What are the 5 axioms of communication? (explained)

We explain what the 5 axioms of communication are, who identified them and how each of them describes communication.

The 5 axioms of communication
Watzlawick understands human communication as an open system.

What are the 5 axioms of communication?

It is known as the five axioms of human communication to the five guiding principles identified by the Austrian philosopher and psychologist Paul Watzlawick (1921-2007) in his theory of communication between human beings.

In this theory, framed in the so-called “international approach”, Watzlawick proposed that human communication operates as an open system, both in terms of language and in what it does not, and that it has five major common and main features, which these are called “axioms”.

As you know, communication can be defined as the exchange of information between living beings, either through sign systems (that is, languages) or other more primitive mechanisms. Communication is a universal feature of all forms of life, which even occurs between your organs and the different parts of your body. Living, from this point of view, is necessarily communicating.

The five axioms of human communication, according to Watzlawick’s studies, are detailed below.

1. It is impossible not to communicate

Any form of behavior involves communication of certain content, whether voluntarily or not. That is, everything we do transmits various forms of information to those around us, whether it is information that we expressly wish to communicate, or not.

As there is no possibility of not acting in life, that is, of having a non-behavior, it is possible to affirm that we are continuously and constantly transmitting information to our environment.

A simple example of this is found in involuntary forms of communication, such as body posture. A person can silence his opinion or his feeling in front of something that happens or something that is said to him, trying not to communicate it verbally; but his body, his way of moving or his gestures can betray that intention and communicate to the rest what he feels or what he thinks.

But suppose that someone trains himself to contain even that type of gestures, adopting the most neutral posture that a human being is possible: even in that case he will be transmitting that neutrality, that is, he will be communicating information, despite the fact that this information is nothing more than the concealment of your emotions and thoughts.

In conclusion: there is no way not to communicate.

2. All communication is a meta-communication

This statement means that whenever we communicate, we not only transmit the information we want to give, but also other information that has to do with other aspects that concern the communication itself, and that have to do with the way in which the message should be interpreted.

In other words, when we transmit a message, we also transmit information about the message itself, and about the way in which we are transmitting it. Hence the use of the prefix “meta”, which means “beyond” or “in itself”: a metacommunication is a communication about the communication itself.

Watzlawick proposed thinking about this second axiom from the identification, in every communicative act, of a “level of content” and a “level of relationship”, understanding that the latter classifies the first.

That is, on the one hand there is the transmitted message and on the other there is the meta-message: the relational information about the message, who emits it, in what way, etc. This is important as the receiver of the information will always interpret it depending on his relationship with the sender (that is, their level of relationship).

We have a simple example of this in certain expressions, which, depending on who they come from, can be interpreted in different ways. For example, if a friend tells us “I warn you” about information that we need, we are likely to interpret that as a promise, since affection and trust allow us to take their words for granted.

If, on the other hand, a stranger tells us, that “I warn you” can be interpreted as something that is said to get out of the way, so that we leave it alone and it is unlikely that we trust the veracity of that information. Thus, the same sentence (content level) has two different relational interpretations (relationship level).

3. All communication is bidirectional and simultaneous

The 5 axioms of bidirectional and simultaneous communication
Whoever receives the message also emits information simultaneously.

Since each of those involved in an act of communication structures and interprets the information differently, both feel at the same time that they are reacting to the other’s behavior, when in fact they are continuously giving each other feedback.

A) Yes, human communication cannot be understood in terms of cause and effect, but rather as a circuit communication that advances in both directions, expanding and modulating the exchange of information.

To understand this axiom, let’s think about the first one on the list, which assumes that we are communicating all the time. Thus, even when we listen to someone who speaks to us, and we have our attention focused on his emission of verbal information, we are at the same time communicating to him what we think about what he says through our gestures, the way we listen to him and our body language.

4. Communication is digital and analog

According to Watzlawick, all forms of human communication involve two simultaneous modes of meaning formation, which are:

  • Digital communication (what is said), that is, the “objective” content of the message issued, that which directly and solely concerns the words. If we tell someone “what an intelligent comment”, the digital modality is limited to exactly what has been said: that a comment is intelligent to us.
  • Analog communication (How do you say), that is, the “subjective” content of the message issued, that which has nothing to do with the words, but with the enunciation, the context, the very way in which we say it. If we tell someone “what a smart comment” with a sincere smile and attitude, it’s probably because we genuinely mean it; but on the other hand, if we do it with an air of indifference or a sarcastic smile, especially after he said something irrelevant or banal, we are ironically wanting to tell him the opposite: that he has said nonsense.

5. Communication can be symmetrical or complementary

The 5 axioms of complementary symmetric communication
Complementary communication establishes a disparate relationship between one side and the other.

Finally, Watzlawick identifies two possibilities for the functioning of human communication, depending on the relationship established between the individuals who exchange information. These possibilities are:

  • Symmetric communication, that is, proportionate and tending towards equalization, when it occurs in information exchanges between individuals who engage in reciprocal behavior: one person strongly criticizes another, and the latter in response strongly criticizes her. Individuals communicate by establishing the same relationship from one side to the other, assuming the same position.
  • Complementary communication, that is, integrative, which tends to incorporate an individual into the communicative dynamics of the other, thus establishing a relationship of authority between the parties: one person assumes an accusing role in the communication and the other person assumes the role of the accused, or one assumes a violent role and the other a victim role. Individuals communicate by establishing a disparate relationship between one side and the other, but one could not exist without the other.