The 'Satir Stress Modes'
Virginia Satir identified that we move into one or more of 4 modes of behaviour and reaction when under pressure - we blame others, or placate them, or distract their attention, or become cool/cold and super-reasonable.
The Blamer: in Blamer mode we find fault with anyone and everyone - except ourselves.
The Placater: in Placater mode we take the blame on ourselves and tend to apologise to others for upsetting them.
The Distracter: here we try to distract people's attention as a way of defusing tension and inter-personal conflict.
The Computer: we avoid responding emotionally and focus on facts.
Which is your 'favourite' Stress Mode?
How do you behave when ‘under stress’ i.e. when the pressure is on, when things are going wrong, or when you're not getting your own way?
Most of us move onto automatic pilot when under stress and behave in much the same way that we have been doing all our lives! We slip into one of the Modes identified by Virginia Satir
- We blame others
- We placate and try to please everyone
- We distract attention from emotional issues or
- We become cold and super-rational
(1) Blamer Mode
You blame anyone and everyone except, of course, yourself.
In Blamer Mode, a bit like the three-year-old who is not getting their way, we stamp around, bang doors, shout at everyone or, as a last resort, sulk! We will typically use phrases like
- You never...
- It's always the same
- Why can't you see
- No one here ever cares thinks about me
- It's about time somebody…
- Its all your fault.
Blamers are life’s bullies. They find fault with anyone, anything and everyone. They want to have things their way – usually through either aggression or through sulks!
Their strategy is to put others on the defensive, demand explanations and use ‘you’ a lot:
Why did you do that?
It’s all your fault
Why can’t you just this one get things right
Look what you’ve done to me
People like you always…
Blamers are power-hungry bullies who manipulate through fear and intimidation. And they like to be with people in the next Mode…
(2) Placater Mode
In Placater Mode we want to make everybody happy. Our own self esteem is unimportant. Emotionally we cower and accept the blame for everything that goes wrong even if we are in no way responsible.
We can handle it - and it's best not to upset other people. We don't want any trouble – and we hate confrontation. And we don’t like to make strong, definite statements which people might take issue with. So we use soft on what we say with words like would, could, just, if you don't mind, if, possible, might, sorry to be a pain, don't get me wrong.., etc.
I feel bad about this
I'm sorry to upset you
Couldn't we just
It’s all my fault that you are angry
As Placaters we take the blame for anything or everything! Our own feelings aren't important – everyone else's feelings are. We apologise, we accept blame, we carry the burden of other people's feelings, we shield others from unpleasantness and are even inclined to think that they couldn't cope with nastiness but we can.
If the typical Blamer is the power hungry bully the typical Placater is the doormat who invites people to walk over them.
Sadly the Placater and the Blame seem to attract one another. The Blamer finds a willing victim: ‘I’m sorry, It’s all my fault, I’ll try and be better!’. The Placater ‘knows’ they’re in the wrong in any case ‘I’m sorry – I'm just a burden to you!’ A complementary, if emotionally toxic, relationship.
(3) Distracter Mode
In Distracter Mode we again want everyone to be happy – and, again, we don’t like unpleasantness.
But we go about things in a different way to the Placater. We want to distract attention from emotional issues involving confrontation, anger, worry, or grief so we try to distract attention from stressful topics by asking people about hobbies or holidays, remarking on the weather or news stories, rushing around making cups of tea or coffee, telling jokes, or laughing nervously.
This can be confusing to others and, yes, quite distracting - which is our aim. However it doesn't do much for our self-image in the eyes of others. But none of this matters to a true Distracter – they’re out to keep the peace at all costs.
(4) Computer Mode
This is the unemotional Mode - we want to focus people's attention on facts and issues rather than on emotions.
Often called the ‘Super Reasonable’ mode, in Computer Mode we aim to get people to stay away from such vague and ill-defined concepts as ‘feelings’ and into a rational, fact-based state of mind.
In this Mode we can come across as calm, cool and collected – rather like Mister Spock in Star Trek – but more often we are perceived as cold and unemotional.
That said the Computer Mode person is usually the one that people turn to in a crisis – because they are keeping a clear head and are very effective in a crisis. So this can be the ideal mode for diffusing difficult situations involving anger, bullying, accusations, impatience
The 5th Mode: The Leveller
Which is the worst/best mode? None of the four: each has its drawbacks and strengths. This is why Virginia Satir came up with a fifth mode called Leveller Mode.
The Leveller levels with you – tells it like it is, so to speak.
In fact Leveller Mode not so much a stress mode as skill. Here we retain the clarity and the flexibility to use any of the four behaviours above as appropriate.
So in levelling with people we will, depending on the needs of the situation:
- Blame: in Leveller Mode we are quite prepared to blame others, in appropriate ways, if this is indeed that they are to blame.
- Placate: We will placate, too. If we are to blame we will willingly accept this and seek to mend our ways.
- Distract: A good Distracter can be great in a crisis -they can distract people's attention away from the emotional issues and avoid or deflect an escalation of emotions. (Here in the UK the distracting suggestion ‘why don't we all have a nice cup of tea?’ has for generations been the universal solution to a domestic crisis!)
- Compute: Computer Mode is also a very valuable mode in dealing with difficult situations. Here we focus attention on the facts and on the issues rather than on the emotions about the facts or the issues. It is also the mode that the police are typically trained to use when dealing with critical situations.
Leveller is the ideal
So Leveller mode, not being a stress mode, is the approach to aim for – the skill to develop.
The first four are stress modes i.e. they are habitual reactive ways of dealing with situations. But in Leveller mode we are choosing to act in a manner which is appropriate to the situation.
- By now you will probably recognise your own habitual stress mode. If you haven't ask other people which of the four stress modes they believe you fit into. (And if no-one can identify your habitual stress mode it probably means you don't have one i.e. that you use Leveller Mode where appropriate.)
- Give your habitual stress mode a rest for a month or two – to loosen the habit
- Experiment with choosing to use the other three modes i.e. moving into Leveller Mode.
(This model comes from the work of the quite wonderful Virginia Satir (1919-1989) and we include it in our NLP Practitioner Programme. Virginia is considered by many to be the mother of Family Therapy or Systems Therapy and was one of the three exceptional therapists modelled by those who originally developed NLP. For more information about her http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Satir )
(Originally published May 2012. Revised and republished 17 November 2018)