5 Axioms to Improve Your Team Communication and Collaboration

Diego Montes | March 17, 2021


Good communication within a team is key to keeping everyone on the right track. But it can be challenging to have a team communicate effectively, especially in a time when many people are working from home and face-to-face collaboration has been replaced by virtual meetings on Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

The best way to improve your team’s communication is by helping them become aware of what goes on during the communication process, this includes the unintentional forms of communication that often occur on a subconscious level.

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Paul Watzlawick's Five Axioms of Communication

Lots of communication is carried on below the level of consciousness. The five axioms of communication, formulated by Paul Watzlawick, describe the processes of communication that take place during interaction. Watzlawick was a psychologist and communications theorist, who defined five basic axioms as the basis of his work. His axioms also help explain how misunderstandings and conflict can occur.

Axiom 1: Cannot not
Axiom 2: Content & relationship
Axiom 3: Punctuation
Axiom 4: Digital & analogic modalities
Axiom 5: Symmetrical or complementary

Axiom 1: ‘One cannot not communicate’

A lot of communication happens at an unconscious level. As soon as two people perceive each other, they start communicating. Any perceivable behavior, including the absence of action, has the potential to be interpreted by other people as having some meaning. In other words, we communicate even when we don’t particularly want to.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do you communicate with your absence of action?
  • What are you telling your peers when you are quiet and not expressing your ideas?
  • Do you start to communicate as soon as you are in somebody else's vision and hearing range?
  • Are you really aware of when communication starts?

Axiom 2: ‘Every communication has a content’

Every communication has a content and relationship aspect, such that the latter classifies the former, and is therefore a meta-communication; a secondary communication about how a piece of information is meant to be interpreted.

For example, communicating with a friend is different than communicating with an acquaintance or stranger. When providing a friend with feedback, you could use words that might be considered offensive yet still have your feedback accepted quite happily. However, if you would use those same words when providing a distant colleague with feedback, you could be considered impolite and you might leave a negative impression with that person.
Similarly, being casually impolite with a friend when someone else is present, could give a negative impression on the third party. The other person hears you from outside the relationship with your friend, and may misinterpret the message.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are the words you’re choosing proper for the context and people present?
  • Are you aware of the relationship aspect within your communications?
  • Are you certain that the words you use don’t fall outside the level of communication you share with your listener?

Axiom 3: ‘Communication is punctuated’

The nature of a relationship is dependent on the punctuation of the partners’ communication procedures. In other words, Watzlawick suggested that how good or how bad a relationship is depends on how the involved parties decipher each other's intentions, actions, or way of communicating.

In this context, punctuation refers to the process of organizing groups of messages into meanings. All parties involved structure the communication flow differently and therefore interpret their own behavior during communicating as merely a reaction on the other's behavior.

For example, let’s say that you have a conversation with a colleague. The conversation makes you upset, but you do not tell them how you feel. The next time that you see this colleague, you may act awkwardly or differently around him. Your colleague might then realize that you are upset about something. You’ve punctuated your feelings with your behavior. However, your colleague might think that you have recently become upset. They might feel awkward because they think that you are upset for an unknown reason. This in turn keeps you feeling upset.

In this example, the interactions create a cyclic cause-and-effect loop because there’s no true dialogue that allows you and your colleague to see what is really happening. By understanding this axiom, you can break this communication loop. For example;

You: “When we talked the other day, I didn’t like what you told me and I got upset. That’s why I felt awkward around you.”
Your colleague: “Really, I didn’t notice that, what exactly made you upset?”

This simple dialog would act as a kind of metacommunication to break the endless loop.

Axiom 4: ‘Communication involves digital and analogic modalities’

Human communication involves both digital and analogic modalities. The digital mode is what the person says what their words actually mean. While the analog mode has to do with how something is said or the nonverbal cues that go along with it.

We can sometimes send two opposing messages at once and this may cause misunderstandings and conflict. When a person sends a message with conflicting verbal, paraverbal, and nonverbal information, the nonverbal tends to be believed.

The trick here is to be consistent. If you are confident about something, make sure you backup your words with the tone, pitch, and pacing of your voice, as well as with your body language.

Axiom 5: ‘Communication can be symmetrical or complementary’

Interhuman communication procedures are either symmetric or complementary, depending on whether the relationship of the partners is based on differences or parity.

A symmetric relationship is one in which everyone behaves as equals, from a power perspective. If a symmetrical relationship gets out of hand, both parties can end up attacking each other in a power struggle.

A complementary relationship, on the other hand, is one of unequal power, such as parent-child, boss-employee, leader-follower. If a complementary relationship gets out of hand, the disparity will increase over time. The powerful may become more tyrannical, while the submissive will be even more limited in their opportunities to engage.

Key Takeaways

  • The best way to improve your team’s communication is by helping them become aware of what goes on during the communication process, this includes the unintentional forms of communication that often occur on a subconscious level.
  • The five axioms of communication, formulated by Paul Watzlawick, give insight into communication; one cannot not communicate, every communication has a content, communication is punctuated, communication involves digital and analogic modalities, communication can be symmetrical or complementary.
  • Effective communication relies on being aware of nonverbal aspects of interactions with others; being aware will help you make the appropriate changes to improve communications within your team.

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