To communicate is to transmit an information or message through a code known by those who are part of the communicative act , and it is something fundamental in nature since it allows our survival (both in us and in other living beings).

However, as we can see from the existence of multiple languages, we do not all share the same codes, so understanding what others are telling us can be difficult.

Nevertheless, the truth is that even though we have different languages, symbols and ways of expressing ourselves, it is possible to observe a series of similarities in the way our codes work. These similarities have been studied by numerous authors and have served as a basis for the creation of theories of communication and language. One of them, that of Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackson, proposes that there are different axioms of communication .

What and what are these axioms? Let’s look at them throughout this article.

Axioms of Communication: What are they?

We know as axioms of communication the set of principles or laws considered true and universal and that govern the totality of communicative exchanges, regardless of the type or number of interlocutors of the communication.

These were proposed by Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackson in their theory of human communication, in which they analyzed the most pragmatic part of language (the way in which communication can affect human behavior) and visualized the existence of five great principles or axioms that are taken as true and always fulfilled.

Thus, every time we talk to a person, animal or even ourselves we are establishing a dialogue in which a few basic principles will always be met, even if we pretend otherwise. The axioms of communication obey the very structure and form of the language and communicative act, and allow, among other things, to give meaning and to understand human communication qualitatively.

However, it is necessary to keep in mind that even if these principles are given in every communication, their meaning does not have to be always the same. These principles are general, but they do not take into account the important role that culture plays in explaining the meaning of our communicative acts: every culture has its own perspective and way of seeing the world, including the way it expresses itself and the meaning it gives to every aspect of communication.

Important knowledge

The axioms of communication and their knowledge have a great advantage: they can help us to understand how different people or even animals (although Watzlawick’s theory is that of human communication, it could be applicable to other beings) interact and send information to their peers, and begin to work from this understanding on ways to express or send the information or modify maladaptive or even pathological communication patterns.

In this sense, it can allow us to work in areas such as psychology (not only on a theoretical level but also in therapy, as in the case of family or couples therapy), pedagogy, business or even marketing and advertising.

The Five Axioms of Communication

Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackson proposed a total of five axioms of communication, which we can see below.

1. It is impossible not to communicate / all behavior is communicative

The first of the axioms of communication establishes that it is impossible for us not to communicate , regardless of our capacity or will. And the fact is that to communicate is not only to speak or not to speak: every act we do, or even those we do not do, has a meaning that can be perceived or interpreted and alter the behaviour of the receivers.

Even silence is communicative: that a person is silent and does not speak may imply that he does not want to talk to us or say something, that he is uncomfortable with a particular subject or person, that he has not noticed or does not care about our presence or that he is reflecting or resting, for example.

2. The interaction between content and relationship

The second of the axioms states that the transmitted message will be interpreted by the listener or the receiver according to their relationship with the sender . Thus, the relationship between the actors or agents of the communicative exchange will mark how the message content should be understood, so that the content will be able to have different meanings depending on who is saying it. The relationship becomes a metacommunicative element, since it directs the way in which the content is going to be interpreted.

To give an example that is easy to understand, it is not the same as being told “you’re on the street” by a friend (who may be literally telling us where you are) or by our boss (in this case a layoff is taking place).

3. Sequence of events score

The third of the axioms establishes that all types of communicative interaction occur in a bidirectional way : the sender and the receiver affect each other, generating a reaction in each other and generating a certain sequence.

While this occurs in all conversations, a very simple example to see is what happens in discussions, for example, where conflict can escalate as one reacts to the other’s messages.

4. Digital and analog communication

The fourth axiom states that when we communicate we use and take into account both digital and analogical communication, that is, both what is said (usually verbal) and the way it is said (non-verbal). Thus, we must value both words and other aspects such as gestures, tone, distance and position .

In this sense, we can interpret very different things if someone says “you’re early” smiling or if he says it sulking, with his arms in jars and tapping his foot.

5. Symmetry and complementarity in interactions

The last of the proposed axioms is especially relevant in the organizational sphere, and establishes that it is necessary to take into account that there may be relationships of symmetry or complementarity in communicative relationships , depending on whether everyone has the same role or position of power or whether such relationship is unequal.

Thus, there are communicative acts in which one person directs the exchange from a position of superiority (something that makes the exchange more restricted especially for those in the lower position) while in other more symmetrical acts the communication is much more bidirectional and open. These different types of relationship can greatly influence the functionality and results of the communicative exchange. None of them is intrinsically positive or negative, but they can have different usefulness depending on which situations.

For example, in a symmetrical relationship both partners can express themselves on equal terms and agree on how and where their relationship is going, whereas in a boss/employee relationship it is the first one who decides where the company is going.

Bibliographic references:

  • Arango Arango, M. Z., Rodríguez, A. M., Benavides, M. S. and Ubaque, S. L. (2016). The axioms of human communication in Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin, Don Jackson and their relationship with Systemic Family Therapy. Luis Amigó University Foundation Magazine, 3(1), 33-50.

  • Tuzzo, R., Toledo, S., Delgado, M., Larrosa, M. and Ghierra, A. (2009). Basic concepts of psychology in the training of health professionals. Volume I. Directed by Rosario Tuzzo de Vernazza. Montevideo: FEFMUR Book Office, University of the Republic, Faculty of Medicine: 37-39.

  • Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J. & Jackson, D. (1985). Human communication theory. Herder Editorial, S.L. Barcelona.