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Obituaries for Paul Watzlawick


Authorized Obituary

Paul Watzlawick, PhD, Dies, Philosopher-Family Therapy Pioneer was 85

Paul Watzlawick, a pioneer in family therapy, system theory and constructivist philosophy, died Saturday, March 31, 2007 at his home in Palo Alto, CA. He was 85 years old.

He died of heart arrest, a spokesperson at the Stanford University Medical Center said. In late 2006, primarily due to ill health related to age, after 46 years he gave up his office at the Mental Research Institute (MRI) entered into full time retirement. Dr Watzlawick donated his body to science. There will be no services held.

Dr. Watzlawick's contributions to system theory and family therapy were many, widely read, and influential. Internationally known for his contributions to Communication Theory and the practice of Brief Therapy, and in the fields of cybernetics applied to human interaction and constructivist theory, he was author of 22 books translated into more than 80 languages, including The Pragmatics of Human Communication (1967); Change - Principals of problem formation and problem resolution (1974); The Language of Change (1977); The Invented Reality (1990); and How real is real? (1976).

Dr. Watzlawick received his Doctorate in 1949 from the University of Venice (Cà Foscari) in Philosophy and Modern Languages. Trained at the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich, since November 1960 he served as a member of the staff at the Mental Research Institute (MRI). At the time of his death he was a Senior Research Fellow at the Mental Research Institute (MRI) a founding member of the MRI Brief Therapy Center team, and Professor Emeritus at Stanford University School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

Among the best known figures in the fields of communication and constructivist theory, family and brief therapy, Dr. Watzlawick was the receipient of numerous awards and honors including the Prix Psych 19719 Paris; Distinguished Achievement Award, American Family Therapy Association, 1981; Outstanding Teacher Award, Psychiatric Residency Class 1981, Stanford Univ. Med. Center; the Paracelsus Ring 1987, City of Villach (Austria); Lifetime Achievement Award, Milton H. Erickson Foundation, 1988; Distinguished Professor for Contributions to Family Therapy Award, American Association of Marriage & Family Therapy, 1982; Medal for Meritorious Service, City of Vienna, 1990; Doctor honoris causa, University of Liege (Belgium), 1992; Doctor honoris causa University of Bordeaux III, 1992; Fonorary Medal, Province of Carinthia (Austria), 1993; Author's Award (Nonfiction), Donauland Book Association, Vienna, 1993.

An extraordinarily humble, kind, and generous human being, he will be missed by the thousands of therapists and philosophers throughout the world whom he mentored. His wife, Vera; stepdaughters Yvonne and Joanne; sister, Maria Wünsch and nephew Doctor Harald Wünsch of Villach Austria, and nieces and other relatives survive him.

Wendel A. Ray, PhD
Professor of Family System Theory
The University of Louisiana at Monroe
And
Senior Research Fellow, Mental Research Institute (MRI)

A Selected Bibliography

  1. Watzlawick, P., Beavin-Bavelas, J., & Jackson, D. (1967). Pragmatics of Human Communication - A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies and Paradoxes, New York: W. W. Norton.
  2. Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J., & Fisch, R. (1974). Change: Principals of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, New York: W. W. Norton.
  3. Watzlawick, P. (1976). How real is real. NY: WW Norton
  4. Watzlawick, P., & Weakland, J. (1977). The Interactional View, NY: WW Norton
  5. Watzlawick, P. (1978) The Language of Change, NY: WW Norton
  6. Watzlawick, P. (1990). (Ed.), The Invented Reality, NY: WW Norton.
  7. Watzlawick, P. (1990). Munchausen's Pigtail and other essays, NY: WW Norton
  8. Watzlawick, P. (1988). The Situation is Hopeless but not Serious, NY: W.W. Norton.

German Version

Offizieller, von der Familie Watzlawick autorisierter Nachruf auf Dr. Paul Watzlawick

Dr. Paul Watzlawick, Philosoph und Pionier der Familientherapie ist im Alter von 85 Jahren gestorben.

Paul Watzlawick, ein Pionier der Familientherapie, Systemtheorie und konstruktivistischen Philosophie starb am Samstag, den 31. März 2007 in seinem Haus in Palo Alto. Er war 85 Jahre alt.

Er starb an Herzversagen berichtete ein Sprecher am Medizinischen Zentrum der Stanford Universität.

Ende 2006 gab Paul Watzlawick nach 46 Jahren hauptsächlich wegen altersbedingter Krankheit sein Büro am Mental Research Institute (MRI) auf und setzte sich zur Ruhe.

Auf Wunsch von Dr. Watzlawick wird sein Körper der Wissenschaft zu Verfügung gestellt. Es wird keine Trauerfeier geben.

Dr. Watzlawick hat viele einflussreiche und auf der ganzen Welt gelesene Beiträge zu Systemtheorie und Familientherapie geleistet. Der Autor von 22 Büchern, die in mehr als 80 Sprachen übersetzt wurden, darunter: "Menschliche Kommunikation", "Lösungen", "Die erfundene Wirklichkeit" und "Wie wirklich ist die Wirklichkeit" war international bekannt für seine Beiträge zu Kommunikationstheorie und Praxis der Kurzzeittherapie sowie der auf menschliche Interaktion angewandten Kybernetik und konstruktivistischen Theorie.

Dr. Watzlawick promovierte 1949 an der Universität von Venedig (Cà Foscari) in Philosophie und Modernen Sprachen. Weiterbildung am C.G. Jung Institut in Wien.

Seit November 1960 war er Mitglied am Mental Research Institute (MRI). Zur Zeit seines Todes war er Senior Research Fellow am Mental Research Institute (MRI), Gründungsmitglied des Teams am MRI Kurzzeittherapiezentrum und Professor Emeritus an der Medizinischen Fakultät in den Abteilungen Psychiatrie und Verhaltenswissenschaften der Stanford Universität.

Dr. Watzlawick gehört zu den bekanntesten Vertretern auf den Gebieten Kommunikation und konstruktivistische Theorie, Familientherapie und Kurzzeittherapie. Er war Träger vieler Preise und Ehrungen darunter die folgenden: Prix Psych 19719 Paris; Distinguished Achievement Award, American Family Therapy Association, 1981; Outstanding Teacher Award, Psychiatric Residency Class 1981, Stanford Univ. Med. Center; the Paracelsus Ring 1987, City of Villach (Austria); Lifetime Achievement Award, Milton H. Erickson Foundation, 1988; Distinguished Professor for Contributions to Family Therapy Award, American Association of Marriage & Family Therapy, 1982; Medal for Meritorious Service, City of Vienna, 1990; Doctor honoris causa, University of Liege (Belgium), 1992; Doctor honoris causa University of Bordeaux III, 1992; Fonorary Medal, Province of Carinthia (Austria), 1993; Author's Award (Nonfiction), Donauland Book Association, Vienna, 1993.

Dr. Watzlawick war ein außerordentlich bescheidener, freundlicher und großzügiger Mensch, der von tausenden von Therapeuten und Philosophen auf der ganzen Welt, deren Mentor er war, sehr vermisst werden wird. Er hinterlässt seine Frau Vera, seine Stieftöchter Yvonne und Joanne, seine Schwester Maria Wünsch und seinen Neffen Harald Wünsch in Villach Österreich sowie mehrere Nichten.

Dr. Wendel A. Ray
Professor für Familien-System-Theorie
Universität Louisiana, Monroe
und Senior Research Fellow Mental Research Institute (MRI)

Werke (Auswahl)

(Aus dem Amerikanischen von Monika S. Broecker)


Nachruf auf Paul Watzlawick

By Dirk Baecker

Eine leicht leicht gekürzt Version erschien am 4. April 2007 in "die tageszeitung", Berlin.

Ich habe Paul Watzlawick nur einmal persönlich getroffen, 1983 auf einem Kongress über menschliche Kommunikation, der in Abano Terme in Norditalien stattfand. Aber ich vergesse den Eindruck nie, den er damals auf mich gemacht hat. Er schien mir der einzige Redner zu sein, der die Abgründe des Themas der Konferenz am eigenen Leibe erfahren hatte. Wenn er sprach, glaubte man, ihm die vielen therapeutischen Sitzungen anzusehen, in denen er versucht hat, Leute, die bei ihm Rat gesucht haben, aus ihren Verwicklungen und Sackgassen wieder herauszulösen. Der Kongress war, so weit ich weiß, auch eine der wenigen Begegnungen zwischen Jean Baudrillard und Niklas Luhmann, die sich darüber stritten, ob es einen Ausweg aus der Selbstreferenz der Kommunikation gibt. Baudrillard sprach über das Obszöne, das die Grenzen der Kommunikation überschreitet; und Luhmann fragte ihn, ob man über das Obszöne reden kann, ohne selber obszön zu werden. Aber wenn man Watzlawick zuhörte, dann wusste man, dass in Sachen Kommunikation der Spaß auch einmal irgendwann zu Ende sein kann.

Paul Watzlawick, 1921 in Kärnten geboren, ist in Deutschland zweimal berühmt geworden, einmal unter Psychologen und Therapeuten mit seinem 1969 erschienene und zusammen mit Janet H. Beavin und Don D. Jackson geschriebenen Buch über die Menschliche Kommunikation: Formen, Störungen und Paradoxien, das mit einem Schlag das Thema der Kommunikation sowohl besprechbar als auch behandelbar machte, und dann noch einmal unter einem sehr viel breiteren Publikum mit seinem Buch Anleitung zum Unglücklichsein, das 1983 erschien, und wahrscheinlich das einzige Buch aus dem weiten Feld der Selbsthilfe ist, das man wirklich einmal gelesen haben sollte. Aber auch seine Gebrauchsanweisung für Amerika aus dem Jahr 1978 und seine Einführung in den Konstruktivismus, Wie wirklich ist die Wirklichkeit?, aus dem Jahr 1976 sind nach wie vor außerordentlich lesenwert.

Er hatte eine wunderbare Gabe, immer genau zu wissen, worüber er schrieb, sich jedoch von diesem Wissen nie die Freiheit nehmen zu lassen, sich auch das Leiden und das Unglück des Menschen letztlich eher wie ein Naturforscher anzusehen, der darüber staunen kann, wie die Leute es schaffen, so zu leiden und so unglücklich zu sein, als wie ein Betroffener, der glaubt, er müsse sich von jedem Phänomen, das ihm begegnet, unbedingt anstecken lassen. Ich hatte damals in Italien den Eindruck, dass ein Ratsuchender sich bei ihm in guten Händen fühlen müsste, weil er zu verstehen wusste, aber doch immer anders verstand, als der Ratsuchende sich selber versteht. Diese Kombination von Hinschauen einerseits und Verschieben des Kontextes andererseits gehörte vermutlich zu seinen großen therapeutischen Fähigkeiten. Dabei war er von der Ausbildung her kein Naturforscher, aber auch zunächst kein Psychologe, sondern ein Philosoph. Erst nachdem er sich nach seinem Philosophiestudium in Venedig auch hatte promovieren lassen, begann er eine Ausbildung zum Psychotherapeuten am C.-G.-Jung-Institut in Zürich, nahm dann 1957 für drei Jahre einen Ruf auf einen Lehrstuhl für Psychotherapie an der Universität von San Salvador an, bevor er 1960 an das "Mental Research Institute" in Palo Alto, Kalifornien, ging, wo er mit Janet H. Beavin und Don D. Jackson seine Kommunikationstheorie ausarbeitete und mit Gregory Bateson Schizophrenieforschung betrieb. In Palo Alto ist er am vergangenen Samstag auch gestorben.

Woher kam die Kombination von Empathie und Distanz, mit der sich Watzlawick die Pathologien der Kommunikation anschauen konnte? Wie schaffte er es, in der Auseinandersetzung mit dem Symptom einer Krankheit dem Patienten nicht einfach helfen zu wollen, sondern dem Patienten, wie er sich ausdrückte, das Symptom regelrecht zu verschreiben? So lautet ja die berühmt gewordene Frage, die Watzlawick seinen Patienten stellte: "Was muss passiert sein, wenn Sie eines Morgens aufstehen, in den Badezimmerspiegel schauen und feststellen, dass Sie gesund sind?" Beziehungsweise in der Negativfassung: "Was müssen Sie jeden Tag tun, damit Sie so krank bleiben, wie Sie jetzt sind?" Schon die Entscheidung darüber, wann welche Frage in welchem Tonfall und in welchem Moment zu stellen ist, erfordert natürlich größtes therapeutisches Geschick, das durch keine Kommunikationstheorie eingeholt werden kann. Aber abgesehen davon, dass es hier gerade nicht um ein kausal zu formulierendes Rezeptwissen geht, erkennt man an den Fragen doch, auf welchen "Mechanismus" Watzlawick und seine Schule der Familientherapie zu setzen versucht. Die Zumutung, mit der Watzlawick seine Patienten konfrontierte, bestand darin, sie zu zwingen, zu erkennen, in welchem Ausmaß sie die Mitproduzenten, wenn nicht sogar die alleinigen Produzenten ihrer Krankheit sind.

Man muss sich das vorstellen. Normalerweise geht man zum Arzt, um sein Problem dort los zu werden. Der Arzt schaut sich das Problem an, entdeckt in der Lebenssituation oder im Körper des Patienten, aber nicht bei diesem selbst, die Ursachen für die Krankheit und versucht ihn zu heilen, indem er die Ursachen beseitigt. Der Patient, lateinisch der Erduldende, hält so lange still und wartet ab. Bei Watzlawick kommt der Patient damit nicht durch. Er bekommt eine aktive Rolle zugeschrieben, wird für seine Krankheit allein oder im Zusammenhang seiner Familie oder sonstigen Kleingruppe mitverantwortlich gemacht – und muss sich selber heilen, indem er Schritt für Schritt herausfindet, dass er sich von demselben Therapeuten wieder lösen muss, den er aufgesucht hat, damit ihm geholfen wird.

Der Patient muss sich selber heilen, aber alleine schafft er das nicht. Mit dieser schönen Paradoxie konfrontiert die Familientherapie ihre Klienten und mit der dazu passenden Kommunikationstheorie konfrontierte Paul Watzlawick eine Wissenschaft, die das bis heute nicht hören will. Denn das muss man ebenfalls zur Kenntnis nehmen. In Palo Alto waren einige überwiegend aus Europa stammende Wissenschaftler, Philosophen, Anthropologen, Erkenntnistheoretiker, Psychiater, versammelt, die zunächst in Kalifornien, dann in Italien, Frankreich und Deutschland und schließlich weltweit eine neue Praxis der Familientherapie begründeten, auch den einen oder anderen Lehrauftrag an einer Universität erfüllten, aber mit ihren Einsichten nie die verdiente wissenschaftliche Anerkennung fanden. In keinem der Fächer, die das eigentlich anging, in den Literaturwissenschaften oder so genannten humanities, in den Sozialwissenschaften, in der Soziologie, Politologie oder Ökonomie, oder auch nur in der Psychologie konnte man mit dem von Jürgen Ruesch, Gregory Bateson und Paul Watzlawick entwickelten Kommunikationsbegriff etwas anfangen.

Und warum nicht? Weil Watzlawick und seine Kollegen ein Verständnis von Kommunikation hatten, das nichts mehr mit Ursache und Wirkung, mit Senden und Empfangen, mit Übertragung und Verstehen zu tun hatte, sondern statt dessen von Verwicklung und Verknotung sprach, von Redundanzproduktion und Varietätsvermeidung. Watzlawick sprach von der "Pragmatik" der Kommunikation und meinte damit, dass das Meiste schon geschehen ist, wenn man endlich anfängt, auf Phänomene der Kommunikation aufmerksam zu werden. "Man kann nicht nicht kommunizieren," ist das Theorem, das ihn berühmt gemacht hat und aus dem die Lehre der rückgekoppelten und verwickelten Beziehungen folgt, in denen man zappelt, wenn man sich auf Kommunikation einlässt, und die aus denen man sich nur mit jenen großen klaren Sätzen befreien kann, die anschließend weitere Probleme produzieren.

Paul Watzlawick war ein Weiser. Jede seiner vielen wunderbaren Parabeln ist makellos klar und keine pflegt die Illusion der Befreiung aus der Verwicklung. Statt dessen wird der Blick für jene kleinen, unscheinbaren Wendungen gepflegt, mit denen man sich so unversehens aus einem Problem herauslösen kann, dass man nicht umhin kommt, mit Bedauern festzustellen, dass einem etwas fehlt. Vielleicht wird man dereinst die 1960er Jahre in Palo Alto als ein Jahrzehnt identifizieren, in dem sich eine der unauffälligsten Wissenschaftsrevolutionen ereignet hat, von denen die Geschichte etwas weiß.


The Great Communicator. Obituary for Paul Watzlawick

By Dirk Baecker

The slightly shortened German version was published on April 4, 2007 in "die tageszeitung", Berlin, Germany

I met Paul Watzlawick only once in person. It was in 1983 at a congress about human communication, which took place in Abano Terme in Northern Italy. But I will never forget the impression that he made on me. He seemed to be the only speaker who had personally experienced the abysses of the topic of the conference. When he spoke, I believed to see the traces of the many therapeutic sessions in which he attempted to get people who searched for advice out of their enmeshments and impasses.

The congress was, as far as I know also one of the few personal encounters of Jean Baudrillard and Niklas Luhmann who argued whether or not there was a way out of the self-reference of communication. Baudrillard spoke about the obscene, which transcends the boundaries of communication; and Luhmann asked him if one could talk about the obscene without getting obscene. But when one listened to Watzlawick one knew that in the field of communication the fun could come to an end sometimes.

Paul Watzlawick, born in 1921 in Kärnten, Austria became famous twice in Germany, once among psychologists and therapists with his book Pragmatics of Human Communication - A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies and Paradoxes, published in 1969 that we wrote with Janet H. Beavin and Don D. Jackson.

This book all of a sudden made it possible to discuss and deal with the topic of communication. He became famous once more and even with a much broader audience with his book "The situation is hopeless but not serious (The pursuit of happiness), which was published in 1983. It was probably the only book in the broad field of self-help that one really should read. But also his "Manual for America" from 1978 (translator's note: Not available in English, to my knowledge) and his introduction into constructivism "How real is real" from 1976 are as ever extraordinarily worth reading.

Paul Watzlawick had the wonderful gift of always knowing what he was writing about. However, he never let this knowledge take away his freedom to also see the suffering and the unhappiness of the people. Ultimately, he saw it like a natural scientist and was astonished by how people succeed in suffering like this and being unhappy like this. And he appeared to be like someone affected himself who believed that he had to be infected by every phenomenon that he encountered.

At that time, in Italy, I had the impression that someone seeking for advice would feel like in good hands with Paul Watzlawick because he would know to understand, but would always understand differently than the advice seeker would understand himself.

This combination of paying attention to what is going on the one hand and shifting the context on the other hand was probably one of his big therapeutic abilities. However, in terms of his background he was no natural scientist and in the beginning not a psychologist; he was a philosopher.

It was only after his studies of philosophy and his Ph.D. from Venice, Italy that he began a training as psychotherapist at the Carl Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland. He then accepted an invitation to join the faculty of psychotherapy at the University of San Salvador in 1957 before he went to the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California where he worked on his theory of communication together with Janet H. Beavin and Don D. Jackson and did schizophrenia research with Gregory Bateson. It was also in Palo Alto where he passed away last Saturday.

Where did the combination of empathy and distance with which Watzlawick looked at the pathologies of communication come from? How did he succeed in not only wanting to help the client but in, how he called it, prescribing the symptom, when dealing with the symptom of an illness? A famous question, which he asked his patients, is: "What must have happened if one morning, after you have gotten up look into the bathroom mirror and notice that you are sane." Or the negatively phrased version: "What do you have to do every day in order to stay as ill as you are now?" Already the decision, when to ask which question in which tone of voice requires of course highest therapeutic skill, which no communication theory can catch up with. In addition to not being causal recipe knowledge one can tell from the questions what "mechanism" Watzlawick and his school of family therapy wants to set. The imposition with which Watzlawick confronted his patients was forcing them to see to which extent they are co-producers if not solo producers of their illness. One has to image this: Normally one goes to the doctor to get rid of one's problem. The doctor looks at the problem and discovers the causes for the illness in the life situation or in the body of the patient but not in the patient himself or herself. And then he tries to heal the patient by eliminating the causes. The patient, in Latin, literally, the one who is patient, holds still during the process and waits.

A patient of Watzlawick won't succeed this way. S/he is prescribed an active role, and s/he as a solo player or in the context of his family or other small group will be made co-responsible for his illness and must heal himself or herself by finding out step by step that he eventually must separate from the same therapist whom he consulted for help.

The patient must heal himself but cannot do it alone. With this beautiful paradox family therapy confronts their clients, and with the matching communication theory Paul Watzlawick confronted science, which until today doesn't want to hear it. This one has to take into account also. Scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, epistemologists, psychiatrists, mainly from Europe, came to Palo Alto and then founded first in California, then in Italy, France and Germany and finally globally a new practice of family therapy, held teaching positions here and there at universities but never received the well-deserved scientific acknowledgment. No discipline in the literature sciences or the so-called humanities, in social sciences or in sociology, political sciences or economy or even only psychology knew what to do with the notion of communication developed by Jürgen Ruesch, Gregory Bateson and Paul Watzlawick although they dealt with the topics in question. Why is that so? Because Watzlawick and his colleagues had an understanding of communication that had nothing to do anymore with cause and effect, with sending and receiving, with transmitting but that dealt with entanglement and enmeshment or redundancy production and variety avoidance. Watzlawick spoke of "pragmatics" of communications and meant that a lot will already be accomplished when one finally begins to pay attention to phenomena of communication. "One cannot not communicate" is the theorem that made him famous and from which the teachings of relationships that consists of feedback loops and enmeshed structures, in which one is caught when one engages in communication and from which one can only free oneself with these big clear sentences, which then entail further problems. Paul Watzlawick was a sage. Every single one of his many wonderful parables is flawlessly clear and none suggests the illusion of freedom from entanglement. Instead they cultivate the attention to those small unimposing turns with which one can free oneself suddenly from a problem in a way that is impossible to not regret that something is missing. Maybe one day one will identify the 1960s in Palo Alto as a decade in which the most subtle revolutions in science have taken place that history knows of.

(English version submitted by Monika S. Broecker)


In Memoriam Paul Watzlawick

By Ernst von Glasersfeld

My acquaintance with Paul Watzlawick began when, attracted by the title, I bought a paperback called "How real is real". I didn't have great expectations, but when I started reading it that evening, I was instantly captivated. It turned out to be a psychologist's compendium of observations that demonstrated to anyone who wanted to see it just how much the world in which people believe to be living is their own creation. I was teaching a course on constructivism at the University of Georgia and at once ordered the book for my students to read it. It became a stock item on the reading lists I gave students, both in psychology and in linguistics.

When Heinz von Foerster invited me a year later to the conference on The Construction of Realities in San Francisco, I was delighted to have the opportunity of meeting Watzlawick in person. We became friends at once, not only because of the compatibility of our epistemological ideas but also because Paul, too, was used to living in several languages and we had a wonderful time unraveling some of the differences we had found between them. He had grown up in Austria, studied in Italy, taught in San Salvador, and was then co-director of the Institute of Mental Research in Palo Alto.

As a result of the San Francisco conference he decided to edit a book and asked me to write the introductory chapter based on the paper I had given. This book was first published in English as "The invented reality" and a year later in German as "Die erfundene Wirklichkeit". It became the European Manifesto of radical constructivism and a few months ago now, twenty-two years later, it reached it's eighteenth edition. As far as I am able to find out from the internet, it never went beyond the first edition in the United States.

This difference is all the more striking because in the course of the eighties Paul Watzlawick had become a leading light in the new discipline of family therapy that was flourishing in the United States. The fact that he advocated a method of short therapies did not endear him to some of his colleagues. They felt that good therapy could not be delivered in a couple of sessions and continued to compete with psychoanalysis in protracting the duration of treatment through months and even years. Yet, Watzlawick's name did not cease to be cited and he remained one of the pillars of the discipline that had little time for his unorthodox philosophical ideas that formed the basis of his European reputation.

Watzlawick had a knack for giving his books intriguing titles and using ordinary language when writing about intricate problems of philosophy. He illustrated his points with the help of quite ordinary situations and his advice never sounded philosophical but seemed just plain common sense.

Perhaps the simplest powerful statement he made was: "One cannot not communicate." For me, it belongs to the class of Maturana's "Everything said is said by an observer." The inability to avoid communicating when someone else is about, may give the very naive the idea that communication is easy. It's most profound implication, however, is that communication always involves interpretation.

Paul Watzlawick will be remembered for his bright ideas, his common sense, and his generosity in crediting other authors; and I cannot forget him, because I think of him every time I watch TV: if the people, who deploy their social antics there, only knew what they are communicating!


In Honour and Memory of Paul Watzlawick

By Giorgio Nardone

(Villach, Austria, 25 July 1921 - Palo Alto, USA, 31 March 2007)

Paul Watzlawick crossed the skies of the second half of 20th century like a comet, illuminating entire generations of scholars and professionals with his ideas, work and writings. His contributions have influenced not just the psychological, psychiatric and sociological fields but also subjects that are distant from human sciences, like economy, engineering and 'pure' science such as physics and biology. His studies on communication and on change have crossed over various barriers and have been applied in various contexts which involve human relationships with oneself, others and the world. Just like the masterpieces of all great philosophers, his work does not limit itself to ideologies nor confine to a single scientific prospective but goes beyond, as far as to search the roots of "how" human beings construct or better, using his own words, invent their realities.

Numerous thinkers and professionals own their success and fame, by having followed the wake of this luminary star. In fact, Watzlawick is the only author whose works have been translated into eighty different languages. The School of Palo Alto would not have existed without his extraordinary being and ability to synthesise into a singular rigorous theoretical and applied model, the work of eminent scholars such as Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson and Milton Erickson.

On the other hand, just to cite some examples, the father of constructivism, Heinz Von Foerster, loved calling himself an invention of Paul Watzlawick, in the sense that, he recognised the fact that without Watzlawick's help, neither his name nor his work would have become so eminent and renown worldwide. Same goes for Mara Selvini Palazzoli and the Milan School of Systemic Therapy, who own Watzlawick not only for his technical inspiration but also for helping in the wide-reaching divulgation of their work. This applies also to all those who, even though they did not have direct contact with Watzlawick, have been inspired by the overwhelming light emitted by this comet. In fact, it was sufficient to refer to the School of Palo Alto to acquire a respectful scientific and professional status.

All this is valid, even in my case. I'm truly aware that without Watzlawick, probably very few would have come to know my work. After, the Art of Change written in duet, I immediately found myself forefront on an international level. His active presence in the foundation of our Centro di Terapia Strategica of Arezzo, have turned it into a point of reference in the evolution of brief therapy and strategic problem solving.

Further prove of his greatness, is the fact that Watzlawick is the most copied author: there were individuals who after having copied entire pages without obviously citing the origin source, have become his harshest detractors.

Since Paul was a very tolerant person and capable to avoid conflicts -- even when doing so might have been more than legitimate -- instead of denouncing and shaming publicly these dishonest colleagues, he simply, with great style, denoted this dishonest deed directly to the wrongdoers without going beyond. The reader might well understand that to underline the prominent contribution of this author and thinker, one would require volumes and volumes of words. Indeed nobody was able to represent Watzlawick's work as greatly as his own writings.

In fact that is why I decided to conclude this final comment to his selected writings, not in an academic but in a personal way. I believe that having had the honour and pleasure to share with Paul more than fifteen years of professional collaboration and also of personal relationship (together we have delivered more than fifty workshops and conferences around the world, we have co-authored three texts and contributed to two other publications together with Jeffrey Zeig and Camillo Loreido) it would be enriching to offer the reader, besides his masterworks, some anecdotes that portrait his persona.

In fact besides being a Master in his science and profession, he was a model in the philosophy of life. He was a handsome, soberly elegant gentlemen, and master in use of subtle irony, irresistibly pleasant to men and fascinating to women. He always showed great humbleness and availability with everyone, ready to learn from others. Highly capable in relating adequately in the both ice-cold and warm interpersonal relationships, always showing an impeccable style.

Once during a conference at Sorbonne (Paris), a participant verbally attacked him because his theories went against the fundamental concepts of psychiatry and psychoanalysis. Paul with extreme calmness replied: " you are perfectly right... from your point of view..." -- and then he continued on accompanied by a great applause and smiles from the public.

Once I stood astonished watching him give out "stolen food" from a hotel to the stray cats in a Venetian lane, letting them come close as if they were life-time friends.

Another time having reached Bologna from Rome in my car, Paul had commented my driving, ironically declaring that Italy should be shortened. Reaching the hotel, which was called " I tre vecchi", the three old man, he asked me where were the other two. His irony was even more proverbial in another situation: we were watching for our luggage at the airport of Seville and his was the first to arrive while mine was the last. During the tedious wait, a gigantic luggage passed by and he commented " it is decisively very comfy, because if you can not find a room in a hotel, you can just sleep in it".

His attention towards his loved ones, was never displayed if not delicately and in good time, creating great amaze every single time.

He was always open to appreciate beauty in all its forms, from the colours imprisoned by the Tuscan hills in spring to the fascinating light emitted onto the skyscrapers while watching the sunset on the beach of Hong Kong: from the ancestral sounds of the clashing ocean waves on the shores of Carmel to the sublime music of Rachmaninov.

Finally, an episode that best describes his personality and style, which encloses a subtle yet powerful lesson, took place during an important conference. During this event, I had to present for the first time the brief strategic therapy method for phobic-obsessive disorders put together under his supervision. Moreover, my presentation had to be held in front of an assizes composed of the most important scholars and experts in the field.

I had obsessively prepared my exposition, allowing a space of time for theoretical dissertation, for the presentation of empirical data and for clinical practice by making use of a videotape that could help prove the real efficacy of the therapy to the rather sceptic public of researchers and colleagues. To my misfortunate, the technician of the hall, in preparing the video had mistakenly recorded over the tape, thus cancelling the content. I got to know this just before starting my presentation. As the reader might understand, I was not only incredulous and irritated for what had happened but I also felt rather frustrated and depressed, anticipating an almost guaranteed flop. I proceeded on in my presentation in rather less assertive way than usual and when I reached the demonstrative part of my presentation, I excused myself with my audience for this incident: I recited the transcription of the case instead of showing the tape, stating the effects of the manoeuvres. Against all my predictions, the public was enthusiastic and had appreciated the presented work. Paul, who had witnessed all this from the rear end of the hall, came close and while patting me on the shoulders, he told me: " besides being smart, you finally looked humble and nice ". Today every one have appreciated your "weakness" and your "error". I will never forget this lesson.

Today, only some days away from his death, while writing these words I suffer even more his loss. However I am content because besides having lived an intense life full of beauty, he had a wonderful death near his beloved Vera.

I believe that in Paul's case, these words become more valuable: "when you lose a very important person, rather than thinking about the misfortunate of having lost him, think about the fortunate of having had him near" .

Arezzo, April 2007


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