The Interactional View Applied to a Practical Relational Communication Problem

Jill Lawrence

COMM 3210: Human Communication Theory

University of Colorado at Boulder

Fall 2006

Over the term of this course we have analyzed communication from within seven different models and several theories within each model.  Each model and theory provides a specific way of conceptualizing communication and communication problems.  In this paper, I will use Watzlawick, Beavin & Jackson’s interactional view as a frame to understand a recurrent conflict with my sister.

In the book Pragmatics of Human Communication (1967), Watzlawick et al. outline the interactional perspective.  This theoretical perspective lies within the cybernetic school of thought.  In this tradition, communication and relationships are depicted primarily as mechanical or systematic.  The interactional view utilizes this framework to define and explain concepts relevant to communication.  Unlike other theories of communication, this definition does not concern itself in the least with shared meaning.  If one person behaves in the presence of another, it is considered communication, regardless of the presence or lack of mutual understanding.  Put differently, behavior equals sending a message equals communicating.  Relationships also viewed somewhat mechanically as “pair[s] of cybernetic systems interacting through feedback” (class lecture, Nov. 17, 2006).  Since relationships are systems, many of their properties can be predicted.

To explain how complex systems of human communication function, Watzlawick et al. devote a chapter to explaining “some tentative axioms of communication” (Watzlawick et al., 1967, p. 1).  The first axiom is summarized as “you cannot not communicate” (p. 1).  The “impossibility of not communicating” is dictated by the logic of the theory.  Since the theory states that all behavior is communication, and you cannot not behave, it follows that you cannot not communicate.  Whether or not we intend it, whether or not we even speak or make eye contact at all, our behaviors all send messages, and hence communicate something.

The second axiom is that “every communication has a content and relationship aspect such that the latter classifies the former and is therefore a metacommunication” (p. 4).  Interaction between individuals must contain both the explicit content of a message and information on how the message is to be understood, which is the relationship aspect.  The relationship aspect is metacommunication, since it is essentially communication about communication.

The third axiom is that “the nature of a relationship is contingent upon the punctuation of the communicational sequences between the communicants” (p. 7).  Although an observer outside a relationship would be hard-pressed to identify with whom a relationship or a given conflict began, interactants see the relationship as broken up smaller units.  Thus, “punctuation” is the way that interactants group their interactions.

The fourth axiom is that “human beings communicate both digitally and analogically” (p. 10).  Essentially, digital communication is comprised of words, and analog communication is comprised of non-verbal forms.  In relationship to the previous axiom, digital communication approximately corresponds to the content, whereas analogic communication is used to express the relationship aspect of communication.  

The fifth and final axiom is, “all communicational interchanges are either symmetrical or complementary, depending on whether they are based on equality or difference” (p. 12).  Symmetrical relationships are those in which each party reciprocates the other’s behavior, which creates relational equality.  On the other hand, complementary relationships are unequal in that one partner maintains a superior position while the other is inferior.  These five axioms describe the interactional view and facilitate my analysis thereof.

I will use this view of communication to understand the particular relationship problems between myself and my sister, “Marsha”.  Most people who have siblings probably experience conflict at one time or another, although the particular issues here may be unique.  I have had an “up-and-down” relationship Marsha for as long as I can remember.  She is two years younger than I am, and our relationship has changed many times over the years.  We have spanned everything from mutual disdain to intense competitiveness to being best friends.  Since we both went off to college, we became quite close primarily by speaking over the phone, but this relationship has badly deteriorated over the past several months.  Whereas we used to talk to each other at least every week, now we sometimes go a month or more without speaking.  When we do talk, we frequently argue.  This falling out has both baffled and frustrated me, but Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson’s writing provides some insight into my understanding of the situation.  Every problem we have had is a representation of one or more communicational axioms.

A year ago and a half ago, I probably would have considered my sister one of my best friends.  We saw each other only once or twice a year, but we could always call each other whenever we had something to talk about, or just to say hi.  She had just transferred to a college on the East coast, and I had just returned to CU after taking a few years off.  We had so much in common that I often jokingly referred to her as “maxi-me”.  (This was a reference to the Austin Powers movie in which a character becomes best friends with his miniature-sized clone, whom he calls “mini-me”.  Marsha was taller than I, hence the variation).  We got along extremely well.

At that time, the content and relationship aspects of our communication generally expressed consistent messages.  The content of our conversations, wherein would talk about ourselves, our lives, and each other, indicated our mutual respect and interest in each other.  The practice of calling each other on a regular basis and taking turns talking and listening represented the same relational message, one of close friendship.  Watzlawick et al. state,  “the more spontaneous and healthy a relationship, the more the relationship aspect of communications recedes into the background” (p. 3).  As is typical of healthy relationships, we got along well and did not feel the need to talk about how we were getting along.

During this period, sometimes I would call her on the phone and sometimes she would call me, but we would never go too long without talking (or at least leaving each other messages).  Neither of us was concerned if we had to call two or three times before the call was returned.  We would just attribute it to the other being busy.  The reciprocal nature of returning each other’s phone calls indicates that we were punctuating the communication sequence in essentially the same way.  We punctuated the practice of phone calls by not paying too much attention to whose turn it was.  We were not interested in determining or discussing whose turn it was to call.  Neither of us was actively considering the punctuation of the communication sequence.  We did not perceive our communication relationship as having either a start or an end.

The axiom concerning digital and analogic communication sheds more light on our situation at the time.  Since most of our conversation was over the phone, we had to rely more on digital words and less on non-verbal analogic symbols.  I stated before that we did not generally discuss the relationship aspect of our communication, which might have been partially due to the fact that “the content aspect is likely to be conveyed digitally whereas the relationship aspect will be predominately analogic in nature” (p. 9).  Since perhaps a disproportionate amount of our communication was digital, we may have had no choice but to focus on the content aspect.  This is not to say that there was no analogic or relationship aspect.  Of course we would detect the tones in each other’s voice, and implicitly understand the relational meaning behind the fact that we rarely raised our voices.  Although the analog and relationship aspects were always there, we did not focus on them.

Nor did we focus on our differences, which led to an essentially symmetrical relationship.  Our talks primarily centered around that which we had in common.  Although we surely had numerous differences, they were not the topic of our conversations.  Instead we engaged in what Watzlawick et al. call “the minimization of difference” (p. 11), preferring to discuss our similarities.  This communication process led to symmetrical and equal relationship.

Over time, however, this relationship gradually changed.  After she moved back in with our parents, I began to see her more often and for longer periods, which plagued our relationship that was built so heavily upon conversing over the phone.  Meanwhile, she was changing from a laid-back college student in a hippie town (like me) into what I considered a wannabe yuppie.  We began to argue, both when we saw each other in person and when we spoke over the phone.  Afterwards we would talk about our arguments, which sometimes resolved the issue on the surface, but never addressed deeper issues.  We called each other less and less.  When we did talk, occasionally the conversation would abruptly end by someone hanging up or leaving the room.  These changes were difficult for both of us and somewhat inexplicable to me.  Understanding of the communication axioms shed can provide some insight into this turn of events.

The first axiom is particularly enlightening here: “You cannot not communicate”.  This applies to the increasing silences between us.  The first time she hung up the phone on me, I was infuriated.  Yet I am fairly sure now that she was not trying to anger me, she was only trying to end what she surely perceived as a pointless conversation. Although her intent in hanging up may have been to not communicate, I still received the message that she did not want to listen to me.  In the weeks that followed, I refrained from calling her even though I missed her.  I wanted her to know that I would not put up with being hung up on.  Although we eventually began talking again, our conversations were marked with increased hostility from there on.

Our refusal to make an effort at communicating created a situation that bears a frightening resemblance to the schizophrenic communication discussed in the interactional view:

It appears that the schizophrenic tries not to communicate.  But since even … denial is itself a communication, the schizophrenic is faced with the impossible task of denying that [s]he is communicating and that the same time denying that [her or] his denial is a communication (p. 2).

Even though our intents may have been to not communicate, in both cases the lack of contact with one another communicated something very definite.  It is important to realize what we are saying with our silences.  

An examination of the content and relationship aspects of communication further exposes our problems.  Our first major fight over the phone was about my perception that she was so self-absorbed she no longer cared about me.  This argument took place primarily at the relationship level, as opposed to the content level.  The content of the communication was the relationship.  According to the interactional view, “sick relationships are characterized by a constant struggle about the nature of the relationship, with the content aspect of communication becoming less and less important” (p. 3).  Although I did not realize it at the time, this argument was the first in a continuing and escalating series of disagreements.  Many of these were explicitly metarelational such as this first one, thus leading to the further decline of our relationship and the content of our communication.

After this initial dispute, we slowly began to fight more, but not always about the same thing.  A frequent recurring topic of disagreement was her boyfriend.  I had not even met him at the time, but almost every time we started talking about him we ended up fighting over viewpoints on which he and I disagree.  Neither of us could not figure out why we kept fighting about him because neither her nor I ever planned on bringing up the differing values between he and I.  It always just seemed to come up.  We did not realize that both arguments stemmed from a deeper relational problem.  This was because we both made the mistake of separating the content of our earlier disagreement from the impact on our relationship.  Our earlier dispute had created lasting effects in the way we viewed each other and our relationship in particular.  As a result, I viewed her boyfriend’s values as threatening to my continued friendship with her.

Our punctuation of the communication sequence has also both reflected and influenced the deteriorating nature of our relationship.  After the conversation in which she hung up on me, I did not want to call her but I still wanted to talk to her.  I sent her a text message telling her to call me.  I also mentioned to my mother that she might suggest Marsha call me.  In my mind, both these things were making a communicative “move”.  I felt that I had done my part and now it was her turn.  When she failed to call me for weeks thereafter, I was hurt.  Although I do not know exactly how she punctuated that sequence of events, it was surely different from my own interpretation.  Lack of consensus on this has facilitated us drifting further from each other emotionally.  I was waiting for her to call and perhaps she was waiting for me, thus it would be a while before we talked again.  Our differing punctuation of the communication sequence had a decisively negative impact on our relationship.

The fourth axiom, concerning digital and analogic communication, can also further our understanding of this situation.  When my sister moved back in with my parents and I began seeing her more, we began to use analogic communication more than in the recent past.  In addition to the voice cues we had from the phone, there was additional factors such as eye contact, body language, and timing issues to take into account.  This shift created difficulties by challenging our accepted ways of communication with each other.  I was used to talking to her on the phone for maybe half an hour at the most.  When we ended up in the car on a four-hour road trip together, the result was not all that we had hoped for.  We ended up getting into an unproductive argument centered on my feeling that she was not giving me a chance to speak.  According to the interactional view, talking about relationships poses problems because that “requires adequate translation from the analogic to the digital mode”(p10), which is “extraordinarily difficult”.  I could not adequately translate my dissatisfaction with the relationship was not from analog to digital, which led to a quarrel.

When Marsha and I were emotionally close, we competed little and we focused primarily on that which we had in common, as is typical of a symmetrical relationship.  However, our detachment has occurred with us simultaneously becoming more competitive and different from one another.  I often express competitiveness through dissatisfaction with the fact that she looks older than I do.  We have discussed that “it’s not a contest”, but it has still been difficult for me to accept that I look so much younger than my little sister does.  Concurrently, she has undergone significant changes which might either be called “growing up” or “abandoning everything you ever believed in”, depending whom you ask.  These changes have underscored our growing dissimilarity from one another. 

Instead of symmetry, our relationship now exhibits competitive symmetry wherein we are both equal but constantly trying to get on top (class lecture, Oct. 17, 2006).  I want to look older; she wants to be more successful.  Along with this, our interactions are now “based on the maximization of difference” (p. 12).  We have certainly lost many of the things we once had in common, but perhaps more importantly we have also lost some of the desire to identify remaining similarities.  From the interactional viewpoint, the entire nature of our relationship now is based on difference, and that will be difficult to change.

The interactional model and the corresponding axioms of communication provide a good deal of insight into my understanding the communication issues and relational problems that I am experiencing with my sister.  After applying this model to my situation, I have a much better understanding of how all my seemingly unrelated arguments and problems my sister and I have are connected by systemic relational issues.  Unfortunately, I have also identified a few problems with the interactional view and theory. 

My first problem with the interactional view and the corresponding axioms is that they fail to adequately explain how it actually comes about that a relationship changes.  In hindsight, yes, we can apply the theory to help understand how a relationship has changed already.  The axioms also explain my difficulty in actively changing a relationship, because the system resists change.  However, this model does not actually outline a course for enacting or even predicting change in the future.  Given the information in this theory, I still do not know how I would go about engaging in any sort of meaningful communication with my sister. 

My second criticism of the interactional view is that it is theoretical to the point that it is lacking in practical application.  This is manifested partly in the way that the theory seems overly focused on the words we use to describe communication, particularly the term “communication” itself.  Watzlawick et al. claim that all communication in the presence of another person is behavior. However, the interactional view is only tentative.  As Michael T. Motley (1999) points out, “definitions of communication seem invariably to be controversial” (p.1).   In this sense, the interactional view of communication is a reminder that theories do not represent reality so much as a particular view thereof.  Focusing on the definition of “communication”, especially one that is not agreed upon, is significantly less useful than examining its effects.  Although does further my understanding of a given situation to know whether or not I am communicating, I would find it more practical if I knew how effective my communication was (or even how to determine what effective communication is). 

The problem with the communicative axioms and the Watzlawick et al. theory is that they do a better job of explaining problems than providing solutions.  In an interview conducted several years after the publication of Pragmatics, Watzlawick states, “in order to change what is a problem here and now, it is not necessary to go into the past and understand all the causes”.  As the interviewer points out, “if the problem-maintaining behavior can be eliminated, the problem will disappear regardless of its origins” (Wilder, 1978, p. 37).  This provides a succinct way of understanding what the axioms mean.  To put this back into the cybernetic language, the system can be altered if the inputs are altered.  The question that remains unanswered is this:  What would the altered inputs look like?

Changing the nature of a relationship is not easy, especially when there are hard feelings between people.  Getting past the past, so to speak, is difficult.  Although neither Marsha nor I want to “go into the past”, we have both said things to each other that were hurtful.  I doubt that the problem will disappear with out us at least addressing some of the these things.   While the interactional view greatly helps to identify and clarify the problems, it does not identify specific solutions.  Even if solutions were identified, that might not be enough to get us to change for the better.  In order to solve our communication problems, we must first want to solve them.  Only then will we have the motivation to alter our behavior and cease our current antagonism


Motley, M. T. (1990). On whether one can(not) not communicate: An examination via traditional communication postulates. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 54, 1-20.

Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J. H., & Jackson, D. D. (1967). Some tentative axioms of communication. Pragmatics of human communication: A study of interactional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes (pp. 48-71). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Wilder, C. (1978). From the interactional view- A conversation with Paul Watzlawick. Journal of Communication, 28, 4, 35-45.

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