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The five axioms of communication (Watzlawick) – with a few cultural notes

By Peter Muijres – Culture Class (.org)

Communication is an ever present feature of human interaction. The five axioms of communication, formulated by Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues help to describe the processes of communication that take place during interaction and help to explain how a misunderstanding may come about. A few notes are added to tune the axioms better into a transcultural context.

The five axiomas are:

1. One cannot not communicate. The first axiom shows that everything one does is a message: “Activity or inactivity, words or silence all have message value: they influence others and these others, in turn, cannot not respond to these communications and are thus themselves communicating” (Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson, 1967, p. 1). This is true only however if the parties are “in the presence of another” (Watzlawick & Beavin, 1967, p. 4). This can cause problems in the relationship system though. For example, if one doesn’t want to communicate and inadvertently communicates this fact it may anger the other party. The appreciation for people who behave emotionally reserved verses who express their thoughts and feelings freely, may differ considerately between cultures. Insensitivity to these differences or the signals that people send, may hinder or undermine a smooth acculturation process considerately.

2. The second axiom, states that there are both “content and relationship levels of communication” (p. 1). Content refers to the actual subject matter of what is being discussed. The relationship level of a communicative act has to do with how the two communicators view one another and how they convey it. As Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967) put it, “All such relationship statements are about one or several of the following assertions: ‘This is how I see myself…this is how I see you…this is how I see you seeing me…’” and therefore determines “how this communication is to be taken” (pg. 3). Watzlawick and Beavin (1967) describe the relationship level as “information about this [content level] information” (p. 5). Culture and communication training teach you how to prevent leaving an unintended negative impression with people from other cultures and tells you how to read whether you and your communication style are received well.

3. The third axiom is concerned with how participants in the system punctuate their communicative sequences. In a communicative event “every item in the sequence is simultaneously stimulus, response, and reinforcement” (Bateson & Jackson qtd. in Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson, 1967, p. 4). Therefore, one can interpret an act as being a response (‘I don’t trust you, because you don’t share your feelings with me’), while the other can interpret it as being a stimulus (‘I don’t share my feelings with people that don’t trust me’). Different punctuations make people see the sequence of events differently and may lead to endless conflicts that make pointing the finger at each other a pointless exercise. No one participant’s behaviour can be said to cause the other’s.

4. The fourth axiom is that communication can be both digital and analogical. The digital code is what the person says, what the words actually mean, while the analogical code has to do with how something is said or the nonverbal cues that go along with it. This means that someone can convey two opposing messages at once, which may cause problems. It pays off to learn how to identify when people are silently saying yes, even when you hear “no”  (not to confuse with taking a plain ‘no’ for a ‘yes’), and when they really aren’t interested.

5. Finally, the fifth axiom is concerned with the communication being either symmetrical or complimentary. This simply means that either the participants in the system are on equal ground with regards to power relations, or one of them is over the other. Conflict may arise when a party likes the status quo to change.

The strength of the five axioms exists foremost in explaining what happens during a communication process, rather than steering it.

Culture Class provides personal development, culture and communication training – http://www.cultureclass.org

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