Paul Watzlawick (1921-2007) was an Austrian psychologist, philosopher and theorist who became a U.S. citizen, in addition to being the author of the well-known theory of human communication. He establishes five axioms that govern language in interactions.

In this article we will see a brief biography of Paul Watzlawick ; we will know briefly his academic and professional career, his thought, his theoretical orientation and his work.

Short biography of Paul Watzlawick

Paul Watzlawick was a psychologist, philosopher and theorist who was born in Villach (Austria) in 1921 . He studied philosophy and modern languages at the University of Venice and did an internship in psychotherapy at the Carl Jung-Institut in Zurich, Switzerland. He is a doctor honoris causa from the Universities of Liège, Bordeaux and Buenos Aires.

Career path

Paul Watzlawick made important contributions to the field of psychology with his theory of human communication and with radical constructivism. In addition, he was a reference author in the field of family therapy, systemic therapy and psychotherapy in general.

Paul Watzlawick worked as a professor between 1957 and 1960 at the University of San Salvador, and later entered the Mental Reserach Institute in Palo Alto (California). He remained there until the end of his academic career, also working as a professor at Stanford University.

He worked near Jackson and Bateson. In fact, in 1969 he published together with Jackson and Beavin Human communication , a document where they laid the foundations of systemic constructivism, where they dealt with issues such as communication and the perception of reality.

Died in Palo Alto (California) on 31 March 2007.


The books by Paul Watzlawick that were translated into the Spanish language were

  • Human Communication Theory (with Janet Beavin and Don Jackson), 1981
  • Change (with John Weakland and Richard Fisch), 1976
  • Is reality real? Confusion, misinformation, communication, 1979
  • The Language of Change , 1980
  • Invented reality. How do we know what we want to know? (comp.), 1988
  • The construction of the universe. Introductory concepts and reflections on epistemology, constructivism and systemic thinking (with Marcelo R. Ceberio), 1998.


Paul Watzlawick’s thought is located within the current of systemic constructivism , and defends an analytical orientation, centered on the psychological processes of communication.

On the other hand, this author establishes the five basic axioms of the process of human interaction in his work Pragmatics of Human Communication , published with Janet Beavin Bavelas and Donald D. Jackson.

Types of communication

Paul Watzlawick distinguishes two concepts in his second axiom: analogical communication and digital communication .

Analogical communication refers to everything “non-verbal” (gestures, use of spaces, intonation…) while digital communication covers verbal language, and has a more abstract character.

Human Communication Theory

With regard to analogical communication, Paul Watzlawick alludes to the similarity between what is to be transmitted and the mode of communication. This is part of the human essence and of human relations.

Thus, communication between people of two different languages, even when they do not understand each other, allows a high degree of gestural and expressive understanding . There would exist, then, a communication context that would give meaning to human interactions. Such a context would include cultural values such as personal manners, shared sensitivity, etc.

In addition, Paul Watzlawick distinguishes in human communication the content of the message (what one wants to communicate) and the context of the communication (the environmental circumstances that occur in the interaction). The context involves the message and acquires the character of metacommunication (that communication that talks about the communication itself).

The 5 Axioms of Paul Watzlawick

From his theory of human communication, Paul Watzlawick establishes several axioms that govern language from a constructivist-systemic perspective :

1. Impossibility of not communicating

Paul Watzlawick’s first axiom says that “it is impossible not to communicate”. He considers that no one can stop behaving , and that any behaviour in itself involves an act of communication.

2. Existence of content and relations in communication

There are two “levels” in any communicative act: the content and the relations of the communication. Thus, the relationship or relationships influence the content that is transmitted . The content provides what is said and the relationship, the way it has to be interpreted.

3. Roles of the partners

According to Paul Watzlawick, in the interlocutors there is always one who has the initiative and another who acts in response to the first and, depending on the role, communication is structured.

4. Digital and analog communication

The interaction between two or more people is influenced by both verbal and non-verbal communication , and both give meaning to the message.

5. Symmetric and complementary interaction

Two types of relationships must be taken into account in communication, which affect the way messages are sent and understood: a symmetrical one, where the parties are in an equal position (for example, two members of the same team), and a complementary one, where there is a union of authority-follower (the boss with respect to the employee).

The concept of reality

During his career, Paul Watzlawick always focuses on analyzing reality in order to understand it . The author distinguishes between first-order realities, described by the objectivity of their physical state, and second-order realities, where the complex subjectivity of the meaning we attribute to these realities intervenes.

In this way, there is no “real reality”, but instead, there are representations of reality that are specific to each person . Here, too, people’s pathological imaginaries intervene, that is, the distorted visions we have of reality.

Thus, health and mental illness are related through “codes” or social and cultural norms, and are not assessments of a single, certain or immutable interpretation.

Bibliographic references:

  • Rizo, M. (2004). Symbolic interactionism and the Palo Alto School. Towards a new concept of communication. INCOM UAB communication portal
  • Bateman, A; Brown, D; Pedder, J. (2005). Introduction to psychotherapy. Manual of psychodynamic theory and techniques. Ebesa, Barcelona.
  • Zoraida, M., Marcela, A., Shirley, M. and Liliana, S. (2016). The human communication axioms in paul watzlawick, janet beavin, don jackson and their relation to Systemic Family Therapy. Luis Amigó University Foundation Journal 3(1), 33-50.