The five axioms of communication

Whether through words, non-verbal signals or our silence, we communicate all the time. Communication is central to our daily lives and, of course, to our projects, but how does communication work? This question has long puzzled scientists and psychologists. A well-known theorist in this field is the Austrian-American communication scientist Paul Watzlawick. In the book "Pragmatics of Human Communication. A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxes", which he wrote with Janet H. Beavin and Don D. Jackson, he presents five axioms that clarify the fundamentals of human communication. These five axioms (generally accepted ground rules that everyone assumes to be true) are used to illustrate that verbal communication is influenced by both the relationship between the dialogue partners and their feelings. Identifying the cause of conflict attempts to explain misunderstandings and conflicts. If the cause of a conflict is known, it can be avoided in the future.
A row of glass jars with plants in them.


Potential of communication models

Communication models can help project managers to better understand communication as an important area of project work and to improve their own form of communication. They should therefore be able to understand the psychology behind communication and the potential for improvement in order to
  • better understand others, e.g., team members and suppliers, steering committee members and clients
  • avoid misunderstandings with project stakeholders
  • reduce the potential for conflict with them, and ultimately 
  • improve teamwork.

Axiom 1: One cannot not communicate

Communication is not only based on the spoken word; tonality, nuance, speed of speech, facial expressions, gestures, in general our behaviour, also play an important role. And since it is impossible not to behave, it is also impossible not to communicate.

Example from the world of project management:

The project manager arrives at a team meeting and sits down next to a team member who is writing a text message. The team member glances at the project manager, gives him a friendly nod, but then continues working on his text message. The team member has communicated clearly without using the spoken word to let the project manager know that he has noticed him, greets him with a nod of the head, but cannot now speak.

Axiom 2: Every communication has a content and a relationship aspect

How two people communicate with each other depends on how they relate to each other. Communication always involves the relationship and thus emotions, i.e., whether the two people like each other well or not so much plays an important role, regardless of what happens on the factual content level.
Example from the world of project management:

Project member Susan asks her project colleague Nick if he has remembered that he still has to write the experimental report. Since there was an incident at the last project meeting in which Nick felt badly treated by Susan, he is angry with her. When Susan asks Nick about the report, he replies gruffly that of course he had thought of it.
Susan has asked Nick a simple question (on a factual level) to which she has received a clear and unambiguous answer. However, the emotionality with which the answer was given makes it clear that Nick is not on good terms with Susan at the moment (relationship level).
Communication is similar, but often more subtle, when the communication partners are on different hierarchical levels. In a conversation between the managing director, who chairs the steering committee, and the project manager, it is clear that the lower-ranking project manager will speak more politely and perhaps more formally to the higher-ranking managing director than to a colleague on the same hierarchical level. But even if the signs of communication are more difficult to interpret, the way in which the factual content is conveyed allows conclusions to be drawn about the emotional state. Therefore, in any communication, the content and relationship aspects go together and are always relevant.

Axiom 3: Communication is always cause and effect

Everything that is said or shown non-verbally to another person provokes a tiny little or perhaps larger reaction. This reaction is what can be reacted to, and this communicative interplay can actually go on indefinitely.
Example from the world of project management:

Susan is surprised by Nick's stroppy and dismissive answer (cause) and asks Nick what is going on (effect). Nick grimaces, shakes his head and rolls his eyes (reaction). Susan doesn't let up and follows up (reaction). Nick now tells Susan that he just wants to be left alone (reaction).
This can go on and on and escalate into a conflict. In the end, it may only be a question of who started the conflict, and because this clear beginning cannot be located, there is a communicative vicious circle: the cat is trying to bite its own tail. Just as the cat cannot bite its own tail, such conflicts cannot be resolved.

Axiom 4: Human communication uses analogue and digital modalities

In the physical sense, analogue signals are infinitely variable and theoretically provide infinitely accurate information, i.e., continuous values. For example, a wristwatch with three hands on the dial indicates each unit of time. Digital signals, on the other hand, are selected and provide 'lossy' information, i.e., discrete values, such as a wristwatch that only shows the time in hours and minutes on a display.
However, analogue and digital in terms of communication have nothing to do with this physical definition of the term. When we communicate, analogue means that what is said is open to interpretation, it includes facial expressions and gestures and means non-verbal communication (e.g., rolled eyes, grimaces). Digital, on the other hand, means that what is said refers only to the factual content (e.g., the statement "the experimental report must be prepared") and leaves no room for interpretation.

Example from the world of project management:

Susan and Nick are both present at a project meeting. Susan looks at Nick and when their eyes meet, she nods in greeting, Nick smiles back and returns her greeting. Shortly afterwards, Nick tells Susan that he didn't mean to be so abrupt during their last conversation, that he was under pressure, that he didn't mean any harm by his behaviour, and that he wanted to apologise to her. 
Before Nick had given the reason for his behaviour at the matter level (digital), Susan already knew from Nick's behaviour (analogue) that he was relaxed and would be friendly to her.
However, it becomes challenging when digital and analogue communication contradict each other.

Example from the world of project management:

The project team member is white as a sheet and has a cold sweat on his forehead. The project manager notices and asks if everything is all right. The team member replies that everything is fine. Now the project manager has to decide which is more accurate, the analogue or the digital information.

Axiom 5: Communication can be symmetrical or complementary

Symmetrical communication is to be understood in the sense of equal and means that the dialogue partners communicate with each other at eye level (they are on the same level). Here, the commonalities, e.g., the interests, inclinations, etc. of the dialogue partners play an important role. 
Complementary communication is to be understood in the sense of additional, the dialogue partners complement each other and may be on different levels, whereby deviations, differences and opposites generally play a role.
Example from the world of project management:

Before the project review begins, Nick and Susan are still talking about their two children who are in the same class and about the planned school trip (symmetrical communication). During their conversation, the project manager raises his voice, asks for silence, greets the participants and explains that the project review is about to start (complementary communication).


The way we communicate with each other is multi-layered and sometimes extremely complex. The five axioms help to reduce the complexity of our communication. This makes it possible to perceive subtleties and draw better conclusions, to improve the form of our communication in the project and to manage conflict situations better. Of course, all this also applies outside our projects, because there we also "behave", or to use Paul Watzlawick's expression, we cannot not behave.

Axioms of communication - The Author
Author: Dr. Roland Ottmann
Keywords: Project management, Communication

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For better readability, we usually only use the generic masculine form in our texts. Nevertheless, the expressions refer to members of all genders.