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Interview with John Banmen

Mathew Ho

Editor’s Note: These are edited extracts of a one-hour interview with John Banmen in Hong Kong by the HKMFTA. It took place in the early evening of 8th September 2019. John was tired, probably hungry and near the end of his long China training tour with the last stop in Hong Kong; and having just completed yet another whole day of teaching / demonstration.  The HKMFTA Board expresses appreciation and gratitude to John Banmen, Marie Lam and Caesar Chan for making this interview happen and for their dedication and endeavor in the promotion of family therapy and human growth in Hong Kong and Greater China. The section titles are added to organize the interview contents and some contents are liberally edited for readibility. Any errors and misperceptions resulting from the editorial changes are the errors of the editor. – Mathew Ho.

An induction into the Satir Model: A personal account

I started off as a psychologist. I graduated with my doctorate in psychology. I came from a very individualistic Rogerian psychology program to the family therapy program. In January 1971, I met Virginia Satir. I was just blown out of the water. It was so powerful and so unusual to see the dynamics of a system. As a result, I now look at any individual in a family system, either in the present family system or historical family system like the family-of-origin kind of thing. So when I talk about family therapy, it is systems thinking with the dynamic aspect of it.  And the family therapy that I'm mostly interested in, is, of course, Virginia Satir. Coming from psychology, I had a very hard time leaving out the intrapsychic kind of stuff that I've been taught. Looking at other family therapies, I found that they wanted me to move to the interactive system almost totally. And I said, I can't do that. I will stay with the psychology part of the Satir model and systems theory as a model. I will try to merge these two to see how they are in harmony. And that's my background; intrapsychic and interactive in an integrated way.

The Evolution of the Satir Model: One Perspective


Back then, the academic world did not want to look at different levels of operation. There is the information level; and there is the cognitive behavioral level. Then Satir said: Okay, well, I want to add the process level. And she did that longer than anyone else. So Satir very often talked about the process model. There was a whole idea of energy which she wanted to include. Philosophically, we look at the Chinese and they've been talking about energy, or chi, for 2000 years.  When we go to the West, we have a lot of an energy from a guy called Albert Einstein, who also talked about energy. So now we're in the middle. We take Einstein's theory that everything is energy and we take the Chinese Chi energy and slip it together. Our system is going to be more energetic. This is part of the historic growth.


Then the next factor that came along is what Satir said in her book titled The New Peoplemaking. She said that we are spiritual beings in a human body. So now, is this part of therapy? Or is it outside of therapy and into the realm of religion? Where does spirituality fit in? I think a lot of people are saying that family system has to go into a spiritual realm, whatever that spiritual realm is. There is a deeper level of existence, or of being, than just the emotional, the physical and the mental processes.

Then we looked at a perception component that has a lot of depth to it; where it’s called beliefs and values. How can we have that instead of just a cognitive part? How can we have the belief system that we sometimes get controlled by the subconscious level? How can we perceive? How can we value? What is meaning to it? How can you find the meaning to life at the emotional, mental and spiritual levels.

In the 1960's, Satir talked about a communication model, and then congruent communication. She moved from the communication system to a more positive direction and away from pathology. We weren't just dealing with sickness, we're also dealing with the mental health. Satir thought that we need to fix things, and that we need to grow. Satir said that we need to incorporate the whole life experience in a way that works round the system and the family.

The Evolution of the Satir Model: Another Perspective

From her early Mental Research Institute days (of communications), she went on to the Easalen Institute, the other extreme; from communications to the touchy feely. (She) said, I got to work on Change. So the next phase became very much a Change phase. Then she said, in order to bring change at the human level, we've got to do some transformation. In order to do some transformation (transformative systemic change), we work on energy.

I didn't develop any of this. (People say that) you're doing second generation Satir model.  I didn't do anything. I just clarified. (After Satir’s death in 1988) I spent time in India. When I came back, I was listening to Satir's tapes. I then phoned Linda Lucas, and I said, wow, I have probably seen her tapes two, three, four or five times. But I've never seen this before. (Linda asked), what did you see? And I said, there's a level of transformation that I have never seen before. That's right there. So I'm not developing it. I'm just capturing it; what I didn't see before. If you walk higher up the mountain, you can see more. Its still the same territory. But I can see things more now than ever seen before. And I try to express it. I definitely give her the credit. Its like me looking at my own X-ray, I see nothing. Yet my doctor will see this and that. I'm working on what was there. She was there. I just don't want it to be a split, or a second edition (of the Satir model).

Areas that Excite John

Now if you look at all the stuff that's been added in science, language and neuroscience. Oh, my goodness, for example, epigenetics. We are moving from DNA (behaviorism, or determinism, or lack of free will) to epigenetics, where we can create, or change the impact of our DNA. That's scientific, right? So now I'm saying, the Satir model can be working at the epigenetic level of existence, or energy. We don't have to have Determinism, as Freud would say. We can move beyond it. Before I retire, you will hear about it.

(On the possibility of revising John’s article (Banmen, J. & Maki-Banmen K. (2014). What has become of Virginia Satir’s therapy model since she left us in 1988. Journal of Family Psychotherapy. 25:2)), I'm not ready for that, but I'm working on some plans. I'm interested in how we create our own reality. I can generate it. For example, if you ask me, can you create a space, an experience, of gratitude? I say, yes, I can do that. I say that, energetically, when you fill yourself with gratitude, your energy changes. So I want to look at how we can create our own happiness, so that it doesn't become an external process. It's sort of like the creation of reality from mind. You're looking at life. And I'm looking at life. And we're seeing the same? Why would you see anything differently from I. There has to be some overlap. Interestingly, what I find is that, the deeper we go, the more we are common.

Supervision and Therapy

The only clients whom I see are people whom I've seen a long time ago, and they want a little bit of adjustment or repair, normalcy or transition. But I'm practicing a lot in my training of professionals, I demonstrate to them what I'm doing instead of showing them the vision. My university colleagues say that I am such a high-risk taker. What if it doesn't work? Why don't you just show a video. I say no, no . I ask (the professionals), who's your client? What do you want to work on? I'll do it right here (and now). So I get lots of practice when I do supervision. My supervisees are pretty senior people.

I'm involved with both the AAMFT (American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy) and IFTA (International Family Therapy Association). I help people become AAMFT approved supervisors. The Satir model did not come with supervision philosophy or model. We say that there are four elements in supervision. What is different in this model from other supervision models is the 3rd element of therapeutic process. This is not a supervision component in other models. I'm just writing a manual on this, by the way.

(An example). You're the counselor (point to Mathew). I'm your supervisor (point to John). Now, you come to see me, and you have trouble with her (point to Marie as client), and I find out that you are stuck, you are blocked about something. Okay, let's deal with it. Your (therapist's) mother died, and you haven't grieved, she (client) comes with her father’s death, and you can't deal with it. In my supervision model, I can help you deal with your mother in relationship to that client, as a therapeutic relationship.

We have extended supervision from the usual supervision books. We have extended supervision to include the therapeutic intervention of the supervisee in relation to the supervisor. And I think it has worked really well. We can say that it's to do with the use of self. If you are stuck because of your (therapist’s) mother and her (client’s) father, then it's your use of self that gets in the way.


We really need to revisit congruence. Because when you ask, what is congruence? ... Congruent with what? Are you congruent with your thoughts? Are you congruent with your feelings? Congruent with behavior? And are you congruent with your expectation? You could say yes, I'm congruent. So I hate you, I want to kill you? Or I think you're no good. All that can be construed as being congruent.

And I say no. That's not congruence. Congruence is when you are in tune with your life energy. When you are manifesting your life energy. Not just being in tune with your feelings. That's good start. But it's not congruence. So I find that we have to go back and say that congruence is a much deeper concept. In the Satir model, I think, if you wanted to be new fashioned, congruency is love. When you are manifesting love from the spiritual sense, you're manifesting your whole life energy, then you are congruent.

How would you describe the way that you do therapy or supervision right now?
People will probably come with so called problems. I will look and listen to the problem as a symptom. The symptom manifests itself at a deeper level of something else not in-tune (or not congruent, but I wouldn't want to use the word congruent. If used, it is used in my meaning of what congruent is). I'm working to look at what you're doing consciously and subconsciously that gets you out of tune. Can we work on that part?

I'll use a physical example. I have so called diabetes right now. My physician says, oh, my goodness, you have diabetes, your blood pressure is this and your blood sugar level is that, and we got these prescription drugs. To me, that is working with a symptom, diabetes from a physician point of view. So I read about diabetes and the literature says that diabetes is reversible. Then what do I have to do?  Take more drugs? No. I've got to look deeper down; what is going on in my system that brings us to the borderline. So that's what I do in counseling. They come along, and they say depression, and that depression is a solution. or even suicide is a solution. But I don't say that. I don’t tell them right off the bat that it's a dysfunctional solution. I'm interested in looking down; deep down about what is happening in their system that brings about the symptom of depression.

I don’t think that the problem is the problem. The problem is not the problem. It’s just a symptom. So now if I go into the deeper part of energy, or spirituality. Then I can find some way to bring about some transformation.

I will use the five elements (experiential, intrapsychic and interactive systems, positively directional, changed focused and use of self of the therapist). I want you to be consciously aware of your experience. I want you to experience what you're telling. And then we want to look at how you can change. So now, going back to what I said before, I want to create your own reality. I might be the flashlight. You will be the source. Or as Satir said, I'm going to help you light your candle. You're not gonna depend on my candle forever.


(Interviewer: In psychotherapy, you don't focus on certain aspects; emotions, behavior, thoughts, body. It just arises from the conversation?  What happens?)
I could do. And I can say the opposite. I might focus on all of them. I was just thinking of Satir and what she would say. She said, you can borrow or steal from anybody. See, when you look at Gestalt (with the credit of the empty chair technique), Satir used empty chairs all along. Virginia Satir hired Fritz Perls when she was his boss in Esalen. Fritz Perl wrote it all down. She never wrote it down. She never got the credit for it. She wasn't very rigid about boundaries, she took a perspective. Integration would be a word of which she would be very supportive. Even to the point of where you can go (in psychotherapy), you can borrow and steal in terms of that.

But she also said that you need a home. You can go out to visit and come back. Borrow and steal when you come back. But you have a home and you create from home. I would say well, it doesn't matter. It fits my system. And therefore it's incorporated into whatever works.

Integration is at the experiential level, that's more important than the mental level. Mental or intellectual or conceptual aspects of integration might be very popular. But I think that integration is at a deeper level, the level of "being". It's not just that I use this or that and I put it all together. I use the example of a difference between a compound and an experience. For example, I can put sand and water together, I get something together. Or I can put hydrogen and oxygen together and I get water, an integration in a molecular change process at the hydrogen oxygen level. Sand and water might get into some kind of harmony at a physical mixture level. The real value is the integration at the H2O level, then it's part of me. That would be the kind of integration that I really want to achieve.

Advice to our clinical members

(Interviewer: John, what sort of advice would you give to HKMFTA members who are junior therapists on how they can relate with their clients in a way which would be productive, which would result in change and which is positive for client and for the therapist?)
I will go back to what the early Greeks said in Athens so many years ago; just simply "Know Thyself". I think that we put too much emphasis on techniques. We don’t put enough into who you are. If I were back at teaching psychologists in the university, I would say, by far, the most important part that you're going to learn from me is who you are. Because that's going to make the difference. Pick your techniques later and use any technique. Be open to techniques. But be open to yourself. That would be that would be my first comment.
I want to revisit the use of self. Its not (just) the use of self. The manifestation of the self is what really counts. I want to move at least one layer below the use of self to say that I manifest at the base level. Satir, and many others say, that we are already whole. So what I want to do is, how can I help you to go to that level of self, and then manifest it. Instead of making a tool and I'm going to use it.

[Thank you, John!]

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