Communication Skill 3: How to Handle Mixed Messages

Mixed messages

Mixed messages cause lots of communication problems in intimate relationships and in relationships in general.

A mixed message (or double message) is communication that sends conflicting information, verbally and/or non-verbally.

First of all, you need to know when you are receiving a mixed message. The way you know is by your feelings (confused) and your thoughts (puzzled). These feelings and thoughts are your cues to guide what you say and do in response.

When messages do not match they are incongruent and come in various forms:

  • 1. What a person says conflicts with what they said previously.
  • 2. What a person does conflicts with what they did previously.
  • 3. What a person says conflicts with what they do.
  • 4. What a person says conflicts with their body language.

How to respond

When you receive a mixed message, without expectation or demand for change, send both messages back to the sender. Share your confusion of thoughts and feelings. Report what was said, what was observed and describe behaviors. When you communicate in this way, the sender is more likely to respond in a positive, reasonable way. If you respond in an attacking, blaming, contemptuous or sarcastic manner, the sender is most likely to be hurt, angry and defensive.

You cannot control how the sender receives your feedback; you can only control how you deliver it.



  • 1. I’m puzzled.  Last week you said you think mothers should stay home with their babies (words), and now you’re saying mothers should work outside the home to be good role models for their children (words). I’m wondering which you believe or if you believe both.
  • 2. I’m having trouble figuring this out. You just told me you love me very much (words), and now you’re saying you need some space from me (words).


  • 1. I don’t get it. You complain about me not helping (words), yet you re-do everything I do (behaviors).
  • 2. I’m not sure what to do. You say you want me to be affectionate (words), yet when I touch you, you push me away (behaviors).
  • 3. I’m confused. You said you would help me (words), but now you’re going to the store.
  • 4. I’m puzzled. You said you wanted to spend more time with your kids (words), but when they are here, you spend a lot of time on your phone (behaviors).


  • 1.  You say you’re fine (words), yet you look sad (body language).
  • 2. I’m not sure what to believe. You said you like my plans for Saturday night (words), yet the tone of your voice has an angry edge to it (body language).
  • 3. You say you’re listening to me (words), but you have not looked at me (body language), so I’m not sure.

You cannot stop or prevent others from sending you mixed messages. What you can do is change how you respond to them. By telling the other person about your confusion, you are letting them know the impact of their behavior on you. This has the potential to improve connection.

When the other knows they are sending mixed messages, they can clarify. It could be that they are not really conflicted and don’t realize they are sounding or acting like they are.

If the sender is truly conflicted, however, your feedback brings their incongruence to their attention. It’s like holding a mirror up to them so that they can more clearly see themselves. Now, if they want, they can address it. This too, has the potential to improve connection.

Experiment with this skill and see how communication and connection shifts.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea


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2 Responses to “Communication Skill 3: How to Handle Mixed Messages”

  1. David Pettingell says:

    I’m very confused regarding my relationship with my case worker. I feel I’m in a sort of double-bind. Although she has been very helpful to me in reorganizing my life after a divorce, there are times I get mixed messages, as if her empathy disappears suddenly.
    But recently I feel it was more blatant so to speak. I had been planning my first vacation in over a decade and was very excited about it. She helped me – albeit not really significantly – in the preparations. We meet once a week. Although she advised me on this and that, she never seemed to reach a level of sincere excitement for me. This was after all a major move for me, especially considering I was going on an 800 mile motorcycle/camping trip, alone. I have no one frankly in my life but her to share my feelings. Nor do I have anyone else to check-in with along the way regarding my wellbeing. Even a store clerk warned me that I should have someone to be informed regularly. To me she seemed to be too matter-of-fact about it in retrospect. Nor did she suggest a phone meeting in the midst of my two-week expected trip.
    During our last meeting, the day before I left, I was sort of let down by her lack of enthusiasm. I think I was expecting too much. Anyway, as I walked her out to her vehicle about 50 yards away, she pulled away which was unusual. It concerned me because it was unusual. I didn’t try to keep up. As she was about to enter her car, I called, “I guess I’ll be seeing you, then.” That was on a Thursday morning. She didn’t reply until Monday which was hurtful enough, but since I was on the road I didn’t hear the phone ring, so she left a voice mail message. She passed of my concern as inconsequential since she was rushed for another client and didn’t mean anything by it. She also said – twice in fact – that she really regretted not being able to speak to me directly. However, she should have guessed I was probably riding and couldn’t answer. She didn’t suggest calling her back – actually all I could do anyway would be to reach her office answering machine not her cell – nor did she say she would try back which to me would have been the obvious remark. What also bothered me was that for all she knew, something may have gone wrong which could have been my reason for not answring. That doesn’t seem to show much concern from my case worker. Well, it’s Wednesday, and she hasn’t tried to call again, nor at this point to I expect her to.
    I very confused and concerned because there have been a few such situations in the past, though not as obvious. I feel stuck. I feel I have already expressed myself in my message. Yet, I think also maybe my feelings didn’t sink in and needed more emphasis or clarification. Yet I feel her message already plus her previous body language which although mixed messages in the whole context of our relationship, are becoming more and more crystal clear – that perhaps I have been deceived, and that her true feelings have shown through and I must make a decision whether or not to continue a relationship on such false pretenses.
    Plus, I feel to be caught in a double-bind which is very uncomfortable. But what makes it all the more trying is that I am so alone in the world, and I must admit losing her affirmation will not help my self image.
    I guess I’m reaching out to you for much needed advise. Thank you.

  2. bea says:

    It seems to me your case worker is trying to keep clear boundaries with you. What you need is more people in your life. The best way to do that is to do activities you enjoy with other people who enjoy the same activities. Join a club, play a sport, join a choir – whatever you find interesting and meaningful in your life. It is not easy to make good friends yet well worth the effort. Good luck.