Paul Watzlawick, Therapist Behind Rapid Diagnosis Strategy, Dies at 85

Posted by Jason Newland on

Paul Watzlawick, a therapist who advanced a novel strategy for rapid diagnosis and treatment of problems that occur in marriages and families, died on March 31 at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 85.

The cause was cardiac arrest, his family said.

In the 1960s, Dr. Watzlawick (pronounced WATS-la-wick) and others developed an influential theory known as brief therapy, in which behavioral and psychological problems are treated in no more than 10 sessions. The theory was largely refined at the Mental Research Institute, an independent training center for therapists in Palo Alto.

In dealing with marital discord, family violence and sexual dysfunction, Dr. Watzlawick and his colleagues proposed that a patient’s attempts to cope often significantly contributed to the problem. The therapists tried to identify the larger issues quickly before showing a patient his role in perpetuating conflict or dysfunction. The treatments were sometimes given using hypnosis but without medications, which Dr. Watzlawick believed frequently masked the underlying issues.

Wendel A. Ray, a professor of family system theory at the University of Louisiana, Monroe, said the result was a “high success rate, on the order of 75 percent,” in effecting cures, mostly by “clearly assessing the problem and then convincing people to desist in their ineffective attempts to make the situation better.”

Dr. Watzlawick, who was in private practice, later explained brief therapy in a popular book, “The Situation is Hopeless, But Not Serious” (1983). Using humor and a fast pace, he wrote another book, “Ultra-Solutions: How to Fail Most Successfully” (1988), in which he gave “anecdotes about the kind of knots we get ourselves into and how we struggle to extricate ourselves,” Dr. Ray said.

Dr. Watzlawick was interested in issues of communication in therapy and studied nonverbal forms of expression and the way information is exchanged in normal conversation.

Paul Watzlawick was born in Villach, Austria. He earned his doctorate in philosophy and modern languages from the University of Venice in 1949.

He subsequently trained in psychotherapy at the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich and received a diploma in 1954.

Dr. Watzlawick taught at Temple University and the University of El Salvador before joining the Mental Research Institute in 1960. He later taught at Stanford, as a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

Dr. Watzlawick, who remained an Austrian citizen, is survived by his wife, Vera; a sister, Maria Wunsch of Villach; and two stepdaughters, Joanne, of Kansas City, Kan., and Yvonne, of Morgan Hill, Calif.


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