How Do You Deal With Mixed Messages? Pt 2

Ideas. Insight. Inspiration.

How Do You Deal With Mixed Messages? Pt 2

October 16, 2008 Life Skills Persuasion 8

In this second post on the topic of mixed messages, I want to present you with a few more examples, and then talk about what can be done.

Mixed messages get sent in the way we put words together, too. “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” George W. Bush, January 11 2000.  And when our words don’t match our bodies, that’s a mixed message too!  So is smiling while expressing sympathy, or like W.’s dad, George H.W. Bush used to do, when he would point at the voters and say ‘I’ and point at himself and say ‘You.’  I’ve worked with people whose parents gave them mixed messages, like “You never call, I can’t talk.”  “You never visit, but I’m ashamed of how you look.”

Mixed messages are confusing, and when people are confused and things don’t get better, they become cynical, polarized and angry, or they collapse into a state of silence and helplessness. Control freaks, sexual predators and perpetrators of domestic violence frequently use mixed messages, either consciously, or unconsciously (because they learned the behavior pattern from the authority figures in their own lives) as a way of controlling others. In fact, there are several hypnotic techniques that use mixed messages to break down a person’s ability to think and take them into a state of confusion.  But mixed messages have no effect if you notice them and recognize them for what they are. And even if you fail to notice them in time, you can notice the confused state they trigger as a an early warning sign that someone may be messing with your head.

You know the saying… A house divided against itself cannot stand.  Said another way, an organization divided against itself, a nation divided against itself, (and yes, even an individual divided against his or her self…like the person who loves his family and spends no time with them)  cannot stand itself,  because mixed messages give rise to an ever increasing number of negative and difficult behaviors as people try to navigate the confused situation.

When positive change is the promise, but everything actually remains the same or gets worse, well,  it’s like what Washington Irving once wrote:  “There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse! As I have often found in traveling in a stagecoach, it is a comfort to change one’s position, and be bruised in a new place.” ~ Washington Irving

If you work for a  mission driven organization, chances are great that you have attracted many extraordinary people who want to be part of that mission.  But if you keep trying flavor of the month approaches to dealing with changing conditions in the larger community or world, you will inevitably become a breeding ground for cynicism.

The antidote to mixed messages is congruence, where what you say is consistent with what you do, and what you do is consistent with what you say.  There’s a word in mathematics for this matching up, or agreement, among parts.  It’s congruence.  For example, when two triangles have the same size and shape, they are considered congruent.

But in human math, when what we do this week is in agreement with what we did last week, then this week’s actions are congruent with last weeks.  When our habits match our values, and our words match our deeds, that is congruence.  Congruence is personal power.

Congruence is inherent in effective leaders.  We don’t get confused in the presence of it, we get inspired. We can listen to a congruent person, and what we hear matches what we see when we watch them.

And it is with congruence that we can make a difference in our world.  Where do we start? A good beginning is paying attention to the messages that people are getting.  When we detect mixed messages, or incongruence, we can call attention to them quickly.  This prevents that cognitive dissonance that sends people’s minds running.  This allows people to focus forward.  To take bold steps.  To work together.

There’s just no getting around this, though some would have you think we can.  Mixed messages do get sent, they do cause damage, and they do have lingering effects.  To hold the focus in this world, you’ve got to heed the warnings and clear away the mess.   At least once in a while, ask yourself, and ask the people around you, (like I am asking you right now!)  what mixed messages are getting sent that you detect?  What signs of cynicism and confusion are evident around you?   What evidence of congruence do you detect?  What is the effect of it on you?  Confusion or respect?

Your respectful comments are welcome!

be well,



8 Responses

  1. J.D. Meier says:

    Where I work, we use a little reminder phrase to stay congruent … DWYSYWD – Do What You Say You Will Do.

    You reminded me of the importance of congruence and the “leveler” Satyr category.

  2. Paul says:

    What struck me most was your lesson about congruence. That describes me. I say what I’ll do, I do what I say, and if I have doubts, I wait to be sure before speaking or acting. I am consistent and stable, yet I just went through a terrible break up with a young woman I loved very much who was anything but congruent. From our first date, all I got from her were mixed messages. For example: We are from different countries; I live and work in her country. I’d been away for three weeks and when I returned, we immediately had our first date after knowing each other for five months. On that date she said the following: “I’m really really happy you’ve returned! Those three weeks seemed like a year! Would you like to spend Lunar New Year five months from now with me in my home city? By the way, I’ll soon be too busy to see you more than once a month. We’ll go out and have fun, but we’ll never be serious.”

    I thought she was really interested in me but was keeping me at arm’s length in the beginning. We dated often, fell in love, and yet every once in a while she’d devastate me by saying, out of the blue, “I don’t love you, I just like you” or “We’ll just have fun for a few months, that’s all.” But she would belie this with the wonderful way she treated me; she agreed to marry me and said she wanted to give me children; she told me she’d never ever leave me. She would tell me that she told her friends she loved me, then say to me in front of them that we were “just having fun.” She would get furious if I got even so much as a phone call from another person (often it was my boss from work) and insisted that she never wanted another girl to call me because she loved me…yet she constantly got dozens of calls from friends, model agencies asking her to do work for them, and men from different countries. She seemed to think this was no big deal…

    When she finally broke up with me for good, she also broke down, sobbed, and said she wanted to marry me and have children. From start to finish, everything I got from her was a mixed message.

    • @Paul,

      Thanks so much for sharing your story.

      It’s a little late for the love that is lost, but perhaps I can say something of some use for a love yet to come…

      Mixed messages are common, and challenging to relationships in many ways. What strikes me most about your story is that you kept choosing her, which meant you gave tacit agreement to the mixed messages, though you didn’t care for them at all. That’s a mixed message too! It speaks to the fact that you were both confused, I think, in your connection to each other. It’s also obvious that you both cared very deeply for each other. And I’m sorry it didn’t work out.

      Dealing with incongruity in others requires a specific set of skills. It means teasing the messages apart, so they are sequentially congruent instead of simultaneous and incongruent. Once they are apart, you can deal with each set of congruent messages in turn, seek out such things as motivations, values, desires and fears in a way that makes sense, and allows for an honest and connected response.

      Thanks again for sharing your story, and do come back and comment some more!

      best wishes,

      • Paul says:

        Dear Rick,

        Thanks for your reply, it meant a lot to me. To further some points, yes, I agree that I was giving tacit approval to her mixed messages by…continuing to receive them. So I too was giving a mixed message. I was aware of my confusion and frustration at the time it was happening. And yes, you are right, I got hurt because I “continued to choose her.” I see your point; it’s as if you choose the person each day, not just once. You can choose to continue or discontinue the relationship. The power must last with you.

        This is my problem(s): First, this girl’s cultural behavior dictates that the girl says “No, I don’t love you. I don’t want to be with you” for the first 6-12 months of the relationship. The man responds by ignoring this and continuing to insist on his love. If she keeps going out with him, then it is clear her “No” is not truly meant; she really loves him. So, the man presses on and eventually the girl admits she loves him. Knowing this behavior well, I pressed on.

        Second, after two months our relationship got a lot better, including fewer mixed messages, and she really began admitting she loved me.

        Her mixed messages were still there, however, and still frustrated me. And that is where I could not control things. When I only feel slight attraction to a girl, or if she shows great attraction to me yet I have none for her, I have no problem saying “No,” pointing out where I’m unhappy, etc. But when I really fall for a girl (not often, just a few times my whole life) I lose this power. I become afraid for the relationship to end, I fail to confront problems, I remain silent, I let her walk on me. Not “all over” me, I retain some pride, but basically, I put up with too much crap. I become afraid to confront problems, fearing it will cause the end of the relationship.

        The answer is obvious: confrontation will either improve the relationship (good) or it will force the end of a bad relationship (good). But when I’ve fallen for a girl I cannot bring myself to confront, rationalising that it’s better to work things out with time and indirect behavior.

        I know where this comes from. I grew up with a difficult father and while I confronted him, it didn’t do any good. So when I got married – to a difficult woman – and she would literally go berserk over any confrontation, I got conditioned into avoidance.

        So in this relationship, here I was: 46 years old, reasonably attractive, well-educated with a good job and a serious writing career on the bloom. I meet a gorgeous 21 year old model who hates modeling, bars and discos; she’s a down to earth, exuberant, unaffected girl in a society where to have beauty brings with it a license to be a snob. She was funny, affectionate yet proper, dynamic and exciting…and she showed that she really wanted me. Tragically, the mixed messages come fast and furious from the beginning. Too late I realised she’s very insecure. I think she wanted very much for me to love her – she didn’t want to feel rejected. But I don’t think she was especially keen on loving me back. I got it a little, but basically it was “give me love because I need it but I’m just going to have fun with you.”

        That was my trap, but as I said, things seemed to blossom with us for a month or two…and then just as quickly she began withdrawing and then ended the relationship bizarrely, claiming that her family and friends didn’t like me. Never said she didn’t love me anymore…

        But I think my problem will remain, this fear of losing one I really love. Talk to anybody and they’ll tell you I’m a strong, independent, confrontational person in nearly everything…but when I’m unhappy in a relationship that I want to work, I become incapable of summoning up the courage to say, “Look, there’s something we need to discuss…” I just can’t figure out how to deal with that.


        • @Paul,
          Sounds like you would benefit from some coaching! I do not believe that you are incapable, and with a little help, I’m sure you could determine how to deal with this kind of situation. Contact me using the contact form if you’re interested in getting some assistance!
          Thanks again for your comment

  3. Beth says:

    Im at my wits end can you help or give me advice? me and my partner have split up recently, we’ve had contact since, but he is confussing me with mixed messages.
    Examples…if i don’t contact him he contacts me, but will very nice to me, but if i should contact him his attitude becomes sharpe and cocky.
    he will make comments to me like “He’s treated me bad and i don’t deserve it” then say to other people “i can’t live like that” as thou he’s putting blame on me! The reason we broke was because he hit me, i know its wrong but i slapped him back. He changes his comments all the time about the situation one minute he was in the wrong the next he’s a victim, his comments and behavoiur aren’t consistant.
    He says he doesn’t like the person he is, but i haven’t seen any change in him at all, he tells people he’s worries about me, and has feelings for me, its not me its him then after a few days say’s as if he’s forgotten whats he has said comes out with comments like i’ve seen a different side to her lately that i don’t like when we haven’t even seen or spoken to each other, i would be able to understand if we had and things wasn’t so good!
    Other example there is still some of his things at my house he says he wants them back, then doesn’t come for them, there has been many times he’s rang but hasn’t even mentioned it.i’ve tried to make arrangements with him but nothing comes of it.
    Can you help what are your veiws because this is really messing with my head ” what does he want” or does he not know himself or is it game playing.
    Thank You

    • @Beth,
      Hi Beth,

      Thanks for stopping by my blog and for asking your questions. I’ve decided to send you my response privately through an email. Then I’ll post our exchange on my blog at a later date in the hopes of helping others in a similar predicament.

      Suffice it to say, I think you are also sending mixed messages, and this is a big part of the problem for you. If it is over, it’s over. (And in my opinion, if a guy hits you, it should be over! Hitting him back was better than standing there and taking it. But your best option with emotional or physical abuse is distance.)

      Now his stuff is his stuff, and your patterns are yours. You need to set the boundary with him clearly and definitively, quit concerning yourself with what he says to others and to you, and work through what this has brought up for you in yourself. I’ll have more to say in my private message to you.

      Best wishes,

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