context based approaches to psychotherapy as well as focus on the vital role of the therapist’s preconceptions in bringing forth socially constructed reality is highlighted by Mary-Ann Norfleet, Professor at Stanford and long-lasting colleague of Paul Watzlawick.

Paul Watzlawick was a pioneer in the development of brief therapy and interactional theories of communication applied to human relationships. Most of his long and distinguished career was spent at the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, California, also referred to as the “Palo Alto School.”  He was a prolific researcher, writer and lecturer, often lecturing for two months every year in Europe.  He spoke several languages and was able to lecture in the native language of most of the western European countries.

His work in communication theory was very influential in psychology and most particularly in family therapy and it is appliable in social contexts – families, classrooms, work groups, etc. His interactional view within human systems was ground breaking and was the foundation for context based approaches to psychotherapy. He posited that people interact in a systemic manner. And he was one of the first psychologists to emphasize the vital role of the therapist’s preconceptions in bringing forth socially constructed reality. His work elucidated the understanding of equal power between communicators in symmetrical communication and power differentials between communicators in complementary communication. He and Gregory Bateson discussed metacommunication as the “communication about communication” where a person might say one thing while their body language might communicate something different.

Dr. Watzlawick’s work influenced generations of psychotherapists to be aware of the social context and the patterns of relationships between/among people in personal relationships – including body language, nonverbal communication, and the idea that people in groups have a group dynamic. The premise that they are a system with rules for communication and behavior is an essential part of understanding human relationships in families, schools, businesses and all types of socially connected groups.

He left his legacy to the modern MRI whose mission is “to explore and support the development of innovative interactional, systemic approaches to understanding and improving human relationships.” It was and is strongly influenced by his work at MRI in Palo Alto, California. The MRI is continuing to support research in areas consistent with this mission. Dr. Watzlawick’s work has contributed a firm foundation to further development of interactional, systemic approaches and this work both honors and reflects on his seminal contributions to this field, which is now a well-established paradigm for working with people in a variety of settings.

ZUR AUTORIN: Mary Ann Norfleet, Ph.D., ABPP; Adjunct Clinical Professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine; Board Member of the modern Mental Research Institute/Palo Alto

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