5 Axioms of Communication

5 Axioms of Communication

It will be useful to turn our attention to five basic communication axioms described by the classic study of Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin, and Don Jackson ((1967). Each axiom has functional implications and is essential to understanding the communication process.

Axiom-1: You Cannot Not Communicate

It is common to assume that we communicate only because we want to communicate and that all communication is purposeful, intentional, and consciously motivated.

This is often true, but just as often, we communicate without awareness of doing so and, at times, even without wanting to. Whenever we are involved in an interaction, we must respond somehow.

Even if we do not choose to respond verbally and maintain absolute silence and attempt not to move a muscle, our lack of response is itself a response, therefore, constitutes a message, influences others, and hence communicates.

In other words, we can never voluntarily stop behaving- because behavior has no opposite. We use some symptoms as a form of communication.

However, no matter how hard we try, we can not communicate because all behavior is communication and, therefore, is a message.

Axiom-2: Every interaction has a content dimension and a relationship dimension

The content of a communication is its information level or data level; it describes the behavior expected as a response. In contrast, the relationship level of a communication indicates how the exchange is to be interpreted; it signals what one person thinks of the other.

For example, “Close the door” is a directive whose content asks the receiver to perform a certain action.

However, the communication “Close the door” can be delivered in many ways a command, a plea, a request, a come-on, or a turnoff. Each manner of delivery says something about the relationship between the source or sender and the receiver.

In this way, we constantly give others clues about how we see ourselves in relationship to them.

Axiom-3: Every interaction is defined by how it is punctuated

Even though we understand that communication is continuous, we often act as if there were an identifiable starting point or a traceable cause for a particular response.

Actually, in many communication interactions, it is extremely difficult to determine what a stimulus and what a response is. What is a stimulus for one is the response for the other. We all divide up or punctuate a particular experience somewhat differently because each of us “sees” it differently.

Thus, whenever you suggest that a certain communication began because of a particular stimulus, you forget that communication has no clearly distinguishable starting point or endpoint. Remember that communication is circular- a continuous, ongoing series of events.

Axiom-4: Messages consist of verbal symbols and nonverbal cues

When we talk to others, we end up with two kinds of messages: (1) discrete, digital, verbal symbols (words) and (2) continuous, analogic, nonverbal cues.

The content of the message is more likely to be communicated through the digital system. In contrast, the relation level of the message is more likely to be carried through the analogic system.

Axiom-5: Interactions are either symmetrical or complementary

The terms symmetrical and complementary represent two basic categories into which all communication interactions can be divided. Each type of interaction serves important functions, and both will be present in a healthy relationship.

During a communication encounter, if the behavior of the other person mirrors the behavior of one person, there is a symmetrical interaction. In contrast, if the behavior of one interactant precipitates a different behavior in the other, it is called complementary interaction.

In a complementary relationship, you and your partner engage in opposite behaviors, with your behavior serving to elicit the other person’s behavior or vice versa.