Your Team Communication Sucks: Five Axioms to Improve It

Diego Montes | September 24, 2021

Supported by our Innovation Expert Encora

In general, it is very difficult to have a team communicate effectively, mostly because people are not on the same page. A lot of it happens at an unconscious level.

The best way to improve your team’s communication is to help them become aware of what goes on during the communication process.

These axioms act as a set of rules to keep a team’s homeostasis.


Where These Axioms Come From

This post is based on Paul Watzlawick‘s Pragmatics of Human Communication. He was a psychologist, communications theorist, and philosopher who defined five basic axioms as the basis of his work.

These axioms explain how miscommunication happens.

Axiom 1

One cannot not communicate

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.

As defined by Wikipedia, “an axiom is a statement that is so evident or well-established that it is accepted without controversy or question.

Ask yourself the following questions,

  • What do you communicate with your absence of action?
  • What are you telling yourself and to your peers when you are quiet and not expressing your ideas?
  • Do you start to communicate as soon as you and someone else perceive each other
  • Are you really aware of when communication starts?

Axiom 2

Every communication has a content and relationship aspect such that the latter classifies the former and is therefore a meta-communication

Each person responds to the content of communication in the context of a relationship.

For example, we may not be particularly polite when providing feedback about a friend’s work. We could even use words considered offensive and still have our feedback accepted quite happily by a friend. However, not being polite with someone we just met could leave a negative impression.

Similarly, being casually impolite with a friend when someone else is present, could also 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.

Just like saying, “idiot” could be influenced by the following up with “just kidding.” It could also be influenced by the relationship between the communicators.

Ask yourself,

  • Are the words you’re choosing proper for the context and people present?
  • Are you even 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

The nature of a relationship is dependent on the punctuation of the partners’ communication procedures

In this context, punctuation refers to the process of organizing groups of messages into meanings. It can sometimes alter the meaning considerably.

Human communication must not be reduced to a simple cause and effect game.

For example, let’s say that you have a conversation with a teammate. The conversation makes you upset, but you do not tell him how you feel. So, the next time that you see your teammate, you act awkwardly around him. Your teammate then realizes that you are upset about something. You’ve punctuated your feelings with your behavior.

However, your teammate thinks that you have recently become upset. He might feel awkward because he thinks 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 teammate 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 Teammate—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

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 problems. When a person sends a message with conflicting verbal, paraverbal, and nonverbal information, the nonverbal tends to be believed.

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

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. A complementary relationship, on the other hand, is one of unequal power, such as parent-child, boss-employee, leader-follower.

For example, you and a person considered your peer are talking about a way of solving a problem. Both of you can weigh in with your opinions symmetrically because both come from the same position of power.

On the other hand, if you are talking with a less experienced person, the interchange becomes complementary. They are speaking from a “lesser” position since you are the more seasoned developer.

If a symmetrical relationship gets out of hand, both parties can end up attacking each other in a power struggle.

In the case of a complementary relationship, if the more powerful person is too dominant, or the less powerful too submissive, 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.

Being aware of this difference in power structures can enable the free flow of communication within your team, no matter the relationship type.

Being Aware is the First Step

These axioms can act as a set of rules to give you insight into your current communications.

Once you are aware of a situation, there is no way to pretend otherwise. Being aware will help you make the appropriate changes to improve communications in your team.

If you have any comment or questions, please feel free to contact us.

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