Paradoxical Communication: 6 Keys to Understanding it

July 9, 2018

Why do we sometimes say yes when in our head there is a resounding no? Why do we prefer to stay silent and not say anything, if in fact what we want is very clear to us? What is behind this? Paradoxical communication is the reason.

Day by day we find ourselves immersed in a large number of relationships. For that reason, the basis and, at the same time, the goal of human communication is to understand each other. Is that so hard?

Yes, but no, and just the opposite

The relationship we maintain with others is determined to a large extent by the way we communicate. So, what is not said, assumptions, lies or ambiguities are not good friends with communicative clarity.

In particular, paradoxical communication is a contradiction that comes from a correct conclusion from consistent premises. Although it may seem like a puzzle, this example of a conversation between mother and daughter will help you understand it perfectly:

  • “Honey, help me set the table”
  • “Mom, I thought that maybe I won’t stay for dinner tonight. I’m thinking of going with a friend to the movies, okay? “
  • “Well, it’s up to you…”
mother and daughter

Although surely the mother wants her daughter to stay for dinner, her words leave the decision to her daughter. The mother thinks one thing, says the opposite and her daughter must infer that her mom wants her to stay. This causes internal conflict about acknowledging her mother’s hidden intention versus sticking to the objective words. Whatever you do will effect your mother, causing a change in the relationship. This is an example of paradoxical communication.

If the mother said what she really wanted, she would have said:

“No, it’s better if you just stay here and eat with us. You can go to the movies with your friend another day”.

Every day we run into situations like these where we are barely aware of this dynamic. It is clear that the content of the message is not the only thing that matters. There is also the intention behind it.

The paradox is characterized by ambiguity

“Tell me and then I’ll calm down”, can really mean “nothing you say or do will calm me down”. One thing and its opposite.

Paradoxical communication is based on the diversity of ways in which we can interpret the same message. We doubt the other person’s intentions and choose to interpret what they say in a way that suits us or what we think they mean.

The point is that this explanation that we construct does not have to coincide with the one that the other wants to transmit to us. Or maybe it does. This is where there is uncertainty, confusion and misunderstanding.

The more concrete we are about what we want to say, the less space we leave to ambiguity. This gives greater quality to our communication with others.

The logic behind Watzlawich’s theory of misunderstanding

Paul Watzlawick was an Austrian theoretician and psychologist who is a reference in the field of Psychotherapy. His research tried to explain why sometimes it is so difficult to understand metacommunication and so easy to do the opposite: avoid the communication. To understand it, it is good to know about his five axioms of communication:

  • “One cannot not communicate”. Communication always happens. We even transmit the messages we don’t want to communicate. Silence is also communication.
  • All communication has a content level (what you are talking about) and a relationship level (the context of the communication).
  • The nature of a relationship depends on the way each person organizes the communication between each other: the communicative process is a feedback system, there is a emitter and a receiver.
  • There are two forms of human communication: digital and analog. We will talk more about both below.
  • Communication exchanges can be symmetrical or complementary. This depends on whether or not the relationship is equal.


men back to back

There are two types of human communication

For Watzlawick, there are two types of language to express the same content: analog and digital.

  • Digital: what is said. This doesn’t mean computers. It refers to the content of the message itself. What is understandable, direct and does not need to be translated. When someone says “I need more love”, “I’m very happy”, “I want you to value me”. You don’t have to interpret it. The meaning and the words meet in the middle.
  • Analog: what is really meant. What kind of intention or background hides behind the words? This kind of communication requires us to read into it.

In the previous example, the mother transmits these two types of communication to her daughter:

  • Digital: “It’s your decision if you stay for lunch or go to the movies”.
  • Analog: “Stay here, because you know that I expect you to”.

The double bind theory

In the same way that the prior types of communication can match up, they can also contradict each other. Language and words do not have a double meaning by themselves. We create the double meaning.

Authors such as Bateson, Jackson, Haley and Weakland delved into this phenomenon. They talked about the existence of a double bind: the paradox made contradiction. They studied this type of paradoxical communication in patients diagnosed with schizophrenia.

With the results of their research, they tried to explain how family context and communication influences the appearance and maintenance of this illness. They defined the double bind as a sick relationship that has the following properties and characteristics:

  • It occurs when a very intense or emotionally charged situation takes place.
  • There is paradoxical communication: two contradictory messages are issued at the same time. Most of the time, one verbally and the other non-verbally. The previously discussed types of communication (analog and digital) don’t match up.
  • There is unequal power in the relationship between the person who issues the message and the person who receives it. The person issuing the message prevents the other from deciphering and talking about the contradiction. Likewise, they do not leave you room to act. Whatever you do, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

What the double bind theory looks like

Bateson illustrated the double bind with a very revealing example. He showed a family in which the older brother was constantly bothering his younger brother. His younger brother, on top of it all, was a shy child.

The bullying reaches such a point that the younger brother screams with frustration and impotence when he feels bullied. The consequences are that the older brother stops bothering him, but the parents punish the younger brother for screaming.

In this situation the child is receiving two totally contradictory messages. On the one hand, he must express his feelings in order to be accepted (not to be bullied). On the other hand, he must not express his emotions to be accepted in another way (if you show them, there are consequences). Which one does he decide to go with?

The authors concluded that the double bind is a dysfunctional and unbalanced form of communication that disorients and confuses people. The receiver does not know what to expect and this leads to a series of possible disorders and difficulties in the relationship with others and in themselves.

man telling off child

As we can see, we are surrounded by paradoxical communication and double bonds. For example, when we find a sign that says “do not read this,” someone who warns you “be more spontaneous” or “do not be so obedient.” All of them seek contradictory answers in relation to what they advertise.

We recommend this video excerpt. It gives examples of paradoxical communication and the double bind in the family context.

How paradoxical communication can cause conflict for couples

When problems arise in romantic relationships, the problem is usually due to lack of mutual communication. Just like with our family, we also convey contradictory messages about how we feel or what we want to our partner.

  • Wife: “Today I had an exhausting day at work. And then on top of that the kids left such a mess in the living room where they were playing! “.
  • Husband (thinks): “What does she want? I just got home and I’m tired too. You’re not asking me to clean the room, right?
  • Husband (says): “Well, why don’t you clean it up?

The way the husband responds to his wife is revealing. He not only assumes that his wife is indirectly asking him to pick up the room; but his answer is totally out of context and borders on rudeness.

The most better option would have been for him to ask her, “Do you want me to clean it up? Can I help you? What do you need?”. But he decides, the fruit of his beliefs and deep-seated assumptions, that her intention is to not clean it up.

couple arguing

What this means for the relationship

This reflects that both are not transmitting their intentions with enough clarity. In addition, paradoxical communication is not usually a one-time thing, but it has a snowball effect. It is usually dragged from conversation to conversation and can become chronic in the relationship.

In couples therapy, the therapist can see how a couple shakes with gestures and issues aggressive criticism, while disguising their hostility with a language that seems affectionate or vice versa.

Identifying the paradox helps, sometimes, to read the other, to know what they think, even if they remain silent. However, on other occasions when we are not willing to understand, it can generate very damaging consequences for the relationship and great conflicts. We insist that in order to communicate properly, the first thing we have to do is to understand ourselves.

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in”.

-Isaac Asimov-


  • Watzlawick, P., Bavelas, B. y Jackson, D. (2008). Teoría de la comunicación humana. Nueva York: Herder.
  • Cejalvo, J. (2009). La personalidad desde la perspectiva sistémica. En J. A. Ríos, Personalidad, madurez humana y contexto familiar. Madrid: CCS.
  • Mucchielli, A. Psicología de la Comunicación; Paidós Comunicación, págs. 115-117.