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Written By Michael Hall


After writing about Virginia Satir’s Contributions to NLP, I reviewed her book Conjoint Family Therapy (1964) and then found another book about her—one that I never knew about or even heard of.   Both of these indicate more of her contributions to NLP.

First her book, Conjoint Family Therapy (1964).  This book was published by Spitzer and his publishing company, Science and Behavior Books, written nearly one decade before the beginning of NLP.  Until my review last week, I had failed to realize the significance of this book.  For example, in Chapter 8 “Communication: A Process of Giving and Getting Information,” she presents two of the basic NLP Presuppositions— You cannot not communicate.  The meaning of your communication is the response you get.



Then she presents her “Meta-Model”—distinctions that you will recognize as part of the NLP Meta-Model.  The following sample comes directly from her writings which were integrated into the language or communication model of NLP.


1) Universal Quantifiers.  “If a person fails to realize that words are only abstractions he will tend to over-generalize…”  “Everybody is like that.”  “Nobody likes me.”  “All women are…” (p. 82)


2) Lost Performatives Indicating Permanence.  “He will assume that what he perceives or evaluates won’t change.”  “That’s the way she is.”  “I’ve always been that way.”  “That’s life.”


3) Either/Or (in the Extended Meta-Model): “He assumes that there are only two possible alternatives when assessing perceptions or evaluation; he dichotomizes or thinks in terms of black or white.”  “She either loves me or she doesn’t.”  “That will either make him or break him.” (p. 83)


4) Mind-Reading.  “He assumes that he can get inside the head of another. He operates as if from a ‘crystal ball’ and he acts as a spokesman for others.”  “I know what you’re thinking.”  “I know what she really means.”  “You know what I really mean.” (p. 83-84)

Virginia even presents many of the very questions which ten years later became Meta-Model Questions for challenging the ill-formedness (p. 85).  She doesn’t call the statements ill-formed, but dysfunctional.  They are examples of dysfunctional communication—messages that are not clear.


“What do you mean when you say that picture is ugly?”

“What does she do that strikes you as selfish?”

“How can you tell what I’m thinking?”

“What do you mean, ‘everybody’ is like that?  Do you mean your wife, boss, or who?”

“Do you mean all women or just the women you have known?”

“What doesn’t turn out right?  What in particular?”

“Where, exactly, have such things happened to you?  At home?  At work?”

“Why does it surprise you that I like fish? You don’t, but that doesn’t mean I don’t.”

“What do you mean by doing something the ‘right’ way?  Do you mean your way or what?”


If Richard and John created NLP by modeling Virginia’s “structure of magic,” now we know where they got much of the Meta-Model.  Virginia provided them much of the content information of the Meta-Model.  Interestingly, she even warned against over-using these questions so that a person does not become a Meta-Monster!

“Anyone who perpetually clarified and qualified would seem just as dysfunctional as the person who rarely did so. … A receiver for perpetually asked a sender to clarify would seem testy, uncooperative, and irritating.” (1964, p. 89)

 What they did not pick up on was other presuppositions from Virginia that could have become NLP Presuppositions such as these.

“Humans cannot communicate without, at the same time, meta-communicating.  Humans cannot not meta-communicate.” (p. 97)

“All messages have requests in them; they are not always expressed verbally.  These are meta-communications.” (p. 100).  “The request, which is part of every message may or may not be expressed denotatively.” (102)


Modeling Virginia

In my research as I have tried to find out where the NLP Model came from, how it came into existence, and who contributed what, I have in just the past couple weeks came across a book that I had never heard of.  Nor would I have ever thought that this book had anything to do with the origins of NLP, yet it does.  The book, Tidings of Comfort and Joy: An Anthology of Change (1975) it is about Virginia Satir, Fritz Perls, Sheldon Kopp, and Raven Lang, was published and edited by Dr. Robert Spitzer the same year he published the first books of NLP.

The most incredible chapter in the book is a chapter about an Interview with Virginia Satir that occurred in 1974 between Spitzer, Richard Bandler “who is in charge of production” (of Science and Behavior Books!) and Peggy Granger “who is on the editorial staff.” (p. 111).   The chapter, “When I Meet a Person,” is a record of Virginia talking about her beliefs and attitude as a Family Therapist.  It is the closest thing we have of modeling Virginia’s attitudes.  And while Virginia mentioned that Richard Bandler was present in this interview, there was no interview or modeling.

What can we find in the open discussion of Virginia that gives us insight into her?  Virginia says, “I would like to start with what goes on in me when I think about using myself as a helper to another person.”  (1975, p. 111).


I interpret their presence as indicating they have “reached the end of their ability to cope” and as “a search for a new ability to cope better” (111).  “What I am working for is to help people seek a different kind of coping process.” (119).  “…I am dealing with a coping process rather than a problem-solving process.” (122).

I imagine “the life that he is and has” … “to see his inside.” (112)

I seek to “reach the self-worth of each member of the family.”  “I feel that no changes can be made to people unless they begin to feel as having worth.” (113)

I seek to connect with the person’s “personhood,” “I feel that I am giving mine to you.”

I start with what the person wants, not with a discussion of the problem. (113).  “What do you hope will happen to you as a result of your coming here?” (116)

“I see the people in front of me as doing the very best they can with what they have learned.” (114).


My search and efforts are directed to “helping these people become real with one another.”

“I like to make an ‘alive’ picture as quickly as possible. … I find words are more useful when there is a picture; I call this ‘sculpturing’ or ‘posturing.’ “… putting themselves in the position of doing it, makes it more real.”  “This kind of sculpturing has value because it makes explicit what is going on.” (117)

“I consider myself the leader of the process in the interview but not the leader of the people.  I check out everything I do with them before I do it, so what I am is a strong leader for the process.” (118)

“I want to help people to become their own designers of their choice-making; and before they can do that, they need to be free to take risks.  So, my checking out with them their willingness to undertake anything is a very important piece of this interaction.” (118)

Another place where Virginia reveals more about herself which comes from Conjoint Family Therapy (1964).  The last chapter is titled, “Involving the Larger System” (pp. 261-269).

“My attitude of hope goes a long way toward helping people change.  I am convinced that all people can grow.  It is a matter of connecting them with their inner resources.  That is the therapeutic task.” (264)

I do not blame.  “I blame no one—certainly not parents—and this gives people a better feeling about coming to group sessions.  It is an attitude that also acknowledges that I am dealing with intelligent people…”

I set “the stage for awakening inner resources.”  By asking questions to get members of the family saying that what I’m doing with them—they had never seen before.  “Maybe there are other parts you haven’t noticed.” (266)

In setting up a sculpturing: “I’ve got an idea … do you want to try it out with me?” … Let me have your bodies for a while and I’ll give them back to you.’  I put a lot of humor in everything I do.” (267)

“Humor is a very important part of my work.” (268)

“I believe that people can handle tough problems more creatively when they fell good about themselves.” (268)


Today all of this sounds and feels very NLP-ish, and no wonder— it comes directly from one of the persons who were modeled at the beginning.


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