I picked up The New Peoplemaking not because I wanted to continue delving into family systems but instead because that Virginia Satir’s work is often used as a model for change. I have no problems with the fact that her change theories were based on changing the family systems of her clients and many of the applications that we speak of for the model are designed for corporate use instead. While the book doesn’t fully enumerate Satir’s model for changing family systems, it does illuminate some of the powerful forces that shape families and clearly communicates Satir’s respect for those people who bravely pursue the process of having children – and therefore people-making.
We speak of cultures, nations, and societies as if they exist. In truth, they are collections of people, processes, and thoughts. They don’t exist in the sense that you can reach out and touch them. They are, however, the big questions that we seem the most interested in working on. But because they don’t directly exist, we can only change them by changing the individuals that make up these institutions.
This has been the focus of Satir’s work: individual changes. How do you change the behaviors that people choose in their everyday interactions with their families and the world? Satir simultaneously recognized the personal responsibility of every member of the family system and the system itself. More importantly, she recognized that sustained societal changes happen only when you develop people. No amount of arrangement or organization will be effective in the long term if the people aren’t supported and enabled to be the best people they can be.
Strangely, the connection for individual change and its relation to organizational performance comes from the Hawthorne Works, as described in Management and the Worker. In it, the relationships of the operators changed. It wasn’t the intent of the study, but the result was a change in individual health and therefore productivity.
The Hardest Job
Satir asserts that family is the hardest, most complicated job in the world. While family isn’t one of the Gareth Morgan’s prototypical Images of Organization, perhaps it should be. If raising a family is the hardest job, then perhaps it could be a good model for how to make organizations work.
When you look at the factors that influence the effective and ineffective operation of the family, one can easily see that they’re the same sorts of factors that influence the effective operation of an organization. Quoting Satir (emphasis mine):
The factors in a positive pairing relationship are:
- Each person stands firmly on his or her own feet and is autonomous.
- Each person can be counted on to say real “yes’s” and “no’s”—in other words, to be emotionally honest.
- Each person can ask for what she or he wants.
- Each acknowledges and takes responsibility for her or his actions.
- Each can keep promises.
- Each can be counted on to be kind, fun to be around, courteous, considerate, and real.
- Each takes full freedom to choose to comment on what is going on.
- Each supports the other’s dreams in whatever way possible. Together, they cooperate instead of competing.
Compare this with the kinds of guidance that Amy Edmondson recommends in The Fearless Organization, Tim Clark exposes in The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, or Richard Hackman shares in Collaborative Intelligence, and you’ll see similarities.
The basis of any human endeavor are relationships. Whether it’s a work, professional relationship or a family relationship, it’s the basis of what it means to be human. Historically, counseling focused on the individual who was representing problems, either of their own report or because their behaviors deviated the norms that their families and society could accept. However, Satir recognized that the behaviors operate only in the system that they’re created. Kurt Lewin explained that behavior of a function of both person and environment. (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality.) Thus, counseling one person necessarily misses half the problem.
Satir recognized that relationships start in pairs: two people in relationship with one another. However, these relationships quite quickly take on a third element, whether it’s the first child entering into the marriage relationship or someone else. While triads can be powerful, in the case of relationships, they’re generally fragile. In chemistry, O3 is ozone, and it’s unstable. O2 is the more familiar oxygen molecule that we’re used to. In Grannoveter’s work, he recognized that sometimes we see unstable relationships through forbidden triads like a man, his wife, and his mistress. It can work together, but often does not. (See Analyzing the Social Web for more.)
While the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) is a discredited test that used to be used as a part of psychological evaluations that drew inferences from pictures, the idea of visualizing your family portrait may have value. (See The Cult of Personality Testing for more.) By visualizing the way you see your family and then comparing it to real life, you may be able to see distortions that lead to poor interaction patterns.
Too many people are led to believe that family life must be perfect. This is an expectation that simply cannot be lived up to. In my review of Fault Lines, I explained that we believe our family lives should resemble Norman Rockwell artwork, but it can’t. That’s not real. The perception of our family should accept the faults that we have, that our family members have, and how our relationships aren’t perfect. We can’t expect perfect, we can only look to accept things as they are and work to make them better.
Dysfunctional families spend all their time and energy working to prevent problems from happening. They want to hide their reality from the outside world and as a result they use all their emotional energy trying to prevent the inevitable.
Healthy family systems recognize that problems will happen. They aren’t desired or welcomed, but they’re expected. These systems don’t waste their time preventing problems that can’t be prevented or denying the problems that are happening. Instead, they focus their energies on coping with the problems that do occur.
Fear of the Future
All fears are fundamentally a fear of a negative situation happening in the future. Our fears are the result of our concern that a negative outcome will substantially impact them in a way that they won’t be able to cope. (See The Hidden Logic Behind Perceived Situational Safety for more.) The key is that the more people believe they have the resources and capacity to overcome any impacts of the risk or stressor they fear, the less fear they’ll have.
We fear what we don’t believe we can successfully confront – whether that confrontation is a threat to our life or just our ideas.
The Control of our Attitudes
Sometimes the circumstances can’t be changed. Consider a family that is severely in debt. They can’t instantly transform themselves into a debt-free family – though this is possible over time. What they can do is change their relationship with money and, more importantly, how they interact with each other when they feel financial pressure. It’s not the circumstances that have changed that can create the substantially positive result, it’s the attitude about the circumstances that matter.
I’ve seen numerous people who are in the midst of struggles with their finances, their relationships, and their addictions. The most powerful changes they make aren’t the changes they make in their situation. The most powerful changes were in their attitudes about their situation. When they stopped seeing their marriage as an obligation and started seeing it as a way to express their love to their children and spouse, the problems nearly disappeared. Objectively nothing changed, but subjectively the entire world was different.
Having self-worth isn’t always easy. Whether it’s the voices of your parents or others in your life that told you that you were no good, didn’t meet the standard in some way, that they hoped for something else, or a myriad of other options, understanding your inherent value as a human is a powerful way to keep fear at bay – and to improve relationships with others.
Many of the problems that people have in their relationships are reflections of their poor self-worth. Instead of interpreting the other person’s comments in the most generous way possible, they respond to their childhood hurts and lash out. A husband can ask her wife where the spatula is and receive a response about him interfering in her kitchen, because she fears that if he cooks, she’ll have no value.
Everyone has redeeming qualities and aspects of themselves that are adored – or can be adored – by others. Finding ways to expose these aspects in ways that allows the person to grow can be difficult. In Creative Confidence, Tom and David Kelley explain that all of us are born creative and it’s “reinforced” out of us. How do you send messages of self-worth to yourself and others instead of messages of worthlessness?
Planting a Person
Consider for a moment that a trusted friend gives you a seed for a precious plant that they want you to have, but they don’t (and won’t) tell you what plant the seed will grow. You dutifully plant the seed, water it, and fertilize the soil. You’ve created the conditions under which the seed can grow without controlling or directing its growth. (For more of this general idea, see On Dialogue by David Bohm.) Judith Rich Harris explains in No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption that you can’t expect your children will grow exactly the way you want them to. There are too many factors involved. The result of this is your children are precious gifts that you can’t control but you can encourage towards growth.
Taboo Against Touching
In some families, touching is restricted. Fathers stop hugging their daughters, and, to a lesser extent, mothers stop hugging their sons. What may have been a family ritual of piling on the couch to watch a movie becomes awkward as the children grow, and the parents become concerned that touching their children may be misinterpreted. Out of fear, they pull away from physical touch that is a part of our human condition.
It’s not that there don’t need to be boundaries and that attention need not be paid to appropriate vs. inappropriate touch – there does need to be. However, in too many families, these waters seem too difficult to navigate and in the process all touch is prohibited.
In our world, I can tell you that I hug our sons and our daughters – and Terri does the same. We recognize that this is an important part of feeling connected as a family and work to find appropriate ways to share touch without it feeling sexual to any party.
Taboos Against Sex
As explained in Anatomy of Love, our Western culture has numerous restrictions on discussion and acts of sex in general where other cultures are much more open. The unfortunate side effect of this is that we’ve unintentionally taught our children that sex is bad. As a result, when they become a part of a relationship where sex is appropriate (say marriage as an example), they still struggle with their ability to express themselves sexually because they can’t shake the feeling that it’s somehow bad.
The more we can be open about sex – without encouraging it for young adults who aren’t ready – the less dysfunction that the children are likely to express as an adult.
There are many words that are used to describe the same concept. “Congruence” is Satir’s word for the same thing that I’d call a “stable core” (see Resilient for more) or that Brené Brown calls “wholeheartedness.” (See Dare to Lead for more.) The Arbinger Institute uses different language in Leadership and Self-Deception about staying out of the “box,” but the point is the same. It’s about being the best possible person, a person who can experience negative external events and situations without being overly reactive. Satir’s word hints at the stance that makes that possible. She hints to the facts that what someone does on the outside, the way they act, is in congruence with the way they feel in the inside. They’ve not just changed their outward behaviors, but they’ve also changed their inner mindset.
Privacy and Self-Integrity
Many people will claim their need to privacy. However, this isn’t exactly what they need. Privacy creates places where we can behave in ways inconsistent with our values or the image, we want to show the world. A person with an integrated self-image (see Braving the Wilderness) will need very little privacy and only in cases necessary to prevent vulnerability.
However, it is important to note that the root of the suggestion that we need privacy comes for the need to protect our identity from others. We also ask for privacy when we’re concerned that others may try to intrude on our identity.
Don’t Talk About It
A friend of mine’s family didn’t talk about certain things. Growing up as a preacher’s kid, he learned that if it was negative or too “out there,” you just didn’t talk about it. The unwritten rule in the family was that if it wasn’t talked about, it didn’t exist. Of course, this is like burying your head in the sand. It doesn’t change the actual situation, it just changes your perception and not in a good way.
His family isn’t alone. Many learn the message that you shouldn’t talk about Aunt June’s drinking problem, Jimmy’s conviction, or the fact that we know other members of the family are cheating in public. If you don’t talk about it, then it doesn’t exist. Embarrassment prevents reality.
The problem is that it doesn’t. In addiction circles, there’s a saying that “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” (See Neurodharma for more.) The more that we can be open about any topic and discuss it, the less likely we are to find ourselves in dysfunctional states.
You, Me, and Us
One of the key questions in relationships is how to take two separate things and mix them together to become not you and me but you, me, and us. Some relationships have a high degree of you and me with very little us. Conversely, some people become so enmeshed that they lose themselves. They really don’t understand how they can exist without the other person.
For healthy relationships, there must always be all three – you, me, and us. For those who have stronger senses of themselves, it’s possible to minimize the amount of me. For those who are co-dependent or unsure of their own identity, minimizing their identity in a relationship is dangerous. They may very well lose themselves.
Often, we see people lose themselves to the us, because they’re so afraid of loneliness that they’ll do anything to avoid it.
Loneliness explains how being alone and loneliness are not the same. We can be surrounded by people and feel loneliness and conversely be alone and not feel lonely. Loneliness is an unfortunate feeling that humans must endure. There is no avoiding it.
The key is to accept loneliness in appropriate amounts and to learn how to move your way back from the loneliness. Forming and maintaining multiple relationships is essential for keeping loneliness from lingering for too long. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on multiple relationships.)
Good from Bad Stock
One of the challenges with guardians – including parents – who are negative about a child’s parents is that you may unintentionally create self-esteem problems. The question becomes, “How can I be good if my parents aren’t good?” This creates a huge problem – and it’s one of the hidden impacts of parental alienation. (See The Progression of Parental Alienation for more.)
There are ways to decouple someone’s self-esteem from their parents’ value, but it’s not always easy. One tool is to reduce the belief that genetics are the only thing that makes someone good or bad. (See No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption for more on the degree to which genetics play a part.)
Reaction Not Control
One of the challenges in any family is the degree to which one family member believes that they have the right to control other members of the family. While this happens from parents to children rather frequently, it also happens with siblings. Older siblings are often enlisted as assistants with the younger children and therefore retain some sense of responsibility or control.
We all want to control others, but none of us want to be controlled. (See Compelled to Control for more.) As we attempt to control others, their natural inclination is to try to turn away. If, however, we learn to be responsive to them and their behaviors without accepting responsibility for them or attempting to control them, we’ll find that the entire family system becomes healthier. (See The HeartMath Solution for more on detachment, and Responsive or Responsible for more on the real meaning of responsibility.)
Pals for Parents
Another trap that parents can fall into is the desire to be friends with their children. Children need strong boundaries (see Parent Effectiveness Training and Boundaries). The primary responsibility of a parent is not to be their child’s friend, rather their primary responsibility is to help their children become functioning adults. Too often, parents become so concerned with being their child’s friend that they’re unwilling to hold them appropriately accountable. (See The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable for more.)
You Should Know
One of the weapons that is used against other family members is the statement, “Well, you should know.” Whether used by children or parents, it’s a weapon that isn’t fair and is one of the worst things that can be done. In The Science of Trust, John Gottman speaks about things that break down relationships the most serious of which is stonewalling. “You should know” combines stonewalling with shaming by implying that you’ve done something wrong that you don’t know – and effectively preventing further conversation on the topic.
It’s a logical fallacy that one should “know” anything, and that it should be allowed to end the conversation. (See Mastering Logical Fallacies for more.) Certainly, “You should know” may be uttered in frustration, but to prevent it from being toxic, it should be followed with “but here’s what the issue is.”
If you’re a parent or you’re thinking of becoming one, I encourage you to prepare for The New Peoplemaking.