The School of Palo Alto

Paul Watzlawick, an Austrian-American therapist and psychologist, defended the view that there is no non-communication, meaning that you cannot not communicate. As weird as this may sound, it is very true. From the moment that you are not alone, everything you do, every move you make, everything you say, you are communicating. This doesn’t mean that the person with whom you are trying to communicate with is understanding the message that you are trying to convey, or even the intentions behind your gestures; just that whether you want it or not, you are communicating (according to a study by UCLA, 93% of communication passes by the non-verbal, i.e. body language).

Communication is technically a simple process. There needs to be at least two subjects, a sender and a receiver. Throughout the years, several people have tried to theorize communication and its strategies. At the beginning, there were simple “sender” theories, that supported that from the moment that you, as a sender, told something to your receiver, he would understand it because you had told him your message. This couldn’t be further from the truth, since it is not because you are speaking that the other is necessarily understanding what you are saying. Then, there were also “receiver” theories, that admitted that from the moment the receiver had understood the message, communication would have worked. Surprisingly, these theories forgot to take into account the extreme importance of interpretation in human relations. As human beings, we interpret everything, whether we want it or not.

Then came along an interesting theory, developed by what is today called the “School of Palo Alto”, in California. Paul Watzlawick and several of his colleagues, like Gregory Bateson, developed the “interactional” theory. They inspired themselves in cybernetics (defined by Norbert Wiener, “father” of cybernetics as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.”), that heavily relied on the notion of feedback. The Palo Alto School came to say that communication depends not only on interpretation but also on relations. Indeed, for every message that you try to convey, there will be a different interpretation according to the context in which it is given, but also according to the person that will be giving it to you (within a family, your parents may tell you the same thing but you might not interpret it the same way). Indeed, while we are communicating, we tend to “speak” different languages. That is why feedback is so important. Indeed, this theory defends that when giving a message, one should always ask for feedback, because the other person may be interpreting, and thus understanding, something completely different.

When communicating, either verbally or not, we should always practice this exercise: asking for the feedback of our receivers is of extreme importance, because a lot can be lost in simple words and gestures. There would be a lot less misunderstandings, if we all accepted that we don’t understand things in the same way, and that we will never do.


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