As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I owe a debt of gratitude to the great psychotherapists and family therapists that have come before me. One such pioneer in the field of family therapy is Virginia Satir, who was widely regarded as the “Mother of Family Therapy.” One particular contribution that Virginia Satir made during her extraordinary career was her identification of 5 distinguishable styles of communication; she noted that communication has to do both with information and the style in which that information is relayed.
In light of this, Virginia named these 5 different styles of communicating as placating, computing, distracting, blaming, and leveling. The first four styles of communicating that I just mentioned are generally unproductive ways of communicating with others. Satir saw leveling, however, as the healthiest mode of communicating with others, and she and encouraged her clients to work towards becoming levelers in their interpersonal relationships.
Placators tend to engage in behaviors that are designed to please, soothe, and pacify others. They make unwarranted concessions to others and are prone to accommodating and pleasing others because they have an addiction to seeking out their acceptance and approval. In addition, they are afraid of being rejected or abandoned by others, fear that the people around them will become angry with them, and they therefore fear interpersonal conflict. Consequently, people who use a placating style of communication use language that is intended to win the favor of others, and they are constantly apologetic, and never confrontational or disagreeing. They also tend to walk on eggshells in their communication with others, and they tend to preface what they are about to say before they say it in the hopes that what they say won’t be misconstrued. They do this to cover all their bases in order to preempt a misunderstanding that could unintentionally cause someone to be disappointed or angry with them. As a result of this communication style, people who placate are often chameleons without a solid sense of themselves, or they are vulnerable to being codependent individuals or co-narcissists who give up their authentic voice because they’re too afraid of what’s at risk if they speak their truth.
Those who engage in a Computing style of communication tend to detach themselves from their emotions and attempt to respond to situations in their lives in a logical and controlled way that is not influenced by their feelings. They are intent on delivering responses that are dry, cool, and calculated, and they tend to keep their voices even and often make use of abstract language. These individuals are often prone to communicating in a computing style because they’ve often developed a fear regarding expressing their own emotions. People who use a Computing style of communicating tend to live in their heads, and they will even use language that reflects theirmore left-brained approach to experiencing relationships and the world at large. For example, someone who uses a computing style of communicating is more apt to say, “that doesn’t compute with me,” “that’s illogical,” or “the facts and data that you’ve just provided for me simply don’t add up.” As a Marriage and Family Therapist, it’s often a goal of mine to help those who have a computing style of communication to drop down into their hearts and share their thoughts and feelings from that sacred, vulnerable space.
Those who adopt a Distracting style of communication tend to behave and respond in an unpredictable manner that jolts and interrupts one-self and others. They are known to say or do things that are irrelevant to the language and actions of others; they are not emotionally attuned to others, and they are therefore unable to hold space for others because they’re so disconnected from their own thoughts and feelings. When they speak, they are often prone to being tangential and jump from one topic to another. Distracters tend to feel restless and panicked physiologically, and they often use a tone that is fast, erratic, and unstable, varying in pitch for no apparent reason. These individuals often appear to have significant psychological issues which make relating to them very challenging. As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I’ve found that working with individuals and couples that have a distracting style of communication challenging because it can be difficult to follow what my client or clients are actually saying. As a group facilitator, I’ve found that individuals with a distracting style of communication can unintentionally interrupt the flow of what is taking place in my groups, and I’ve found that other group members become increasingly aware of this issue as time goes by.
Those who have a Blaming mindset are prone to looking for and seeing problems and fault in others, and they tend to boss others around and try to manipulate and control them. Blamers can often be quite narcissistic, and they believe that they are better than everyone else. They do not believe that they are accountable or at cause for any of the problems that they face in their lives. Instead, they see themselves as victims and believe that everyone else is to blame for everything that goes wrong in their lives. In addition, they tend to think in black and white, and they don’t see others or the world in shades of grey at all. People who have a blaming style of communicating often distort events that have taken place, and their distorted, revisionist memories often serve to protect their fragile egos and preserve their pristine sense of self. Sadly, they often perceive that nobody is genuinely concerned about them, and as they become resentful and more angry at others, their tone can become loud, harsh, and abrasive. They can be insensitive to the feelings of others, and they are often very reluctant to apologize to those they’ve hurt because they sincerely believe that they’re the ones that have been wronged in the first place. In addition, they are reluctant to say they’re sorry because they believe that doing so is a sign of weakness. As a Marriage and Family Therapist, it can be very challenging to work with people who adopt a blaming style of thinking and communicating because they are rarely interested in personal introspection and personal growth.
Alas, the healthiest communication style that Satir highlighted is Leveling. Leveling refers to the healthy communication mode of expressing oneself in an assertive manner so that one’s language and behavior is direct, straightforward, and congruent with one’s honest and authentic self. People who adopt the leveling approach express themselves in a way where there is harmony between their actions, words, tone of voice, and posture/gestures. They engage in active listening, are comfortable with silence, and they articulate their thoughts and feelings in such a way that people truly hear and understand them. Levelers seek first to understand, then to be understood. They also tend to value partnership, and they look to create win-win scenarios when they’re talking to people. They are also able to empathize with others and see things from their point of view, and they are excellent at diffusing tense discussions by letting the other person know that first and foremost they want what is best for everyone.
People who adopt a leveling style of communication also tend to speak from their heart, and they’re comfortable being vulnerable with others. As a matter of fact, they believe that being vulnerable with others is an act of courage and serves as a bridge to deeper connection. They also see conflicts that arise in their interpersonal relationships as opportunities for personal growth as well as opportunities to grow closer to that person after the conflict is talked through and resolved. Levelers also tend to be the first ones to take ownership for their mistakes, and they apologize to others when they’ve hurt them. They tend to be easy to understand and relate to, and they project themselves as “What you see is what you get” kinds of people. Finally, they contribute toward relationships that are safe, mature, and capable of genuine intimacy.
Now that you’ve read about Satir’s 5 different communication styles, I want to invite you to consider the following question: Which of the five communication styles mentioned above typically represents your strategy for communicating with others?
As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I’m a firm believer that how we choose to communicate profoundly impacts our relationships and profoundly shapes the course of our lives. There are countless other nuances and insights into effective communication that I’ve written about in other blogs on my website. Never the less, I trust that you’ll find it useful to consider your particular communication style and whether or not it’s been serving you to date.
If you’d like to learn how to adopt a leveling communication style so that you can make the most out of your interpersonal relationships and ensure that you feel seen, heard, and thoroughly understood, please get in touch with me so that I can help you to acquire a leveler’s communication style and skill set. You’re very welcome to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at my office at (619)280-8099 to set up a time to visit with me in person so we can get to work!! I trust that you’ll discover that learning a leveler’s style of communicating will be a very rewarding process for you.
Thank you for taking your time to read my blog on the 5 distinguishable communication styles. I hope that you found it interesting and enlightening.
John Boesky, LMFT/MNLP
Marriage and Family Therapist/Master NLP Practitioner