LO2.3: SESSION 3 - A bit of theory: The 5 Axioms by Watzlawick

LO2.3: SESSION 3 - A bit of theory: The 5 Axioms by Watzlawick
Introduction into the issue
Presentation and discussion of the 5 Communication-Axioms by Paul Watzlawick
To know the Axioms of To understand the cultural aspects
communication by Watzlawick.
of communication among human
To know and understand the
different communication forms To recognize the difficulties and
which we have.
communication .
To increase consciousness on
different types of communication
and of the communication you are
To communicate in a conscious
and adequate way, by listening
and transmitting clearness in all
your messages.
To increase the youngsters’
awareness and sensitiveness on
their communication.
To implement
axioms in your communication .
Tools and Methodology
Introduction into the issue with the 3 cartoons by Ruzzier -Working Paper 1. Source: LINUS, Nr.
330, September 1992)
Presentation (power point or print material): The 5 Axioms of Communication by P. Watzlawick
- Working Paper 2
Explanations, examples, discussion.
Disturbs: Self-centered, paradox, asymmetrical communication
Translation cartoon
“Mum. Fuck ....”
Paf (he gets a slap)
“No, wait Mum”
“I wanted to know ....
Paf (he gets a slap)
“I could not ask her,
but I am convinced that
“Fuck” must be a
Translation cartoon
“This evening when I go home
my father will hit me.”
“And I will say to him: No, dad”.
“This evening not”.
“Please don’t hit me this
“But he will hit me”.
“Like yesterday, like the day
before yesterday”
“Like every evening”.
“What a boredom!”
Translation cartoon
“What a kind nice boy!”
“Whome you like
“Mum or dad ?”
“Well ?! Answer !!!”
WORKING PAPER Nº 2 - The Five Communication Axioms by Paul Watzlawick
(cannot not)
(content & relationship)
(digital & analogical)
(symmetric or complementary)
Quite a lot of communication is carried on below the level of consciousness. You don't have to think about this
sort of communication, it just happens automatically. This certainly saves some effort, but it does not always
have the effect you might have chosen, if you had had the opportunity to consult yourself about the matter!
Even when you think you are not sending any messages, that absence of messages is quite evident to any
observer, and can itself constitute quite a significant message. Not only that, but we usually transmit quite a
few non-verbal messages unconsciously, even when we think we are not sending any messages at all.
This means that, unless you are a hermit, you cannot really avoid communicating. You can, of course, very
easily get your communication scrambled – often in both directions – but that is not much consolation. In
other words, you cannot not communicate… but you can not communicate accurately!
The "cannot not" part of that last sentence is in fact the first and best known of Paul Watzlawick's five axioms
of communication.[1] Despite their age, and the changes that have occurred in the usage of some of the terms
employed, each one has something helpful to offer. I will therefore list these axioms, and comment very
briefly on each.
Axiom 1 (cannot not)
"One cannot not communicate" Because every behaviour is a kind of communication, people who are aware
of each other are constantly communicating. Any perceivable behaviour, including the absence of action, has
the potential to be interpreted by other people as having some meaning.
Axiom 2 (content & relationship)
"Every communication has a content and relationship aspect such that the latter classifies the former and
is therefore a meta-communication." Each person responds to the content of communication in the context
of the relationship between the communicators.[2] The word meta-communication is used in various ways
(and therefore not at all, by me) but Watzlawick uses it to mean the exchange of information about how to
interpret other information.
Just as the interpretation of the words "What an idiot you are" could be influenced by the following words
"Just kidding", it could also be influenced by the relationship between the communicators. In the example
given, the word "idiot" might be accepted quite happily from a close friend, but convey an entirely different
meaning in other circumstances.
Example: “Good children are going to sleep now”
Axiom 3 (punctuation)
"The nature of a relationship is dependent on the punctuation of the partners' communication
procedures." In many cases, communication involves a veritable maelstrom of messages flying in all
directions. This applies especially to the non-verbal messages. The "punctuation" referred to is the process of
organising groups of messages into meanings. This is analogous to the punctuation of written language. In
either case, the punctuation can sometimes alter the meaning considerably.
For example, consider the occurrence of an angry response after an interruption, the latter having followed a
suggested course of action. This might be interpreted as anger at the suggested course of action, if the
interruption was "punctuated out" of the sequence, so that the suggestion and the anger were effectively
grouped together as a tight sequence. However, if the receiver punctuated the information so that the
interruption and the anger formed a tight sequence, it might be interpreted as anger at the interruption.
She : “ my husband is closed into himself and passive. For this I don’t say anyhing, or I grumble”
He : “ my wife is always grumbling. For this I keep closed into myself and passive“
Axiom 4 (digital & analogic)
"Human communication involves both digital and analogic modalities." This one needs a bit of translating!
The term "digital", which today usually refers either to numbers, computers or fingers, is used in this axiom
to refer to discrete, defined elements of communication. These are usually words, but very specific gestures
with generally agreed meanings would also qualify.
The term "analogic" also needs some translation. It is a variant of analogical, the adjective derived from
analogy. It therefore refers to a correspondence, in certain respects, between things which are otherwise
different. In this case, it describes a type of communication in which the representation to some extent
evokes the thing to which it refers. For example, shaking a fist in front of a person's face would evoke the
idea of violence.
What else needs translating? Oh yes, "modalities". As mentioned in Appendix 1, the word "modality" is used
in very many different ways. In this case, I think Watzlawick is using modalities in the sense of types or sorts
of information transfer.
• Dad to his elder son, "you are my most loved!". Meanwhile, caresses and smiles at his younger son.
• The Bureau Chief to the employee "don't worry, I will give you the instructions that you need in ten
minutes". Meanwhile, phones, searches for his car keys, looks out of the window
Axiom 5 (symmetric or complementary)
"Inter-human communication procedures are either symmetric or complementary, depending on whether
the relationship of the partners is based on differences or parity." A "symmetric" relationship here means
one in which the parties involved behave as equals from a power perspective. The chance of airing all the
relevant issues should be greater, but it certainly does not guarantee that the communication will be optimal.
The parties could simply be equally submissive, or equally domineering. However, communication between
equals often does work well.
A "complementary" relationship here means one of unequal power, such as parent-child, boss-employee or
leader-follower. This is much more efficient in some situations. For example, the unequal (complementary)
relationship between soldiers and their officers means that soldiers are very likely to obey a surprising order,
such as "Get out of the truck and jump in the river!" without delay – rather than debating it, perhaps with
great interest, but quite possibly at fatal length.
"Go to take that folder"- " Go yourself !"
"Go to take that folder"- "Yes, immediately.”
[1] Watzlawick, P., Beavin-Bavelas, J., Jackson, D. 1967. Some Tentative Axioms of Communication. In
Pragmatics of Human Communication - A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies and Paradoxes. W. W.
Norton, New York.
[2] The content is sometimes called the denotative level of communication, and the relational meaning is
sometimes called the connotative or interpretive level of communication.
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