Can you NOT communicate?

Change & Organisation Development

by Andrew Day

07 December, 2022

I recently re-read Paul Watzlawick’s classic book Pragmatics of Human Communication. For those of you who don’t know his work, many of his ideas have influenced paradoxical theories of change and family systems theory. In the book he outlines a number of principles of human communication. These are:

  • The impossibility of not communicating. All behaviour (or non-behaviour), not just speech or silence, is communication


  • Communication happens at two levels. These are: (i) content – what is said – and at the same time, (ii) the level of the relationship i.e. defining the nature of the relationship. Put in a different way, communicating not only conveys information but at the same time it imposes a relationship. The latter is a meta-communication – a communication about a communication.


  • Communication can be (i) Digital whereby a word or sign is used to represent something or (ii) Analogic in which a self-explanatory likeness is used to represent something, for instance, a drawing or photograph. Digital communication by its very nature is abstract whereas analogue communication has a more direct correspondence to what is being conveyed. In human communication analogue communication includes most non-verbal behaviour such as body language, gestures, tone, rhythm, facial expressions etc. In human communication, we rely almost exclusively upon analogue communication. Digital material can be of a much higher level of complexity, versatility and abstraction than analogue.


  • Circular causality. All communication is part of a pattern and influences and is influenced by all other behaviours. This means that where a pattern of communication starts and ends is an arbitrary punctation which can have profound consequences for the meaning of what is said or done. Disagreements about how to punctuate a sequence of communication is at the heart of many relationship struggles (i.e. who is to blame or who started the ‘difficulty’).


  • Fundamental to human existence is the importance of confirmation as a social process.  The receiver of the communication can: (a) accept what the other person is communicating; (b) reject what is being communicated, this at least recognises that something is being communicated; or (c) disconfirm what is communicated or act as if nothing has been communicated.  These three stances are called confirmation, rejection or disconfirmation (of what is communicated).


Now these principles might sound somewhat abstract and irrelevant to organisational life. However we can argue that much of what happens in organisations is communication.

Underneath the  labels such of  ‘leadership’, ‘strategy’, ‘change’, ‘structure’, ‘culture’ are in fact patterns of communication.

I’ve been examining some recent consulting assignments through this lens.

These are some observations:

  • In one client system, I notice that I am constantly pulled into communicating through Powerpoints.  This is a pattern with an attempt to privilege digital forms of conveying information. Direct communication between different parties around contentious topics is filtered in this way – minimising analogically communicating around feelings and emotions about the issues being discussed.


  • An executive team describes itself as supportive and collaborative. At the same time, I notice an absence of conflict and a pattern of ‘group think’. Individuals in the team do not take up distinctive positions or differentiate themselves from the other members to any significant degree.  The implicit (analogue) communication is that its risky to be different and to disagree. Most of what is said is accepted by others or disconfirmed (simply not responded to or picked up). Little is rejected by members of the team. The team has some very difficult decisions to make that have significant consequences. It is hard to see how they can effectively undertake this task unless they express their differences (which is equivalent to new information).


  • I’m working with a large complex organisation that is trying to transform itself. I notice however that I am constantly confused about what the organisation is trying to achieve or what the various change initiatives are intended to achieve. This is despite the sophisticated ideas that are presented by different departments. I regularly sit in meetings with people presenting well crafted and logical presentations or accounts of what is needed. These make logical sense but leave me feeling confused. No one appears to notice the confusion or the apparent disconnections across the various initiatives. (A lot of time and consulting time has been invested in these presentations). Last week, in conversation with a couple of leaders I commented that I was often left feeling confused about what they and others were actually saying. They immediately acknowledged something and agreed they too often felt confused. They suggested they get together some others leaders who were involved in the change and explore their perspective. This group was also able to acknowledge their confusion. It seemed a relief that we were talking about the feelings rather than the sophisticated change programmes. I have no idea where this is leading however I sense a shift that feels more energetic and closer to something.


In each of the above, I’ve tried to describe the something of the pattern of communication as I understand it and participate in.

To conclude, the really helpful idea I find in Watzlawick’s book is that is the pattern of communication that configures and characterises the social system, rather than the content of what is being spoken to at any one time.

If you want to read a bit more about patterns of communication, you can read our blog:

Can you NOT communicate?

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