Paul Watzlawick


The belief that one’s own view of reality is the only reality is the most dangerous of all delusions.

Paul Watzlawick crossed the second half of the last century like a comet and illuminated generations of scholars and professionals with his ideas, his work and his writings, not only in the areas of psychology, psychiatry and sociology but also in fields away from the Humanities like economics and engineering or in «pure» sciences like physics and biology. In fact, his studies on communication and on change have crossed the barriers of his field and have been applied in various contexts which involve relationships that individuals have with themselves, others and the world. Just like the masterpieces of all the great philosophers, his work is not limited by ideologies nor by the confines of a single scientific prospect, but it goes beyond, down to the roots of “how” human beings construct or better, using his own words, invent their realities. Numerous thinkers and professionals own him their success and fame, by having followed the trail of his bright 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 figure and his ability to synthesise the work of eminent scholars such as Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson and Milton Erickson, into a singular rigorous theoretical and applied model. On the other hand, just to cite some examples, the father of constructivism, Heinz Von Foerster, loved calling himself a Paul Watzlawick’s invention, 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 renowned worldwide.  The 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 the worldwide divulgation of their work. This applies also to all those who, even though they did not have a 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 true, even in my case. I’m truly aware that without Watzlawick, probably very few people would have come to know my work.  His active presence in the foundation of our Strategic Therapy Centre of Arezzo, have turned it into a point of reference in the evolution of brief therapy and strategic problem solving.

Further prove of the greatness of his work, is the fact that Watzlawick is one of the most copied authors: there was also someone who, after having copied entire pages of one of his articles, without obviously citing the source, have become one of his harshest detractors. Since Paul was a very tolerant person and always capable to avoid conflicts — even when doing so might have been more than legitimate — instead of denouncing and shaming publicly the dishonest colleague, he simply, with great style, pointed out this dishonest deed directly to the wrongdoer without proceeding further. The reader might well understand that to underline the prominent contribution of this author and thinker, one would require volumes and volumes of words. Moreover, nobody would be able to describe Watzlawick’s work as greatly as his own writings. 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 held more than fifty workshops and conferences around the world, we have co-authored three books 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 can portrait his persona. In fact, besides being a Master in his science and profession, he was a model of style and philosophy of life.  He was a handsome, soberly elegant gentleman, and a master in the use of subtle irony, irresistibly pleasant to men and fascinating to women. He always showed great humbleness and availability with everyone and he was always ready to learn from others.

He was highly capable in managing adequately 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 were 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 went on accompanied by a great applause and smiles from the public. Once I stood astonished watching him giving 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 by my car, Paul commented ironically my driving style, by declaring that Italy should be shortened. At the hotel, which was called “I tre vecchi”, the three old men, he asked me where the other two men were.  His irony was maybe even more proverbial in another situation: we were waiting 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 clearly very comfy, because if you cannot find a room in a hotel, you can just sleep in it”.

His attention towards his loved ones was never displayed, but so delicate and punctualto surprise each time. He was lovingly caring and always courting his wonderful Vera; he was affectionate and protective toward my partner Elisabet, who he considered as a kind of niece.  He was always open to appreciate beauty in all its forms, from the colours of the Tuscan hills in spring to the fascinating light emitted by 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, one of the episodes that could best describe his personality and style, is enclosed in a subtle yet powerful lesson that he taught me many years ago, during an important conference. During this event, I had to present, for the first time, the brief strategic therapy method for phobic-obsessive disorders that I developed under his supervision. Moreover, my presentation had to be held in front of a public consisting of the most important scholars and experts in the field. I had obsessively prepared my exposition, allowing time for a theoretical dissertation, for the presentation of empirical data and for clinical practice by making use of a videotape that could help proving the real efficacy of the therapy to the rather sceptic public of researchers and colleagues. Unfortunately, the technician of the hall, while preparing my 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 and I anticipated an almost guaranteed flop.

I went on with my presentation in a rather less assertive way than usual and when I reached the demonstrative part of my presentation, I excused myself with the audience for this incident: I recited the transcription of the case instead of showing the tape and I explained the effects of the manoeuvres. Against all my predictions, the public was enthusiastic and showed great appreciation for my work. Paul, who had witnessed all this from the rear end of the hall, came close to me and, while patting me on the shoulders, he told me: ” besides looking smart, you finally looked humble and nice “. Today everyone has appreciated your “weakness” and your “error”. I will never forget this lesson.

Today, only some days after 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 can be considered particularly valuable: “when you lose a very important person, rather than thinking about the misfortune of having lost him, think about the fortune of having had him near”.

Arezzo, April 2007 (in: “Insight may cause blindness”, Wendel A. R., Nardone G. (Eds.), Zeig, Tucker & Theisen, 2009)
Giorgio Nardone