Paul Watzlawick

Paul Watzlawick
Born July 25, 1921
Villach, Austria
Died March 31, 2007 (2007-04-01) (aged 85)
Palo Alto, California United States
Main interests
Communication theory and radical constructivism
Notable ideas
"One cannot not communicate"

Paul Watzlawick (July 25, 1921 – March 31, 2007) was an Austrian-American family therapist, psychologist, communications theorist, and philosopher. A theoretician in communication theory and radical constructivism, he commented in the fields of family therapy and general psychotherapy. Watzlawick believed that people create their own suffering in the very act of trying to fix their emotional problems. He was one of the most influential figures at the Mental Research Institute and lived and worked in Palo Alto, California.


After he graduated from high school in 1939 in his hometown of Villach, Austria, Watzlawick studied philosophy and philology at the Università Ca' Foscari Venice and earned a doctor of philosophy degree in 1949. He then studied at the Carl Jung Institute in Zurich, where he received a degree in analytical psychology in 1954. In 1957 he continued his researching career at the University of El Salvador.

In 1960, Don. D. Jackson arranged for him to come to Palo Alto to do research at the Mental Research Institute (MRI). In 1967 and thereafter he taught psychiatry at Stanford University. A cardiac arrest at his home in Palo Alto caused his death at the age of 85.


At the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California Watzlawick followed in the footsteps of Gregory Bateson and the research team (Don D. Jackson, John Weakland, Jay Haley) responsible for introducing what became known as the "double bind" theory of schizophrenia. Double bind can be defined as a person trapped under mutually exclusive expectations. Watzlawick's 1967 work based on Bateson's thinking, Pragmatics of Human Communication (with Don Jackson and Janet Beavin), became a cornerstone work of communication theory. Other scientific contributions include works on radical constructivism and most importantly his theory on communication. He was active in the field of family therapy.

Watzlawick was one of the three founding members of the Brief Therapy Center at MRI. In 1974, members of the Center published a major work on their brief approach, Change, Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution (Watzlawick, Weakland, Fisch).

Interactional view

Watzlawick did extensive research on how communication is effected within families. Watzlawick defines five basic axioms in his theory on communication, popularly known as the "Interactional View". The Interactional View is an interpretive theory drawing from the cybernetic tradition. The five axioms are necessary in order to have a functioning communication process and competence between two individuals or an entire family. When it comes to this theory, miscommunication happens because all of the communicators are not “speaking the same language”. This happens because people have different viewpoints of speaking. Its principles are cybernetic, its causality is of a circular, feedback nature, and, with information being its core element, it is concerned with the processes of communication within systems of the widest sense—and therefore also with human systems, e.g., families, large organizations and even international relations.

The communication within the "Interactional View" is based on what is happening, and not necessarily associated with who, when, where, or why it takes place. "Normal" as well as the "disturbed" family is studied in order to infer conditions conducive to the approach of interaction-orientation. It is believed that individual personality, character, and deviance are shaped by the individual's relations with his fellows. Thus, symptoms, defenses, character structure and personality can be seen as terms describing the individual's typical interactions which occur in response to a particular interpersonal context. The whole is more than the sum of its parts, and it is that whole in which we are interested.

Five basic axioms

The Interactional View requires a network of communication rules that govern a family homeostasis, which is the tacit collusion of family members to maintain the status quo. Even if the status quo is negative it can still be hard to change. Interactional theorists believe that we will fail to recognize this destructive resistance to change unless we understand Watzlawick's axioms. The following axioms can explain how miscommunication can occur if all the communicators are not on the same page. If one of these axioms is somehow disturbed, communication might fail. All of these axioms are derived from the work of Gregory Bateson, much of which is collected in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972).

Watzlawick, Bavelas, and Jackson support these axioms to maintain family homeostatis.

Additional notions

Some interrelated notions that make up the Interactional View promoted by Watzlawick and colleagues at the MRI include:

A term that is used often in the theory of the Interactional View is enabler. An enabler is within addiction culture; a person whose non-assertive behavior allows others to continue in their substance abuse. An example of this would be a person letting their sibling continue to act in an immature manner because that is what the family is used to him doing.

Another word frequently used in the Interactional View is double-bind. Someone in a double-bind, is a person trapped by expectations; the powerful party requests that the low-power party act symmetrically. An example of this would be a person asking another person, "Why didn't you like the movie?" or "You like rock 'n' roll, don't you?" The first person is asking the second person to act in a way that is similar (symmentrical) to them.


The critique of this theory can be centered on one main thing: the application of the theory as a whole. Being able to take these axioms and apply them to relationships between families can be very difficult to master. It can be said that this theory is trapped because it is so hard to apply. Also, the theory itself does not claim and exact applications other than “reframing”. Reframing asks the communicators to step outside of the situation and reinterpret what it means. This can be hard because the theory states that only an outside source can see a problem because people are "speaking their own language".

This theory also shows how a relationship has already changed, but it does not give practical ways to go about changing it. This system resists change and it can be hard to actively use the five axioms. Related to the first axiom, non-verbal communication can be viewed as informative rather than communicative. With the behavioral characteristic of equifinality involved, it is hard to know when the system of the Interactional View is happening or not. Equifinality is the systems theory assumption that a given outcome could have occurred due to any or many interconnected factors rather than being a result in a cause—effect relationship. This theory rests on the word communication, but this word can be interpreted very differently between people. The definitions of communication can be very controversial. Overall, the axioms do a great job of explaining problems, but do not provide solutions to the problems they bring up.

This critique does fail however to acknowledge Watzlawick's influence on the development of Brief Therapy, a hugely important and influential school of psychotherapy which is only too practical and usable in helping people make changes.


Watzlawick wrote 22 books that were translated into 80 languages for academic and general audiences with more than 150 scientific articles and book chapters. Books he has written or on which he has collaborated include:

-Paul Watzlawick and John H. Weakland, ed. & comm. published “The Interactional View: studies at the Mental Research Institute, Palo Alto, 1965-1974." James Charney, a student in the School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry from Yale University stressed that the book was considered to be a measure of progress in the study of family dynamics and suggested the expanding breadth of the field in its clear definition of the significant corner occupied by the communication theorists. Nodding to the works of Don Jackson, the central figure at MRI, Watzlawick and Weakland mention his works on schizophrenia and the “double-bind” hypothesis, as well as several articles describing new approaches to therapy. Charney also stated, “The Interactional View belongs in any collection of family therapy literature.”


Paul Watzlawick theory had great impact on the creation of the four sides model by Friedemann Schulz von Thun and made a great impact on the development of the Interactional View for communication theory. Watzlawick also donated his body to science.

Michel Weber argues for a cross-elucidation and reinforcement between the worldviews of Alfred North Whitehead and Watzlawick in "The Art of Epochal Change," in F. Riffert and Michel Weber (eds.), Searching for New Contrasts. Whiteheadian Contributions to Contemporary Challenges in Neurophysiology, Psychology, Psychotherapy and the Philosophy of Mind (Whitehead Psychology Nexus Studies I), Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang, 2003, pp. 252–281.

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