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Communication Problems — and Solutions — in a Nutshell

An introduction to SAVI®— the System for Analyzing Verbal Interaction

By Claudia Byram, Ph.D. and Ian Macnaughton, Ph.D. (This article was first published in the Spring 2013 issue of Insights into Clinical Counselling, the Journal of of the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors)

SAVI®, pronounced “savvy,” is a system for analyzing talk – the verbal interactions between people.

SAVI® emerged in the 1960’s, in an exciting and innovative university climate. The field of group dynamics was still young, the focus on education was growing, and theoreticians like Kurt Lewin and Ludwig von Bertalanffy had put out important new ways of thinking: field theory and general systems theory.

Two graduate students at Temple University, Yvonne Agazarian and Anita Simon, were part of this world of ideas, and sparked around their shared interests. Both wanted to able to describe in specific observable ways how any particular ‘system’ is working, so that this description could be linked to outcome measures. They wanted to be able to link how people behaved to notions like productivity, satisfaction of members, efficiency, cohesion, etc.

The output of this collaboration was SAVI®. SAVI® began life as a research tool based in information theory. It was a way of tracking the potential of groups to process information and solve problems. Its authors thought that if such a system was based in theory, rather than judgments about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behavior, it could be very helpful in researching the actual effects of different communication behaviors or patterns and in relating these effects to the goal of the setting.

What the authors did not anticipate was how useful this observation tool would be for clinicians and their clients in recognizing and changing painful, frustrating and unproductive patterns in everyday life.

We, the authors of this article, both stumbled across SAVI® several years ago, and have been intrigued with it ever since. Claudia was a graduate student in 1975, and became so curious about SAVI® that she apprenticed herself to its authors as a ‘go-fer’ in research, and has never looked back. She uses SAVI® in her clinical and consultation practice and is a senior SAVI® trainer.

Ian says SAVI® has become an effective tool in his personal relationships as well as in his counseling and coaching practice. It is easier to notice the patterns of language that actually impede the flow of helpful, connected communication. Clients like it as using SAVI® makes it is easy to identify patterns in themselves and to know what to ask or say differently to gain the results they want.

Ian remembers a conversation with a friend: We got into an opinion debate around the effectiveness of various counselling methods; it was going nowhere until I asked for examples, his experience, and information on the research that had shaped his opinion. He quickly moved to giving me factual information, I lost the desire to “debate and prove” and became curious, we connected around the topic very differently and we both learned something helpful.

A Bit about SAVI®

SAVI® categorizes the way we talk, distinguishing, for example, Opinions from Questions from Sarcasm from Facts from Feeling statements, etc. It organizes these categories into a 3 by 3 grid, with three rows according to their potential to transfer information: Red row behaviors introduce noise (for example, Attacks, Complaints, Gossip, Discounts), Yellow row behaviors are neutral (e.g., Facts, fact Questions, Proposals) and Green row behaviors give evidence that the speaker heard what others said (e.g., Paraphrasing, Answering questions, Building).

When communication is organized this way, SAVI® allows us to make informed judgments about the effects we can expect different kinds of communications to have. It also provides practical guidelines for intervening in unproductive conversations. As counselors, talk is our major tool and it is useful to have an objective way of understanding it.

Here are two examples. These people are talking about different things, but have the same communication problem – the same SAVI® pattern! See if you can spot it.

A. Let’s get down to business here on our budget. Income this side, expenses the other.

B. Ok, but don’t you think we need to look at goals first? That’s what the budget is for after all.

A. Sure, goals matter, but if we don’t know what we have coming in and going out now, we won’t know where we are starting…

B. I know our income and outgo matters, but if we start there….

Here’s another one…

A. You did say you would do the dishes.

B. I know, but I just don’t have time to do it now.

A. Ok, but when will you? I don’t want to stand around looking at dirty dishes.

B. I know you want me to, but I have other priorities right now. I’ll get to it.

A. Of course, but…

Familiar? If you ask these people what the problem is, they might say the other person is stubborn, or that the problem is the budget, or that “she never listens to me”. An observer might say competing agendas are the problem, or that no one is listening.

So what does SAVI® say? SAVI® sees the difficulty as coming not from motivation or agenda or personality (though our ideas about that may be correct), but from the “noise” the speakers are inadvertently putting into the challenge to communicate with each other.

The particular kind of noise deadlocking these conversations is called “Yes-But”, a Red row behavior. Yes-But statements carry a token agreement, the “yes…”, followed by a difference, the “but…”. As listeners we naturally orient to the “but…” so the differences come front and center and any possible similarities are lost. Stress goes up, frustration rises and trouble is on the horizon.

Content can be conveyed using many different kinds of behavior — the same information can be expressed in the form of a question, a proposal, a joke, a put-down, and so forth. What the listener hears, and how effectively the information will be used, depends on the behavior used. We all know this intuitively; SAVI® organizes what we know so that we can track and teach it. Using SAVI®, we can understand why the message received by a listener is quite different from the message that the speaker meant to send, and see what to do to get the conversation back on track.

  • SAVI® provides a way of thinking about and describing communication that enables us to: Understand and explain what’s happening in any given conversation.
  • Predict what is likely to happen next.
  • Try to change the course of those events, if you wish.

The SAVI® Paradigm

Thus the SAVI® approach to the challenge of understanding communication is different from the way many of us are used to thinking about what we say and what others say to us. Some of its characteristics are:

  • A focus on behavior. SAVI® is not concerned with a person’s level of maturity, intentions, psychological diagnosis, character or personality. It focuses squarely on behaviors and their contribution to the communication process — information that is available to any observer.
  • Attention to both words and tone. SAVI® examines not only what was said but how it was said. Voice tone (the “music” of the communication) is as important as the words we speak, and SAVI® always takes this factor into account.
  • A nonjudgmental approach. In SAVI® terms, there are no good behaviors or bad behaviors. If you’re thinking SAVI®, you’re in the position of a researcher or detective – you are collecting data about the effects of what was just said, without judging or personalizing it.
  • A pragmatic analysis. SAVI® categorizes communication behaviors in very practical terms, examining whether they tend to facilitate or hinder information transfer. The behavior you use profoundly influences what your listener hears, how likely they are to take in that information, and what feelings they’re likely to have about what you’re saying. In studying SAVI®, you learn why (and when) certain behaviors work better than others for getting your message across.

The SAVI® model has assisted therapists, coaches, organizational consultants and clients to achieve more satisfying and productive conversations. It is easy to share with clients and can be used right away, reinforcing confidence and promoting hope that disagreements can be navigated and more effective relationships can occur whatever the goal of the conversation.

Learning the model ups awareness of communication behavior as it is happening, provides new strategies to move communication toward the desired goal and allows for simple, structured practice.

The web site outlines the basics of the model and is worth taking a look at.

SAVI® is a registered trademark of Yvonne Agazarian and Anita Simon


Claudia Byram, Ph.D., has brought SAVI® into educational and organizational settings and to the annual conference of the American Group Psychotherapy Association. She is also a founding member of the Systems-Centered® Training and Research Institute.

Ian Macnaughton, Ph.D., R.C.C., uses SAVI® both in his psychotherapy practice and in his work with Family Businesses. He has extensive experience as a Family Systems Consultant and Coach and has been both a clinical supervisor and an instructor.

Ian Macnaughton Recognized for Outstanding Achievement

Communication Problems -- and Solutions -- in a Nutshell