December 5th, 2008

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The Phony Leveler

Introductory Background Note

Therapist Virginia Satir, over the course of a lifetime of practice, discovered five consistent patterns of language behavior that people use when they're communicating under stress: Blaming, Placating, Computing, Distracting, and Leveling. Suppose you have five people in a doctor's waiting room, all of whom have been kept waiting past the time of their scheduled appointment. If each of those people relies on a different Satir Mode, here are their five typical utterances:

Blaming: "WHY IS it that EVERY TIME I COME here I have to WAIT AROUND FOREVer??! MY time is valuable TOO, you know!!"
Placating: "Well, I just WONDER why it IS that I ALWAYS have to WAIT so long whenever I COME here! Not that I have anything IMPORTANT to do instead! I mean -- YOU know me... But I DO just WONder sometimes!"
Computing: "There is undoubtedly a logical reason for this delay."
Distracting: "WHY does this kind of thing ALWAYS happen to ME? Wait, wait, I'm sorry -- I KNOW it's happening to ALL of us, I didn't mean to sound like it was just ME! But it makes me SO MAD!! I mean, WHY can't they stay on a reasonable SCHEDule, for crying out loud?!"
Leveling: "My appointment was at three, and it's four-thirty now. That's unacceptable. I'm going home."

[If you're a native speaker of English you'll recognize these patterns because you've been encountering them all your life long; all their specifications and rules (including the body language that goes with the words) are stored in your mental grammar. In the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense system, your goal is to start choosing your Satir Modes based on a deliberate and systematic communication strategy, instead of just winging it or relying on habit.]


Human beings have three channels for communication: the words they say or write or sign; the body language that goes with those words [including intonation (the tune the words are set to) and tone of voice]; and a mysterious channel called "vibes" that is an expression of their inner feelings. Leveling is the only Satir Mode in which all three of those channels match. Levelers' words are backed up by their body language, and both their words and their body language accurately reflect their inner feelings; Leveling is just the simple truth as the person who's Leveling perceives it.

In theory, that means that Leveling is perfect communication. In practice, that means that when it's both safe and appropriate Leveling is always the best choice. Many sequences of GAVSD moves are designed to move a language interaction toward a state where Leveling is both safe and appropriate. When it's not safe -- for example, when your boss asks you what you think of some new idea and you say, truthfully, that you think it's the dumbest idea you've ever heard -- it's not a good strategy. When it's not appropriate -- for example, when a new parent asks you what you think of the new baby, and you say, truthfully, that it's the ugliest baby you've ever seen in your life -- it's not a good strategy. The gulf between theory and practice requires careful attention.

And then there's the problem of the Phony Leveler.

Phony Levelers are so skilled in their language behavior that they're able to convince other people that their words and body language and inner feelings match even when that's not true. They're able to create trust and rapport between themselves and other people even when they don't deserve either one. They use this ability for doing everyday lying, which is bad enough. They also, when they're good enough at what they do, go far beyond that and engage in a language activity -- a language sport -- that's genuinely perverse and dangerous.

Adults in our culture tend to structure their public behavior according to a metaphor that serves as a filter for their perceptions and provides them with a set of rules for "how the game is played." Sometimes their metaphor is football or basketball or baseball or soccer; sometimes it's tennis or golf; once in a great while it's poker or chess. Their goal is to be perceived as playing well, and, if possible, to win; they care about those two things.

Phony Levelers have no interest at all in who wins, and no interest in others' perceptions of their skill as players. Their only goal is to control what happens in any language interaction they're participating in. The words they say and the body language that goes with those words are designed to cause the other people in the interaction to do things -- sometimes language things, sometimes other things. If the best strategy for that purpose is to be perceived as playing badly, that's fine with them. Phony Levelers observe the actions that they've caused, and the responses to those actions; and then they try another move. Their inner feelings don't in any way match their words or their body language. Their inner feelings are usually a very detached intellectual interest in what's going on in the game; the exception is when they have a personal reason for causing some particular individual to win or lose, or to play well or badly. In cases of that kind, their interest is less detached, but only because they're temporarily observing their own behavior as well as everybody else's.

The crucial question -- the one I'm always asked -- is "How do you spot a Phony Leveler? How do you know when that's what you're dealing with?" It's not an easy question to answer. First, there's no way you're going to spot one quickly. It will take a while; it will happen over time; and it will be events, not language, that make the conclusion possible. There are no specific language behaviors you can watch for that will reliably identify someone as a Phony Leveler.

Your first signal will be your growing awareness of a sort of aura of power when the Phony Leveler is around. Next comes your awareness that the power doesn't seem to have an identifiable source. It doesn't often show itself in firings or promotions or bonuses or awards; it doesn't show itself in any of the typical ways. Things just happen when the Phony Leveler is around, but none of the usual reasons seem to apply. When your reaction to events in this person's environment, over and over again, is "Whoa -- how did that happen?", that's a clue; it means that you should pay very close attention. Another reliable clue is a lack of emotional involvement or commitment; things happen around Phony Levelers, but you never see them becoming stakeholders in those happenings. Phony Levelers are highly skilled strategists, however; they're perfectly capable of every once in a while providing a plausible cause for an event, so that people will say the reason Tom did something is that the Phony Leveler gave Tom a hefty raise.

Phony Levelers are language predators. It's fortunate for the rest of us that they are so very rare.


1. The name "Satir" rhymes with "career."

2. It's important to remember that calling someone "a Leveler" is just shorthand for "a person who is at this moment using the language behavior pattern known as Leveling." And that's true for all of the Satir Modes. None of these modes is a part of an individual's personality or character. Nobody is "a Leveler" in the way that they could be "a redhead" or "a Spaniard."

3. It's possible that there are more Satir Modes -- undiscovered ones. If so, I'd be very pleased to know about them. I've been watching for new ones for more than three decades.
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The Phony Leveler; afternote...

Excerpted from "Recognizing the Satir Modes," pp. 60-61 in
The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work [Prentice-Hall Press 2000]


People who use Blamer Mode are openly hostile and belligerent. They use lots of "I/you" words, and words like 'every, always, never, nobody, nothing.' They make accusations and threats; they give direct and abrupt orders. Their body language is threatening; they shake their fingers and their fists at people; they loom over people; they frown and scowl and peer at others. They speak too loudly, or they spit out their words between their teeth, or they hiss at you. They put an unusual number of strong, emphatic stresses on words and parts of words in their sentences.


People who use Placater Mode also use 'I/you' words and unusual, strong stresses a great deal. But instead of appearing belligerent and overbearing, they appear desperately anxious to avoid giving offense. They plead and cajole and wheedle; they praise excessively; they hedge even the smallest request heavily. Their body language, Satir said, will remind you of a cocker spaniel puppy.


People using Computer Mode avoid 'I/you' words and do everything they can to restrict their language to generalizations and abstractions rather than the personal. They try for the most emotionless and neutral communication possible. Their body language is minimal -- a flat tone of voice, very little movement, a single noncommital facial expression. They rarely use emphatic stresses on words or parts of words.


People in Distracter Mode appear to be totally disorganized, if not panicked. They cycle rapidly through the other modes... As the word patterns cycle, the body language cycles, too, and the effect is -- as the label suggests -- distracting.


The language behavior of the person in Leveler Mode is recognized by the absence of the word and body language patterns characteristic of the other Satir Modes. It is what doctors call 'the diagnosis of exclusion.' ... Since Leveling can always include the same words as those used in any other Satir Mode, it's important not to be confused by the words themselves. Compare these two sentences:

Blaming: "WHY are you LEAVing so EARly?" [Frown on face; fists clenched at sides.]
Leveling: "Why are you leaving so early?" [Expression of neutral concern; relaxed posture.]