NLP Presuppositions (9): You cannot not communicate

We are constantly communicating, in everything we do. Even staying silent is a communication, especially where the other person is expecting to say something.

You don’t just communicate in words. All the time, our facial expressions, body language, posture, and voice tone are sending messages which people around us are interpreting, whether they are conscious of it or not. They use those interpretations to form guesses about how you’re feeling, what you are thinking, your intentions, and what you are likely to do next.

People can sometimes send very obvious messages by doing or saying nothing. Sometimes this is appropriate, sometimes not. If your team are looking to you for leadership in a time of crisis, and you stay in your office with the door closed, that’s sending a message. If someone makes a racist or sexist joke, and they are expecting you to laugh or at least smile, not doing that is sending another message. And if someone is trying to provoke you, and you don’t rise to it, that’s also sending a message.

The key is to be aware that whatever you do or don’t do, you’re always communicating, and the meaning of that communication depends as much on the context as on what you are saying or not saying.

A note on origins: “One cannot not communicate” is the first of the five ‘axioms of communication’ in  “Pragmatics of Human Communication” by Paul Watzlawick, Janet Bavelas and Don Jackson (just re-released with an introduction by Bill O’Hanlon). A short, readable paper in Kybernetes: The International Journal of Systems & Cybernetics by Wolfram Lutterer proposes that all five of the axioms can be traced back to ideas put forward by Gregory Bateson and Jurgen Ruesch in their book Communication: The Social Matrix for Psychiatry – which happily has just come into the public domain and is available as a free download in various formats including Kindle.

© 2011, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.


  1. Fiona Cooper

    It never ceases to amaze me how many people seem to think that by not saying anything they are postponing communication, when by the very act of not communicating they are saying something very important. Never more is this evident than in the world of email….. no doubt, all busy people look through their emails and prioritise those which are important, many of us though, don't bother to even send an acknowledgement for the others…. what kind of message is that sending? F

  2. Helen Moore

    The company I previously worked at was a family run firm, who found it extremely difficult to communicate verbally without defensiveness and agression. However, they ‘spoke’ volumes when they didn’t verbalise as their body language was like an open book – the office staff were attuned to this which was reflected int he atmosphere on any given day. Interestingly, they couldn’t keep staff!

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