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Virginia Satir: Making the Psychological Connections

February 12, 1986|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

The microphone wasn't working properly and Virginia Satir, the legendary psychotherapist, was delighted.

At 69, this philosopher/author/social worker/family therapist from Palo Alto has the reputation of being able to draw eager crowds virtually anywhere in the world--and then spontaneously to take those audiences into areas that no one, including herself, expected. She uses everything: questions, complaints, mistakes . . . even minor malfunctions like faulty microphones.

"Tell me what we're supposed to do now. You concocted the plan," she suggested to her microphone adjuster at the Ambassador Hotel as he fumbled and poked around, trying feverishly to improve the sound coming from a tiny mike pinned to her blouse.

His next solution, a hand mike, clearly would not do. "My problem is I use two hands for talking," she explained, warmly but firmly. "If I put the microphone there (in one hand) I limit myself this way . . . so we start out with handicaps."

An improvised mike on a cord around her neck was equally unacceptable.

More fumbling. "If you hit this nerve back here on my neck, it's going to give me a headache," Satir warned, drawing laughter from her audience and beginning to sound more like Gracie Allen than the sort of teacher 600 Los Angeles area psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals paid to hear for an entire Saturday.

The microphone attendant continued to grope and adjust yet another mike on Satir's grandmotherly, 5-foot, 10-inch frame. And she just kept enjoying the show.

"This is a good start for a seminar, I think," Satir told her listeners, who were by now completely hooked on the unfolding microphone follies. " . . . You realize you're getting the whole seminar in these first few minutes . . . What we've done is shown how life is. Life is not the way it's supposed to be. It's the way it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference."

Then Satir described some coping options she elected not to exercise. "I could have said to myself, 'Well, if these people really were prepared, I wouldn't have to go through with all this mishegoss (craziness).' I would stand like that (rigidly) and then all my blood pressure would rise and we'd have a big fight and the other person would get nervous because he should have done better. . . . We could have done it that way and then all the negative vibrations would sweep over this room.

"Or, I could have thought to myself, 'Ohhh, here it goes again. Same old thing,' and been passive about it. And the vibrations would have come in relation to that.

No Predetermined Response

"But what is splendid for me is that the event does not determine the response to the event. I think if I have one message, one thing before I die that most of the world would know, it would be that the event does not determine how to respond to the event. That is purely a personal matter. The way in which we respond will direct and influence the event more than the event itself."

This is how Virginia Satir often teaches. She uses whatever presents itself in a given moment as the perfect metaphor for a larger lesson on life.

Oh, she writes books, too. Her works, such as "Conjoint Family Therapy," "Peoplemaking," "Self Esteem," "Making Contact" and "Satir Step-by-Step" are considered classics in family therapy literature and are frequently used as college texts. Not just in the United States but around the world (most of Satir's works have been translated into 15 languages).

But those familiar with Satir's books sometimes point out--as a compliment--that they are but pale reflections of her presence, of her abilities to work with people. They further note that her intuitive, heart-over-head approach is not easily expressed in anything as limiting as words.

Even Satir's book editor, David Hinds of Celestial Arts Publishing in Berkeley, says, "I almost refuse to even discuss Virginia with people who haven't seen her work in person. The rapport she establishes with the audience--even large audiences of a couple of thousand people--is incredible."

She Gets Results

While Satir's methods may not be easily conceptualized or categorized, they do produce results. And there were plenty of them throughout the daylong workshop co-sponsored by the Glendale Humanistic Psychology Center and the California Hispanic Psychological Assn.

Consider, for instance, a man who supervises adolescent boys at an unnamed institution. He told Satir he didn't know whether to take a nice-guy approach or a tough, drill-sergeant stance.

He said that after being nice (ignoring the boys' negative behavior and reinforcing only the good) he was labeled "the easy guy"--and the negative behavior continued. So he adopted a tough approach, which instilled fear in the boys but only worked temporarily--if he "got nasty enough."

Satir suggested the supervisor consider adding a third string to his bow. But she didn't tell him what that string might be. Instead she deftly led him to discover it for himself.

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