Virginia Satir, founder of Child Psychology, observed universal patterns in the way people communicate as she detailed in her book People making. After 35 years of countless sessions, she noticed that whenever people reacted to stress while self-esteem was involved, people reacted in 5 different ways. Of the five she explained that only one of them led to growth, while the other four ways were crippling forms of communication involving self-doubt. The five patterns of communication that she identified were: placating, blaming, computing, distracting and leveling. When an individual is communicating in one of the first afore mentioned patterns, what they say will be very different from what they are feeling or thinking. She describes this as double-level message’. Double level messages mean just that, when your voice is one thing, but your body is saying another. Satir gave an example of double-level messages as a person having a smile on his/her face when saying the words, “I feel terrible”. As Dr. Fritz Perls, co-founder of Gestalt Therapy, said to one of his patients during a session, “Are you aware of the smile on your face as you try to sound mad? You don’t believe a word you are saying. You’re bluffing. You are a phony. You are putting on a performance for me.” A skilled psychologist these days can detect this type of incongruence and exploit it. Most people are not even conscious of using double-level messages. This type of incongruent message is one that is widely used in our society. Let’s discuss the five universal patterns that Satir has introduced in more detail.
Placate So the other person doesn’t get mad
Blame So the other person will regard you as strong
Compute With the resultant message that you are attempting to deal with the threat as though it were harmless
Distract So that you ignore the threat and hope that it just goes away
Level All parts of the message are going in the same direction. The voice says words that match the facial expression, the body position and the voice tone.
The placater agrees, “Whatever you want is okay. I am here to make you happy.” Inside, the placater feels worthless. The blamer disagrees, “You never do anything right. I am the boss around here.” Inside, the blamer feels lonely and unsuccessful. Inside, the computer feels very vulnerable. The computer shows little emotion. The distracter says things that are irrelevant to what anyone else is saying or doing. Inside, the distracter feels that no one cares. Meanwhile, the leveler will apologize when he has done something he didn’t intend to do or say, and not in response to a self threat. Leveler’s evaluate acts as objectively as possible without blaming, placating, etc. Satir explains that each of these patterns has a specific body posture or physical stance. She encourages exercises in which the participants take each of the stances repeatedly and she claims that they will have the internal feelings of the pattern whose stance they duplicate. Satir indicates that these patterns are learned early in childhood as a defense mechanism. Unfortunately, the longer we practice these patterns, the more they become a part of us until we are unable to distinguish ourselves from our patterns.
The placating response aims to evoke guilt, so if I evoke your guilt you might spare me. The blaming response aims to evoke fear, so if I evoke your fear you might obey me. The computing response aims to evoke envy, so if I evoke your envy you might ally with me. The distracting response aims to evoke longing for fun, so if I evoke your longing for fun you might tolerate me. In none of these cases though, can you love me or trust me, which in the final analysis, is what makes a growth producing relationship.
Satir gives seven reasons why we take on these patterns. An explanation of why these seven reasons lead us to the four destructive patterns is that they are ways in which we threaten ourselves.
1. I might make a mistake
2. Someone might not like it
3. Someone will criticize me
4. I might impose
5. They will think I am no good
6. I might be though of as imperfect
7. They might leave
In defense against these seven threats, Satir asks us to ask ourselves, “Would I still be alive if all of these things came true?” If we can answer yes, then we will be OK and we should not let these seven threats run our lives. Satir’s clinical hunch is that 50% of people are placaters, 30% are blamers, 15% are computers, % are distracters and 4 % are levelers. Some of her colleges believe that the leveler is closer to 1% of the population. Satir goes on to say, “I am deadly serious about the killing nature of the first four styles of communication. I feel very strongly as I write, the feelings of isolation, helplessness, feeling unloved or incomplete comprise the real human evils of the world.”