t. It was at this precise moment Jane and I established contact with one another. Jane’s natural curiosity led us to that experience.
Forget Why Ask How?
When we’re curious, we are led to asking powerful questions. Satir made the case to refrain from asking “why” questions and shift the focus to “how.” In Gestalt, Perls emphasized the same.
Understanding the system helps people to ask ‘how’ questions instead of ‘why’ questions. You know how hard you have to work with a ‘why’ question so it doesn’t come out sounding like a blame question… ‘How’ questions get information and understanding, ‘why’s’ produce defensiveness.
In my coaching career and in particular, through Co-Active Coaching (A modality offering the ability to ask powerful questions, listen and empower to elicit the skills and creativity a client already possesses, rather than instruct or advise), I have reflected on and am influenced by the Satir and Perls approach and use curiosity as a fundamental base when working with clients. The following are sample themes and “how” questions I utilize in practice:
How does it look to you?
How do you feel about it?
How does this fit with your plans/way of life/values?
For instance, how else could a person handle this?
Fun as Perspective:
How can you make this more fun?
How do you want it to be?
How do you explain this to yourself?
How can you make sure you remember what you have learned?
Gestalt’s most significant impact on me within the group therapy setting is asking the simple yet powerful question: “How can I support you?”. This inquiry ensures I am not entering into caretaker mode and grants the others the space to respond to their personal needs. The question offers a choice.
Virginia Satir and Fritz Perls were two main contributors to the humanistic psychology movement. While their work intertwines in similarities, Satir was an integral contributor to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and a prominent contributor to the Meta Model, potentially more so than Perls, despite his valuable inputs. In expanding NLP to a personal experience, I provided examples of how each model’s component has impacted my life while studying Gestalt psychotherapy. My research also explores Satir’s deep passion for curiosity, the threads of which were woven into early Gestalt psychotherapy and continue today. I illustrate the Hot Seat experience with another Gestalt practitioner and how her curiosity allowed us to find contact with one another. We end with Satir’s powerful question and her belief in discovering the “how” that is actively used with Gestalt psychotherapy. I explain how Satir’s technique has been my North Star in coaching and useful in the Gestalt practice with clients.
Addendum — NLP
In researching this article, I discovered some modern circles consider NLP’s practice archaic or out of date from the scientific community since the 1980s. This post highlights how NLP is a historical and foundational work of the Humanistic approach from Satir and Perls.
Hölzl, Andreas. A typology of questions in Northeast Asia and beyond: An Ecological Perspective. Zurich: Language Science Press, 2018.
Roberts, Martin, Ph.D. Change Management Excellence — revised edition: Putting NLP to Work. Bancyfelin: Crown House Publishing Ltd, 2006.
Satir, Virginia. The New People making. Mountain View, California: Science and Behaviour Books,1988.
Spitzer S, Robert. Tidings of Comfort and Joy: An Anthology of Change. Palo Alto: Science and Behavior, 1975.
Stewart Price, Christine. Gestalt Awareness Practice. Morrisville, North Carolina: Lulu Press, 2018.
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