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The history of NLP, part 4: Satir’s contributions to NLP

How to tie your shoelaces

Written by Michael Hall

In my last article, The Gestalt Base of NLP, I suggested that what became NLP was heavily dependent on Gestalt Therapy. After all, it arose from a “Gestalt Class.” It was also from Fritz Perls that Bandler got his rough persona as he modeled the person who called himself “a dirty old man.” Consequently, more was contributed to NLP by Fritz Perls than by Virginia Satir or Milton Erickson.

None of this is to discredit NLP. Just the opposite. It gives credit to the sources which is what any professional does. Acknowledging sources helps to establish a field’s credibility and is the way it is in any academic field.  

This time, I’m looking at the contributions Virginia Satir made to Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Virginia Satir also contributed a lot to NLP as noted below. And she, unlike Perls and Erickson, was a constant visitor to the early Meta groups out of which NLP arose. Except for “the Satir Categories,” the founders did not take much from Virginia’s books. In the history of NLP, a year after the Gestalt Class that Richard and Frank were leading, Dr. Spitzer sent Richard to Canada for a month to record Virginia’s Family System Constellation work. 

1) Rapport 

As they got representational systems from Perls, they found that Satir was utilizing them masterfully. My guess is that because Virginia was such a big person (6 foot 1 or 2), she could easily have been intimidating to people. And that’s why she learned how to match people behaviorally and verbally. So from her influence NLP announced “the structure of rapport” —matching the behavioral outputs of people.

Later, shortly before his death, Dr. Spitzer was talking with Fritz when he described Virginia. Fritz said she was “the most nurturing person he had known.” This was also her focus. She focused on developing nurturing people and families – as even a cursory reading of her book Peoplemaking (1972) reveals.

2) The Satir Categories  

Satir also focused on communication. From her, NLP initially reproduced “The Satir Categories” of communication: blaming, placating, distracting, computing, and leveling (speaking assertive). These categories were reproduced in the early NLP books. Then, over the years, they were eventually dropped:

“Communication is the largest single factor determining what kinds of relationships he makes with others and what happens to him in the world about him… We pay a heavy price for not seeing and not hearing accurately as we end up by making assumptions and treating them as facts.”  (Peoplemaking p. 30, 48)

In Peoplemaking, Satir went through each of the representational systems: visual, visual-kinesthetic, auditory, and even olfactory (pp. 35-39, 41) and wrote extensively about how we use each in our interpersonal communications.

3) Systems Thinking and Working  

While Gestalt is systemic and holistic in nature and there is some emphasis on that in Perls’ writings, it was even more prominent in Satir’s work. After all, she is recognized as the founder of Family Systems.  For her, the family is “the factory” where the person is made, so parents are the people-makers:

“The relationships in a family are extremely complex. … You must learn how to make that system work vitally yourself.” (Peoplemaking, p.3)

“What the leveling response does is make it possible for you to live as a whole person— real, in touch with your head, your heart, your feelings, and your body.” (Peoplemaking, p. 78)

4) State 

Satir emphasized “states”. She used that terminology, and it was probably from her that state entered into NLP’s vocabulary. The state that she constantly talked about was self-esteem (self-worth). After that came safety, fear, and anger:

“Integrity, honesty, responsibility, compassion, love— all flow easily from the person whose pot [self-esteem pot] is high.” (Peoplemaking, p. 22).

5) Patterns  

Satir created various exercises that today we call patterns. There was the “Do you mean…” exercise where people practiced making guesses and had to continue until they get three guesses right. She warned about mind-reading, distinguishing description from judgment.

6) Not “Why?” — “How?”  

As Perls made the case for not asking why and for shifting to focus on how (as mentioned in the last article), so Satir presented the same emphasis. Again, this did not originate with Richard Bandler or John Grinder:

“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, ‘whys’ produce defensiveness.” (Peoplemaking, p. 119)

7) Parts, Parts Parties, Integration  

A significant contribution from Satir was her emphasis on integration and, of course, her “Parts Parties” were designed specifically for that. From this came the talk in NLP about “parts” and the patterns for integrating parts. This was a big part of Volume II of Bandler and Grinder’s book The Structure of Magic, and one of the patterns presented there (Vol. II, pp. 74-76).

8) Positive Intention 

One of the premises of NLP is that “behind all behavior are positive intentions.” 

The positive intention may not be at the first level of intention. It may be two or three or even more levels up (intention of intention), yet it is there. Satir operated from this and may have been the source of that presupposition:

“I have never found a human being who was all bad.  Such a violent man isn’t all bad.  It takes a good deal of maturity and understanding on the part of an adult to recognize this.” (Peoplemaking, p. 183)

Steve Andreas noted this in his book on Satir:

“One of the most powerful aspects of Virginia’s work was her assumption that everyone’s intentions were positive, no matter how horrible the behavior was…” (Virginia Satir: the Patterns of her Magic, 1991, p. 4)

9) Well-Formed Outcome 

Steve Andreas modeled 16 of Satir’s patterns in his book about her. What he writes suggests that the NLP Well-Formed Outcome pattern came from her:

“Virginia’s work was guided by the basic outcome questions: What do you want? How will you know when you’ve got it? What stops you now? What do you need in order to get it? She also understood that the answers to these questions have to be specific in sensory-based terms…” (Virginia Satir: the Patterns of her Magic, 1991, p. 3)

10) Mind-Reading

If there was a language pattern that Satir was always sniffing out and challenging, it was mind-reading. With families and couples, she considered it the biggest destroyer of communication, intimacy, and understanding:

“You don’t really know what I am sensing, what I am feeling, what my past is, what my values are and exactly what my body is doing. You have only guesses and fantasies, and I have the same about you. Unless the guesses and fantasies are checked out, they become ‘the facts’ and as such can often lead to traps and ruptures.” (Peoplemaking, 1972, p. 33)

“Listening and looking require one’s full attention.  We pay a heavy price for not seeing and not hearing accurately as we end up by making assumptions and treating them as facts…. How easy it is to misunderstand someone by making assumptions about what he meant. This can have serious results…    This brings us to what I consider one of the most impossible hurdles in human relationships. That is the assumption that you always know what mean.  The premise appears to be that if we love each other, we also can and should read each other’s minds.” (Peoplemaking, 1972, p. 48, 50, 53)

11) Meta-Questioning

Now while meta-questioning did not originate in NLP (we originated it in Meta-Coaching) the founders could have discovered it. They were close to discovering it, very close:

“This new question, which is characteristic of Satir’s work, is: ‘How do you feel about your feelings about what is happening?’ Consider this question in the light of the Meta-Model. This is essentially a request on the part of the therapist for the client to say how he feels about his reference structure—his model of the world…” (The Structure of Magic, Volume I, p. 161).

With a question like this, Satir was able to “go meta” and get to the frames above and beyond the experience. “How do you feel (a meta-feeling) about your feelings (your first-level primary feelings) about what is happening (the experience out there in the world)?”


Peoplemaking (1972), Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, Inc.

Changing with Families (1976), Virginia Satir, Richard Bandler, John Grinder, Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, Inc.

Virginia Satir: the Patterns of her Magic, (1991), Steve Andreas, Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, Inc.


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