Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to
 Double (Mixed) Messages

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/double.htm

Updated  04/11/2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behaviors. An effective response occurs when you (a) get your primary needs met well enough, and (b) both people feel respected enough.

To get the most from this article, read these first:


      Face to face, we communicate simultaneously over three "channels": verbal (words); paraverbal (voice dynamics - tone, rhythm, accent, volume, etc.); and nonverbal (face and body language). Our amazing brain can simultaneously send different - and sometimes contradictory - messages on each channel.

      Thus my words may say "I'm not upset." and my voice dynamics and eye contact may say ("I'm enraged / sad / frustrated / etc.!"). English speakers call this common communication dynamic a double or mixed message. Are you usually aware of receiving them? Can you describe how you feel?

      Depending on the context, normal conscious and unconscious responses are confusion, doubt,  anxiety, frustration ("What do you really mean?"), impatience, and perhaps laughter. Mixed messages differ from puns, which use spoken words' several meanings - like bus and buss, or snort (a stiff drink or a nasal sound) - to cause humor. Puns are usually delivered synchronously on all three channels, unless a subself is broadcasting glee.

      Some cultures prize little or no facial and body language, which may promote subtle double messages. have you ever conversed with "an inscrutable Oriental" or an "unemotional Englishman"?

       The idea that normal personalities are composed of semi-independent subselves explains why double messages occur - usually unconsciously: for example, your diligent People Pleaser subself may cause you to say "Great to see you!", as your Inner Critic signals "Yeah, just great. We'll probably be bored to death again!" with your face and body language. This has caused the timeless observation that "Words can lie - bodies can't."

      Some people become so adept at controlling all three communication channels that they're called "glib," "slick," "pathological liars," "phony," "scam artists," and "crooks."  Know anyone like this? A common problem with (wounded) people who try and mask their real feelings and thoughts is other people distrusting and avoiding them.

Response Options

  • Be alert for feeling confused or "uneasy" in important social conversations, and use objective process-awareness to check for conflicting messages on several communication channels.

  • Check yourself and your partner for who guides your teams of subselves. If a false-self does, you have a bigger problem than double messages. If your partner's Self is disabled, (wounded), see these options.

  • Check your attitude about your partner. If it's not mutual respect, suspect that a false self governs you, and decide what you want to do about that.

  • Check your current E(motion)-level. If it's "above your ears," take comfortable breaths and decide what needs that suggests. Option - ask your partner for hearing check.

  • Decide what outcome you need from your response. Do you need to vent, instruct, confront, clarify, or something else?

  • Depending on your purpose, compose a statement like these...

"(Name), I'm confused. Your words say __________, but your face / body / voice suggests _______________.

"(Name), I'm getting a double / mixed message from you."

"(Name), you say nothing's wrong, but you won't meet my eyes."

"(Name), you say it was awful, and you chuckle. Are you aware of that?"

And if the person knows about personality subselves, you might say...

"(Name), it seems like part of you feels _________, and another part of you wants deny that."

  • If appropriate, ask if your partner is willing to hear some personal feedback. Usually curiosity and politeness will yield a nod and/or "OK." Then deliver your feedback calmly, with steady eye contact (if you can get it). Expect some "resistance," like denial, an explanation, a shrug, silence, "So what?," indifference, whining, etc. If appropriate, use empathic listening to affirm the "resistance" - e.g. ...

 "So you don't feel you're giving me a mixed message" (or whatever).

Then repeat your feedback until you get the outcome you need, or it becomes clear that you won't.

  • If the person habitually gives you double messages, an optional response is...

"(Name), I'm getting another confusing double message from you. I'm starting to doubt / distrust what you tell me."

      Reflect - what are you thinking and feeling about these optional responses? Do they seem practical and useful? If not - why? If your reasons sound like...

"No-one talks like this."

"S/He'd think I was wacko."

"I might hurt their feelings."

"Too much trouble!"

"S/He'd cut me off."

"S/He'd be insulted."

suspect that a protective false-self is generating your thoughts. Your true Self might say something like...

"Hm. Different. Might work; what's to lose? I'll experiment with responses like these."

      Stay aware that these are illustrations, not cookbook examples. Sense the theme of these responses, and invent your own!


      This article offers ways to respond effectively to individual or chronic mixed or double messages. It suggests that often, these confusing communications result from the person being controlled by a false self. These responses are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge of your personality,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your mutual personal rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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