Tao of Communication and the Constancy of Change

by Jean McLendon, www.satir.org

originally published in Couples and the Tao of Congruence, edited by Barbara Jo Brothers, 1996

SUMMARY. Lao Tsu and Virginia Satir seemed to have spoken a common language when it came to speaking about the art of knowing, being and doing. It is as if they sang from the same sheet of music. This article combines their melodies, intensifying the power of each’s message. In a back and forth, fugue-like dialogue between Lao Tsu and Satir, the author explicates her understanding of the sacred work of change and actualization in a six part invention: the Six A’s. [Article copies available from The Haworth Document Delivery Service: 1-800-342-9678. E-mail address: getinfo@haworth.com]

Lao Tsu wrote in the Tao Te Ching, "The truth often sounds paradoxical" (Feng & English, 1972, p. 80). The Tao of Communication, the theme of this volume, is a paradox for as Lao Tsu reminds us: "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao" (Chapter 21, all references to Lao Tsu are from the Geng & English translation). Yet, we come together in this issue to describe how that which cannot be told applies to the art of telling.

Virginia Satir said, "The only real certainty in life is change" (Loeschen, 1991, p. 133). Her teachings offered a view of change as a natural, healthy and human phenomenon. From this perspective change is a requirement for living. Lao Tsu’s message is similar,

The way of nature is unchanging.
Not knowing constancy leads to disaster.
Knowing constancy, the mind is open.
(Chapter 16)

Virginia Satir was a great communicator. Her wisdom ran deep. The applicability of her teachings is vast. Whether one wears the role of student, client, patient, child, employee, or on the other hand, teacher, consultant, therapist, parent or boss, her approaches and beliefs about healing, growing, changing and learning have real and practical value in all human systems and contexts. Many of the ideas and values of the Tao Te Ching are reflected in Virginia Satir’s work. Though Lao Tsu’s words were spoken some 2,500 years ago and Satir’s spoken in contemporary times, both these exceptional teachers connect us to human universals. This article will describe Satir’s process of change and actualization in six A’s. Each ‘A’ represents a step for an individual who chooses to move willingly and purposefully along the cyclic path toward achieving meaningful and lasting change. Using the Six A’s, we will explore the parallels between the methods of Virginia Satir and the messages of Lao Tsu, so as to discover more about truth in paradox: the Tao of Communication and the Constancy of Change.

Seeing the small is insight; …
using the outer light,
return to insight…. This is learning constancy (Lao Tsu, Chapter 52)
… the Tao

Change happens only in the present…(Satir, 1985)
…the Tao of Satir.

Perhaps the most striking parallel between Satir and Lao Tsu is the wonderful simplicity of their messages. Satir made the complex understandable with her down to earth way of speaking and her use of metaphor.

She knew that the change process was not a linear process, and that there was no simple cause and effect to explain how people and relationships work. Her teaching style as well as her teachings offer a modern practice model for Lao Tsu’s words.

My words are easy to understand and easy to perform,

Yet no man under heaven knows them or practices them.
(Chapter 70)

Like Lao Tsu, Virginia understood the basic nature of process.

Stand before it and there is no beginning.

Follow it and there is no end.

Stay with the ancient Tao,

Move with the present.

(Chapter 14)

Both had deep respect for the power of generational learnings. Satir’s vehicle for change, the family reconstruction, exemplifies this regard (Nerin, 1993). In keeping with this theme Lao Tsu adds:

Knowing the ancient beginning is the essence…. (Chapter 14)

One can attempt to resist change or acknowledge its inevitability. Beyond acknowledging we can invite and embrace change as a way of life. We who pursue actualization and willingly enter the change process know that the simple words of these two teachers can be difficult to put into practice. Their words however offer us guidance and support for conscious journeying and for our search to know.


The pathway into conscious change begins with Awareness: the step of allowing input to unsettle our status quo. We notice a pain, an unmet need, a hope, a fear, a desire, i.e., a mental, emotional, spiritual or physical itch. In noticing our inner world of feelings and thoughts in combination with our experience of the outer world of things and people, we are reminded of our humanness … our deep, innate, universal yearning for connection with our inside parts and between our self and the world around us. It is our quest for the Tao … that flow of oneness. Awareness permeates us like a foreign element inviting exploration. And though Awareness is merely the first step and only an inner step, its power to stir the soul and shift our perspective is profound. Lao Tsu understood how this could be:

Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
If Kings and lords observed this,
The Ten thousand things would develop naturally.
(Chapter 37)

Upon receiving the message of our true nature, we can ignore it, distort it, project it, deny it; or we can welcome the validation. Learning to feel our feelings and not to bury them was of particular and specific interest to Satir. She spoke of our attempts to bury our feelings being similar to trying to keep hungry dogs down in the basement. "The longer they are in the basement, the hungrier they get, and the more energy it takes to keep the door shut!" (Loeschen, 1991, p. 141). If we are willing to risk knowing our true self, we can move forward in a continuous change process toward more wholeness. Initially we come to this reckoning through an internal dialogue. Satir believed that our inner dialogue about ourselves was directly related to how we feel about ourselves and how we communicate with others (Loeschen, 1991, p. 89). We stabilize our self by periodically going inside to check for familiar ways of thinking, feeling and coping. When we find something new, unexpected, or a return of an old question, we open up the possibility for taking a new step. We enter the domain of self-awareness and self-discovery. Lao Tsu talks about this coming to know one’s self in these words:

Knowing others is wisdom;
knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force;
Mastering the self needs strength.
(Chapter 33)

Satir understood that to change means we must both mourn and celebrate, for there is both a death and a birth. She knew well the life giving force that comes from choice and
possibilities, and the chaos that lies at the heart of change. Satir and Lao Tsu shared attitudes about the positive potential of difficulty and disequilibrium. Lao Tsu writes:

When there is no peace within the family,
Filial piety and devotion arise.
When the country is confused and in chaos,
Loyal ministers appear.
(Chapter 18)


With the conscious awareness of our desire for change, our natural propensity to move toward wholeness and all that that entails, we move toward chaos. We, however, are not prepared to sustain our proactive move towards change until we have released our self from the debilitation of shame, guilt and self rejection. In our effort to avoid these painful feelings, we often assume real change is merely a decision. We think and hope that we can change without facing our self. But in this search Lao Tsu advised:

It is not wise to rush about.
If too much energy is used, exhaustion follows.
This is not the way of the Tao.
(Chapter 55)

Acceptance of our role in developing the status quo which we now seek to change releases us energetically. We must also, however, have mercy on ourselves … forgive ourselves. Or as Satir taught, we all do the best we can at a moment in time and when we know more we do differently. Blocking the door to freedom that comes with full Acceptance are unresolved shame and guilt. When we have no way to value our basic essence, we imprison our ability to make conscious choices. We become immobilized victims. Lao Tsu gives us reassurance:

Heaven’s net casts wide.
Though its meshes are coarse, nothing slips through.
(Chapter 73)

Lao Tsu also spoke specifically of Acceptance:

Accept disgrace willingly.
Accept misfortune as the human condition.

Do not be concerned with loss or gain.
This is called "accepting disgrace willingly."

What do you mean by "Accept misfortune as the human condition"?
Misfortune comes from having a body.
Without a body, how could there be misfortune?

Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for all things.
Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things. (Chapter 13)

Transformation is a multi-level process evoking our cognition, emotionality, spirituality and physicality. Satir’s use of multi-sensory methodologies reflected her sensitivity to the reality that meaningful change is not a surface matter. Lao Tsu adds:

Therefore the truly great man dwells on what is real and not what is on the surface,
On the fruit and not the flower.
(Chapter 38)

Successful change requires that we have access to our vast birthright of human resources, those aspects of our being that make it possible for all humans to grow, change, learn and heal. Satir identified these and in her inimical way concretized these ideas by giving these capacities simple names. She referred to them as the tools we have in our self-esteem tool kit. Chapter eleven in The Satir Model (Satir, Banmen, Gerber, & Gomori, 1991) provides information. I have added one tool, the heart, which I believe was an oversight on her part. Given Satir’s big and compassionate heart, I doubt she ever thought that some of us would need to be reminded of this powerful part of our humanness—the part she so often used in her teaching. To enter change or conflict without awareness of these resources is folly.

Facing our self squarely for who we are in the moment, owning the behaviors which are part of what we want to change is a challenge. When we can say, "This is ‘me,’ I own my response: my feelings, my thoughts and my behaviors" and simultaneously view ourselves with gratitude and mercy for surviving all that we have been through, change is happening. I first saw the paradoxical power of Acceptance in writing over 20 years ago when I walked into a Gestalt Organization Development workshop and read in big letters on the flip chart pad: "Change rests on the full albeit temporary acceptance of the statue quo." When we emerge from the pain of recognition and the healing power of true understanding, we add the power of compassion to Awareness and lay a foundation that can support taking real responsibility for change. Accordingly Lao Tsu says:

I have three treasures which I hold and keep.
The first is mercy
From mercy comes courage …

Nowadays men shun mercy, but try to be brave;
They abandon economy, but try to be generous;
They do not believe in humility, but always try to be first
This is certain death.

Mercy brings victory in battle and strength in defense.
It is the means by which heaven saves and guards.

(Chapter 67)


Now we stand fully in the throes of chaos. Lao Tsu described the stage Satir called chaos in this way:

The right path seems dim;
Going forward seems hard;
The highest virtue seems empty; ….

Great purity seems sullied;
The perfect square has no corners.
(Chapter 41)

If our preparation via the experience of Awareness and the spirituality of Acceptance serves us well, we are positioned to enter and exit the chaos phase of change with a transforming idea. At this point, we shoulder a very personal responsibility for our new direction. We acknowledge that we Authored our first script and we are the ones to Author the next one. This is empowerment.

Acceptance of ourselves prepares us for surviving the chaos of change. We will need compassion and patience for our floundering and determination and enthusiasm for our search for sustained positive change. Satir worked from an approach of addition not subtraction. We don’t have to rid our self of parts of our self, we need to add something to "what is." In fact to resist "what is" will only thwart our adventure into something new. At this juncture when we most want to close down and find refuge from the turbulence of this unpredictable phase, we need to be able to open ourselves. We are adrift in search for new transforming ways of seeing, feeling, thinking and hearing. We find support in Satir’s view that the change we want for ourselves can be an adjustment rather than demolition. We are doing a form of recycling, converting our "shoulds" and "oughts" to choices, our "always" and "never" to "when it fits for me." (For more on transforming rules to guidelines see The Satir Model, Chapter 11.) We proceed most smoothly with Authorship if we remain mindful of Lao Tsu’s advice: "A great tailor cuts little" (Chapter 28).

To this point we have been speaking of an internal dialogue. Awareness of discomfort with the status quo requires that we look inward to acknowledge the out-of balance condition between mind, body and spirit. Acceptance proceeds further inward as we offer mercy, adding the power of soft energy to our search for wholeness. Though the step of Authorship remains non-verbal, we begin to shift our focus toward the world outside. We awaken. We see anew. Our inner eyes act like a child’s eyes when the child delights in the wonder of color, movement, and sound. Satir and Lao Tsu appreciated the special kind knowing of a child—that capacity we all have to experience life in real time–in the present. Lao Tsu wrote, "When men lack a sense of awe, there will be disaster" (Chapter 72). Continuing in this vein he also said:

The sage is shy and humble-4o the world he seems confusing.
Men look to him and listen.
He behaves like a little child.
(Chapter 49)

We speak today of the "child within" and refer not only to the wounded child but the ability a child has to fall down, cry, stumble, get up, seek support, learn and return for more. There is a courage that is needed when we enter the chaos of opening to new knowing; that moment when we feel the need to be able to think, feel or do something beyond our knowing. When we perceive a new way we have found a missing piece to add-a transforming idea.

When we experience the excitement of the transforming idea, we lift our eyes to expand our context. We take in the full exhilaration of escape from chaos and the empowerment of a new choice and a new way. In the rescue of our self we naturally move to the world of others, wanting contact and needing support.


Armed with the empowerment of Authorship, we introduce the first verbal element of communication with Articulation: putting our stuff "out there" for others to see and hear. In this process we elaborate on our transforming idea. It is the moment when communication shifts from the internal world to the world outside. Focus for change expands to include others. Prior to this point we have been engaged in a "within" process. We now move into a "between" encounter. Being fully in contact within our self opens us and requires that we allow for and recognize the natural existence of other(s) in our context. Our needs and desires cannot be sustained when either of these realities is ignored. With harmony between and among me, you and the context, the highest form of communication takes place, that ever expanding encounter that stretches us open and deepens us and our connections. Satir writes:

There is communication which builds the self esteem of the self and the other.
I have given the name congruent to that form of communication. (Satir, 1976)

Though fraught with the pain of our human limitations and the energy of our vulnerability, the pay-off is priceless, or as Lao Tsu tells us:

Knowing harmony is constancy.
Knowing constancy is enlightenment. (Chapter 55)

With Articulation we enter more completely into the knowing of the Tao and move more deeply into our spiritual essence. We come to know about oneness as we experience the universality of emotionality. As Marti Buber wrote "Spirit is not in the I but between I and you…. It is solely by virtue of this power to relate that man is able to live in the spirit" (Buber, 1970, p. 89). Satir adds: .

I think one of the hardest things is to recognize life as energy. We put up walls and contain the energy in some way so it isn’t free to move. We have to learn how to flow with our inner energy. (Kramer, 1995, P. I 0)

Success in achieving change requires that the step of Articulation be taken carefully. We must assess the safety of the environment, and choose our moment to "go public." Should we choose to share our progress with another when that person’s energy is consumed with other concerns, there will be disappointment and set-backs. Though we need not limit this discussion to therapy, Satir’s observations about change in therapy apply:

For people to grow and change they need to be able to allow themselves to become open, which makes them vulnerable. When they are vulnerable, they need protection. (Baldwin and Satir, 1987, page 21)

Sensitivity to the patient, client, or student’s vulnerability is a prerequisite for insuring that change agents empower not overpower. The tender sprouts of shared Awareness and Authorship need gentle guidance and warm receptivity. We assess the fit of old attitudes in our current life, when there is sufficient safety for the kind of sharing that leads to unearthing awakeness. When what we say is received fully, we are able to access deeper levels of meaning and feeling. The path to discovery widens and seems to perpetuate itself.

We move, now, to the practice phase of the change cycle, and as is true with any initial attempts to practice something new, we must recognize the importance of relevance, appropriateness and timing (Loeschen, 199 1, p. 95). Or as it is stated in the Bible: "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven" (Ecclesiastes Chapter 3, verse 1). And as Lao Tsu expressed: "In action, be aware of the time and the season" (Chapter 8). To progress into the practice phrase of the cycle of change and actualization, we seek out places of understanding and support for the Articulation of our new found knowledge. We look for someone who can add something rather than discredit or discount in a negative way what we have to say. Within the context of safety, we risk exposure of our new truth, our new self. With success, confidence grows. Congruent communication enhances self-esteem, and self-esteem improves congruent communication. Satir returns to her connection with nature and writes:

This (congruence) is the power that is in the seed…the power to make things work better…(even)…to constructively meet destruction. (Satir 1976, Chapter Power in Congruence)

(For readers who want to explore congruence beyond the practice of therapy I recommend Jerry Weinberg’s book Quality Software Management Volume 3 Congruent Action.)

Successful practice reduces the need for safety and integration lies just ahead. But Lao Tsu warns:

The wise student hears of the Tao and practices it diligently.
The average student hears of the Tao and gives it thought now and again. (Chapter 41)

We learn that we can make contact from a place of Acceptance of our humanness—our woundedness, our uniqueness—from the miracle and treasure that we all are. We enter and exit our encounters more whole. "No fight: No blame" (Lao Tsu, Chapter 8).


With careful choice of the arenas of initial practice, usually our intimate others, we enjoy success with our Articulation, and with success we try again. Practice moves to integration and Articulation gives way to the next step: Application. We add to our practice of speaking truth, the task of putting the pieces together. We face each new opportunity trying out our new behaviors with the inner recognition that we always have choice in how we proceed. We remind our self that however another receives us is not only a comment about us but the person to whom we speak. Satir noted:

The beginning of new possibilities starts when you have a deep bone-like conviction that there are no fixed permanent set of roadways in your insides, that they are all capable of being resurfaced, reshaped, reconstructed, by-passed, and built anew. (Satir, 1978, p. III)

To engage another fully requires us to stretch and risk exercising new parts of our self. With practice we become a practitioner of the art of congruence. We make contact with others in different kinds of environments: at home, at work, at play. Continuing our vigilance and less and less our "old ways," we come to appreciate how tenuous our experience of wholeness can be. We know how quickly we can fall. We search for new balance: balancing who we have become with who we have been and who we are becoming. We know our roots run deep and we remind ourselves that we have the resources to create healing, learning, and change in our lives. We seek a true sense of ourselves in the present, the yin and the yang of our being. Lao Tsu knew well the importance of making a place for both, and, all:

Yield and overcome….
Be really whole,
And all things will come to you.
(Chapter 22)

Satir’s recognition of the importance of integration is perhaps most obvious in her use of the Parts Party (Satir, Banmen, Gerber and Gomori, 1991). The Parts Party is a powerful vehicle for identifying our parts and integrating them into the person we want to become. Lao Tsu also recognized the impact of dividing the whole and the need for integration. He adds: "When the whole is divided, the parts need names" (Chapter 32). Many people are familiar with this part of the quote. But, his attention to the step of integration lies in the trailing sentence, which fewer recall: "There are already enough names."

As we begin to expand both our repertoire for congruence and our arenas of risk taking, we must not be fooled into assuming that our "getting it together" is a constant state. For consciousness requires consciousness. Lao Tsu offers more counsel:

If I have even just a little sense,
I will walk on the main road and my only fear will be of straying from it.
Keeping to the main road is easy,
But people love to be sidetracked.
(Chapter 53)

People usually fail when they are on the verge of success.
So give as much care to the end as to the beginning;
Then there will be no failure.
(Chapter 64)

When the inevitable happens—we misstep, we fall—we return to Awareness and Acceptance and acknowledge that we fell and hopefully have a good laugh. Satir loved to laugh at herself and to laugh along with her students at their mishagosh. She referred to that moment when we see the ridiculous or humorous aspect of our taking our self too seriously as a cosmic joke (Satir, Banmen, 1991). Similarly Lao writes "If there were no laughter, the Tao would not be what it is" (Chapter 41). When we can fall short of our expectations yet continue on our path of learning, laugh and cry with and for our self, move with more flow, less strain, and experience balance in practice, we can begin to consider the role we may want to take in helping others change and grow.


With integration we can test our ability to apply our new leanings in contexts beyond those that are similar to our own ways of being. We come to experience the truth of Satir’s often spoken statement: “We come together out of our similarities, we grow from our ‘differentnesses."’ As we need less safety for success and as we embrace interaction with others beyond our immediate environs, we touch the boundaries of other cultures. We can begin to give of our self, to use our self in behalf of assisting others. We can give self, but not give our self away. We have "been there" so to speak. We are not afraid of the dark nor the light … and if we are, we can say so … breathe and then find our courage and wisdom and proceed. We know the fear and joy of moving through the change process. We have something to share. Satir wrote:

Each of us emerges as a bud on a universal spiritual tree. That tree links all human beings through it roots. Each of us can learn how to become a wise leader who will love,, take care of, and nurture the precious life we have been given. (Satir, 1988, p. 336)

When we have accomplished personal responsibility we have something very special to offer in our role as a healer, therapist, guide or facilitator. As we have learned, we cannot arrive at this place of leadership alone. We have and do need support. We will have our times of vulnerability as we stand in the constancy of our changes.

Extending our hand to another, we join with that other in a union of contact that embraces our essence. Satir captures this sweet realization in her reminder that we are all born little. The practice of psychotherapy and leadership have much in common; both are art and science, and both require the conscious and strategic use of self to facilitate desired positive outcomes. Lao Tsu’s counsel to those of us who want to change culture reads:

If the sage would guide the people, he must serve with humility

If he would lead them, he must follow behind.

In this way when the sage rules, the people will not feel oppressed;

When he stands before them, they will not be harmed.

The whole world will support him and will not tire of him.

(Chapter 66)


He who stands on tiptoe is. not steady.

He who strides cannot maintain the pace.

He who makes a show is not enlightened.

He who is self-righteous is not respected.

He who boasts achieves nothing.

He who brags will not endure.

According to followers of the Tao, "These are extra food”

and unnecessary luggage."

They do not bring happiness.

Therefore followers of the Tao avoid them.
(Chapter 24)

Satir adds:

I consider the first step in any change is to contact the spirit. Then together we can clear the way to release the energy for going toward health. This is spirituality in action. (Satir, 1988, p. 34 1)

Congruence and the power of connection is nature’s way, much as Lao Tsu talked about in the Tao:

Man follows the earth.
Earth follow heaven.
Heaven Follows the Tao.
Tao follows what is natural.
(Chapter 25)

Furthermore as Satir says:

A plant wants to get its head out and then it wants to flower. (Kramer, 1995, p. 10)

And in closing Lao Tsu offers:

What is firmly established cannot be uprooted.
What is firmly grasped cannot slip away.
It will be honored from generation to generation.

(Chapter 54)


Baldwin, M., & Satir, V., (1987). The use of self in therapy. New York, NY: The Haworth Press, Inc.

Feng, G., & English, J. (1972). A translation of Lao Tsu’s Tao te ching. New York: Vintage Books.

The Holy Bible, references, concordance, simplified pronouncing edition. (I 949). Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company.

Kramer, S. (1 995). Transforming the inner and outer family. New York, NY: The Haworth Press, Inc.

Loeschen, S. (1991). The secrets of Satir. Palms Springs, CA: Event Horizon Press.

Nerin, W., (I 993). You can’t grow up till you go back home. Gig Harbor, WA:

Magic Mountain Publishing Co.

Satir, V. (1976) Making contact. Millbrae, CA: Celestial Arts.

Satir, V. (I 978). Your many faces. Millbrae, CA: Celestial Arts.

Satir, V. (1985). Speaker. (Avanta Module I Process Community IV). Crested Butte, CO. Available from: Jean McLendon, 2013 S. Lakeshore Drive, Chapel Hill, NC, 27514.

Satir, V. (I 988). The new peoplemaking. Mountain View, CA: Science and Behavior.

Satir, V., Banmen, J., Gerber, J., & Gomori, M. (I 99 1).

The Satir model. Mountain View, CA: Science and Behavior.

Weinberg, G. (1994). Quality software management: vol. 3, congruent action.

New York, NY: Dorset House Publishing.

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