The 5 Axioms by Watzlawick: How to Communicate in a Project Team

Timo Gerhardt, Thursday 28 July 2022 | Reading time: 11 min.

The 5 axioms of communication according to Watzlawick describe aspects that play a significant role in any form of interpersonal exchange.

Content

Improved project communication with Watzlawick's 5 axioms

Communication accompanies us in everyday life, in professional and private contexts, in direct, personal interactions with others or online. Because communicating is something we do daily without consciously thinking about it most of the time, we often take it for granted and overlook its complexity.

When we interact with colleagues, family or friends, we usually assume that they understand what we want to express. But the reality is often different: The sender of a message encodes it by putting it into words. The receiver has to decode this message and interpret it. Then, there are numerous interferences between the communicating parties. For example, the quality of a video call can disturb the mere transmission of a message.

Furthermore, when communicating, it is not only what is actually said that counts. The sender of a message should always be aware that the interpretation of the message also depends on nonverbal influences.

Paul Watzlawick, an Austrian communication scientist, summarizes these influences under his 5 axioms of communication. They describe the extent to which verbal communication is influenced by feelings and interpersonal relationships. Consequently, the axioms can explain how misunderstandings and conflicts arise in communication. Being aware of these axioms, interpersonal interactions can be better handled.

In projects, communication is also a critical factor for success. If misunderstandings or misconceptions of information occur, this can, in the worst case, jeopardize the successful completion of the project. Awareness of the 5 axioms of communication can help to consciously manage both internal project communication and interactions with the project environment. It can cause messages to be understood correctly and thus ensure higher efficiency and lower information asymmetry in the project team.

Axiom 1: You cannot not communicate

Even when avoiding conversations and verbal expressions, people still communicate. This is because, according to Watzlawick, communication not only happens verbally, but also nonverbally through behavior. Consequently, communication is unavoidable as soon as two persons meet each other. Often, a person's body language or facial expressions are even more revealing than explicit statements. 

For example, if a team member avoids a verbal exchange in a project meeting, the project manager and the other participants will draw their conclusions from this behavior. Maybe the person is simply not interested in the project or wants to cover up the fact that their tasks were not completed as agreed. How the behavior is interpreted ultimately depends on other factors, too, such as body language. When this person leans forward, turns their head to whoever is speaking and seem overall alert, they may not have something to say but still seem engaged and interested.

Axiom 2: The content and relationship aspect

The second axiom states that every communication has a content aspect and a relationship aspect. According to Watzlawick, the latter dominates the former. The relationship between people  provides a certain framework for communication. If one interacts with a close friend, the expectations of the conversation are different from those of a first meeting with a new supervisor. Existing hierarchies have an influence on the tone of communication, but also on the word we choose and the topics we talk about.

In a project, this means that communication with the client will be different from the exchange within the project team. In a team, people usually meet at eye level and exchange ideas accordingly. Because the client invests money, they are in a superior position. Accordingly, communication with the client will be more restrained, more formal in language and even more respectful. This may change, however, over time as the relationship with the client may grow more personal, so will the communication style. Should there be a discrepancy in expectation, though, and the client eschews a more personal relationship, they may show reactance and feel disrespected by a change in communication style.

A distanced relationship between project team and client may lead to the team communicating only selected information to the client. Such intentional asymmetry of information can lead to problems. If only positive aspects are communicated during the project to satisfy the client, while certain problems jeopardize the success of the project, an enormous potential for conflict arises.

Axiom 3: Characterization by punctuation of communication processes

Communication consists of a cause and an effect. This is what Watzlawick means when he claims that the relationship between two people is conditioned by the punctuation of communication flows. In practice, this implies that a statement serves as the starting point for the conversation. All subsequent messages are reactions to what the other one said. An interaction does not consist of separate pieces of information, but is an interactive, sometimes coherent, oftentimes incoherent process.

Constructive criticism as an opportunity for further development is important, also in project work. However, it is not easy to express criticism correctly. If the project manager criticizes a team member in a project meeting by accusing him of only doing his tasks uncaringly, he must expect a corresponding negative reaction. The employee will feel attacked and possibly show reactance by denying the accusation. The project manager, in turn, now has the option of receding to de-escalate the situation or countering the team member to initiate a dispute.

Consequently, everyone involved in an interaction should be aware of what statements will trigger in the counterpart and what will come back accordingly. In this way, conversations can be consciously controlled.

Axiom 4: Digital and analog modalities

With his fourth axiom, Watzlawick expresses that communication always makes use of digital and analog modalities. However, it is not a question of whether a conversation takes place via modern communication media or in a personal form without a digital medium, as the two terms suggest. Rather, digital modalities refer to the transmission of explicit information in an unambiguous way. Little room for interpretation is left. Analog modalities, on the other hand, are characterized by a multitude of possible interpretations. Digital modalities are synonymous with verbal communication, analog ones with nonverbal communication.

If analog and digital modalities behave complementarily, communication can become more unambiguous. If this is not the case, misunderstandings can arise.

An example would be when a person introduces their own proposal during project planning but receives ambivalent feedback from the project manager. The project manager praises the proposal and is in favor of its implementation, but based on his facial expressions, he seems less than enthusiastic. His facial expression appears annoyed, even disappointed. The project manager's words do not match his analog communication. This confuses the employee and raises the question of whether his supervisor really stands behind the proposal or whether his positive remarks have a different background. It is also possible that this ambivalence is due to a misinterpretation by the employee.

To enable his counterpart to easily decode the message, one should try to align digital and analog modalities.

Axiom 5: Symmetry and complementarity of relationships

Watzlawick's fifth and final axiom is related to the second one, which states that communication always has a content aspect and a relationship aspect. Accordingly, communication processes are either symmetrical or complementary. This depends on whether the relationship is in balance or based on difference. A symmetrical relationship focusses on an encounter at eye level and commonalities. Complementary communication, on the other hand, is based on the differences between the involved parties. This manifests itself either in a constructive mutual complementarity or in a possibly destructive power imbalance.

In corporate life, the hierarchy within a project may differ from the conventional corporate hierarchy. Employees who are on the same hierarchical level outside a project may face a power imbalance in the project context. While one person is part of the project team, the other person has been given leadership based on their expertise in that area. In this way, symmetry in the hierarchy structure can become complementarity. The goal here must be to shape this new constellation constructively. The project manager should use their newly acquired authority to coordinate the project in a goal-oriented manner, while the employee should make a complementary contribution to the project's success through his expertise. Conflicts that can arise from a newly created complementarity should be avoided as far as possible.

 

Ultimately, communication is often much more complex than assumed. Since it also plays a decisive role in the project context, much greater attention should be paid to it. As a project manager or employee, be aware of what communication - including nonverbal communication - does to your counterpart and adjust your statements and behavior accordingly. In this way, you ensure that communication is not another obstacle on the path to project success.

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