Communication skills: How to handle mixed messages & RETURN TO SENDER

A mixed message is a message that can be taken different ways. Mixed messages cause lots of communication problems in intimate relationships and in relationships in general.

First of all, you need to know when you’re are getting a double or 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.

When you receive a double or mixed message, without expectation or demand for change, send both messages back to the sender. Give both message back as feedback to the sender. 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 then the sender is mostly likely to be hurt, angry and defensive.

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

WHEN WORDS DO NOT MATCH WORDS: Examples of what to say.

1. Last week you said your 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).

WHEN WORD DO NOT MATCH BEHAVIORS: Examples of what to say.

1. I don’t get it. You complain about me not helping (words) yet you re-do everything I do (behaviors).

2. I’m confused. 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 often go off by yourself (behaviors).


1. I’m puzzled. You say you’re fine (words) yet you look sad (body language).

2. I’m confused. 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 your partner from sending you mixed messages. What you can do is change how you respond to them. By telling the other about your confusion you are letting them know the impact of their behavior on you. This has the potential to improve communication.

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 communication.

Experiment with this skill and see how communication shifts.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea Mackay.

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