People working with systems know the interactions between the system and its environment create a tremendous opportunity for success or failure. In computer systems the interfaces between components, utilities, other systems, and the user often contain the most initial defects. Eventually (hopefully) the mis-communications and misunderstandings get resolved.

Human systems such as companies, departments, teams, and even individuals experience the same environment boundary problem as they interact with customers, other departments, other teams and each other. The fact that these interfaces continuously change means problems can always arise.

Since information flow is one defining characteristic of a complex adaptive system, having a tool to help untangle interactions run amok will be immensely useful.

The Satir Interaction Model

A simplified version of the Satir Interaction Model looks like


Willem has a better diagram showing how my response becomes your intake. (Go ahead and read the post. I mention it again.)

Willem also mentions speeding through the Interaction Model results in reactions, not responses. And there may be a natural reason for zipping through the steps: your Myers-Briggs Temperament. Jerry Weinberg mentions in QSM 3: Congruent Action

The NT visionaries and NF Catalysts, both being Intuitive, skip quickly over the Intake step. … NTs tend to go instantly to Meaning, while the NFs tend to jump immediately to Significance. … The SJ Organizers stay in Intake mode too long … The SP Troubleshooters actually use the whole process rather well … (pp 108 & 109.) NTs & NFs should use the Rule of Three since they don’t usually actually perform the intake step.

Words Create Meaning in Other People

And we don’t get to choose what that meaning is, they do. We can say something innocuous (to us) and the other person will assign some meaning, significance, and respond in a way that totally surprises us. Jerry said “snow” at a client’s site, and a woman attacked him. They did resolve the issue (using here-now-us).

Rewinding and going over the conversation, preferably with the other person illuminates what happened, when, and where. This can increase understanding and trust.


When using the Satir Interaction Model for debugging, an expanded version1,2 can be used:

  1. Intake – sensory input, what you see or hear.
  2. Meaning – how you interpret what you see or hear.
  3. Feelings – what feelings you have about the meaning.
  4. Feelings about those Feelings
  5. Defenses – projecting, denial, ignoring
  6. Rules for commenting – often learned as children at home or church
  7. Response – the result (outcome) of all the above

And as Willem notes there needs to be a level of trust and openness before this will work with two people. While not as effective, reflection and discussion with another person may shed light on the interaction.

In Real Time

In spite of all the steps, we go through the entire model in fractions of a second. If you’re engaged in a downward spiraling conversation (and eventually you’ll start to notice this earlier and earlier) you may consider doing the following:

  • Ask yourself “What can I do to change how this interaction is happening?”
  • Slow things down. Breathe deeply and hold it for a few seconds when it’s your turn to speak.
  • Use the rule of three to check your input (especially if you’re intuitive).
  • Check your feelings to see if you’re responding congruently.
  • Admit to the other person you’re confused by the interaction and ask if they’d like to go “meta” and have a discussion about the discussion.

1 The Satir Model: Family Therapy and Beyond, 1991 Science & Behavior Books, Inc. ISBN 8314-0078-1, Chapter 6
2 Becoming A Technical Leader Chapter 10