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“If the solution is the problem.” – The pope of communication, Paul Watzlawick.

| Stiehl/Over

Paradoxes are the building blocks of his popularity, for example: “In choosing one’s parents, one cannot be careful enough.” But the small stories in his masterpiece, “The Situation is Hopeless, But Not Serious: The Pursuit of Unhappiness“, are something else, as well: “A man claps his hands every ten seconds. Asked about the reason for this strange behaviour, he explains: ‘in order to scare away the elephants.’ When told there are no elephants present, the man responds: ‘well, there you go. See?’”

For the communication scientist Paul Watzlawick, reality is merely what we make of it. Whether a glass is half full or half empty depends exclusively on the beholder. Everyone constructs his or her own reality. And Watzlawick is an avowed constructivist.

GlasA glass, either half full or half empty.

His theories become particularly interesting in the context of communication between people – whether in a relationship, at work or between neighbours:

“A man wants to hang a painting. He has nails, but no hammer. His neighbour does have one. Therefore, the man decides to go to him to borrow it. However, at that moment he begins to have doubts. Imagine that the neighbour does not want to lend me his hammer? Yesterday when he greeted me he also was a bit short. Maybe he was in a hurry. Or maybe he just pretended and he really has something against me. What then? I’ve never done anything to him; who does he think he is. If somebody would want to borrow my tools, I would lend them to him right away. Why wouldn’t he? People like that guy make your life miserable. And I’m sure he imagines that I am dependent on him, just because he has a hammer. That does it! The man storms over to the neighbours door, rings the doorbell, but even before he has had a chance of saying “Good morning”, the man yells at him, ‘You can keep your hammer, you jerk!’”

“The story of the hammer” also stems from Watzlawick’s bestselling “Pursuit of Unhappiness”, which he actually only wrote as an alternative draft to the many “How to…”-self-help tomes being sold in the US: “How to become happier…” “How to faster achieve one’s goals … ”, “How to better educate one’s children…”, etc. – The book is just being made into a film by director Sherry Horman, starring, amongst others, Johanna Wokalek, Iris Berben and David Kross, and will hit theatres in October.

Watzlawick was Austrian, born 87 years ago in Villach (Kärnten) and died 5 years ago in Palo Alto (California), where he lived and worked since 1960.

He arrived at psychology courtesy of Carl Gustav Jung. And at C.G. Jung, by accident. The newly minted Dr. phil Watzlawick, PhD, went for a walk in Zurich. Suddenly, it began to rain, and he took refuge in a café. There, by chance he read a newspaper article about the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich and decided to train there as an analyst, successfully graduating in 1954.

This attitude of taking his destiny into his own hands and following his own intuition, of making his own luck, informed his entire career. Always realizing that man can just as well be the maker of his own unhappiness (cf. “The story of the hammer.”)

Watzlawick became famous especially for his communication theories, which today are the basis for many psychologists, communications consultants, coaches and staff trainers: the five axioms of communication.

You cannot not communicate.

Almost everyone has heard that before. Meaning: we communicate even when we are not saying anything. By facial expressions and gestures, that is, non-verbally.

Every incident of communication has a content aspect and a relationship aspect, with the latter determining the former.

The second axiom is harder already and sounds logical somehow. True: psycho-logic. Topic level and relationship level. Iceberg model. Also already previously heard. 20% topic level and 80% relationship level. The latter not visible, because under the water surface, but the more dangerous, because crucial in human communication. There, many discussions were headed for a collision and relationships have sunk. Private as well as professional ones. The very demand to remain factual is already suspicious because in truth, it is then the relationship level that matters.

Then it gets complicated:

The nature of a relationship is contingent upon the punctuation of the communication processes on the part of the partners.

Third axiom.

Can be best explained by means of an example: the woman nags. The man withdraws. The man withdraws because the woman nags. The woman nags because the man withdraws. The man withdraws because the woman nags… etc.

Punctuation means that each of the parties structure a conversation flow from their point of view and differ in their “punctuation” (i.e. beginning and end, but also cause and effect). Human communication is circular. Therefore, during conflicts one so often has the feeling to be going round in circles. A vicious circle, which one can only break through on one’s own, in changing one’s perspective. As long as one is expecting this of the other, nothing will change.

If the man approaches the woman, she ceases to nag. If the woman stops nagging, the man approaches her.

Fourth axiom:

Human communication uses digital and analogue modalities.

Attention: When Watzlawick realized this, there were still no computers and no internet. By digital and analogue, thus, he was not referring to technologies or media here, but verbal (= digital) and non-verbal (= analogue) communication.

Verbally, we give syntax (grammar), but not yet meaning (semantics) to our communication. This happens only non-verbally. Example: Tears can express both pain and pleasure; a smile can be sympathetic or contemptuous. It is only non-verbal communication, that is, facial expressions and gestures, that infuses tears and smiles with a meaning. As freely adapted from Friedrich Nietzsche: “One may well lie with the mouth; but the accompanying grimace, one will still be telling the truth.”


Communication is symmetric or complementary.

Fifth axiom. Sounds worse than it is. And refers to nothing more than to “opposites attract” (complementary) or “birds of a feather flock together” (symmetrical).

As a psychologist – he developed his five axioms as a systemic family therapist – Watzlawick knew that there is always both a superior and a vanquished one in complementary communication, while symmetrical communication takes place “at eye level”.

In this, it’s not about stronger and weaker, better or worse in complementary communication – both parties, the superior one as well the underdog, are interdependent and mutually complementary. The co-dependent needs the addict – and vice versa. Although, from an outsider’s point of view, there seems to be an imbalance in the complementary relationship, this system of dependency only “works” by means of reciprocity. If one gives up their role, the other can no longer play theirs. (See also “third axiom”!)

But there are also risks inherent in symmetrical communication if one wants to stand out from the other (equivalent) partner. Two egomaniacs at eye level – and the tragedy takes its course.

Most relationships, whether private or professional, are complementary. One wonders how the man can stand being with the woman who constantly patronizes him. Or the female colleague with the male colleague who lets her do all the work for him, to then take all the credit himself. Watzlawick would respond: that is why! Both are interdependent and mutually complementary. (Fifth axiom.)

Paul Watzlawick was himself living proof of his five axioms. Had he not been the charming, eloquent and stylish gentleman that he was – his theories would have only met with half as many (or half as few?) listeners and supporters. It is a pleasure to listen to him: his impish smile when he tells a story or a joke once more to explain his theory by means of an example.

The most important idea, in addition to the five axioms, is probably that we tend to produce (ready-made) solutions, which can end up becoming a problem. Take a depressed person (… as Watzlawick would begin his example): for him, everything is grey in grey and his whole life a mere burden. And what do we do? We try to cheer him up. Look, the world is colourful and life can be so beautiful. What happens? The depressed person falls into an even deeper depression because he feels now as though he is doing everything wrong. The (alleged) solution has become the problem.

The fact that man best solves a seemingly complicated problem by letting go of prefabricated (supposed) solutions is demonstrated by the classic 9 points problem – and its solution. Paul Watzlawicks’s most popular example when it came to showing that we must often first change the framework to reach a solution, because the solution is often beyond our scope.

Connect the 9 points with a pen by four straight lines without putting down the pen! Nobody has figured it out all by themselves yet, but if you know how, it’s quite easy: the solution.

In other (Watzlawick’s) words: “The situation is hopeless, but not serious.”