The term mixed message refers to a statement that's internally contradictory or that contradicts another statement from the same party. We also apply the term to statements — verbal or nonverbal — that are unclear or ambiguous enough to allow internally contradictory interpretations. The problem with such statements is not merely that they rarely have the intended effect; the problem is that the effect of mixed messages might be exactly what their authors are trying to avoid or prevent. So if you want to communicate X and the recipient of your mixed message interprets it as not-X, there's a chance that you'll get exactly what you didn't want.
For example, suppose a supervisor announces that henceforth Thursday from 1pm to 5pm will be quiet hours with no meetings. The supervisor would be sending a mixed message by scheduling a regular "short meeting" for Thursday noon and then consistently letting it run past 1pm. Before long, other meetings will be scheduled for the quiet hours, and the quiet hours will gradually fade away.
Mixed messages are far more common than we realize, for two reasons. One is that given a collection of messages, we might not be aware of contradictions among them. That's what happens in the example above, where the actual practice of conducting a meeting contradicts the stated policy banning meetings during the quiet hours.
But a A subtle source of message mixing
is our general unawareness of how
cognitive biases interact to cause
people to generate inherently
of what they see or hearsecond and more subtle source of message mixing is our general lack of awareness of how cognitive biases interact to cause people to generate inherently contradictory interpretations of what otherwise seem to be clear and unambiguous statements. And this source of message mixing is the more interesting one, because the message as framed by the sender isn't mixed. The mixing occurs in the mind of the recipient.
Here's an example:
Warren is an engineer with special expertise in cybersecurity. He's a member of a team that meets every Thursday at 10am for about an hour. Although everyone else attends in person, Warren prefers to attend virtually. Lately the team has been encountering controversies that mostly involve cybersecurity, and debates have been energetic. Warren's supervisor, Kate, has repeatedly asked Warren to attend these meetings in person, but he hasn't. Finally, she tells him, by telephone, "Warren, I need you to attend our Thursday meetings in person. And if for some reason you can't, I need you to call me in advance and we'll talk about it."
Seems clear enough. Warren is to attend in person, unless he talks with Kate first, presumably to get a waiver.
But that isn't how Warren hears the message from Kate. What Warren hears is, "I can keep attending remotely if I call Kate first and tell her I'll be remote." Warren thinks this is, "stupid, but hey, I can jump through hoops if that's what she wants."
It could be that Warren is just a rebellious jerk. But another possibility is that two cognitive biases — among the many biases that affect us all — are at the root of Warren's misinterpretation of Kate's message. In this example, two candidate cognitive biases are Confirmation Bias and the Focusing Illusion.
- Confirmation bias
- Confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to seek information that confirms our preconceptions, while we avoid information that might contradict those preconceptions. [Nickerson 1998] It can also cause us to tend to overvalue information supporting our preconceptions, and undervalue information that contradicts them. See "Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part I," Point Lookout for November 23, 2011, for more.
- The focusing illusion
- The focusing illusion is a cognitive bias that leads to attaching too much significance to one feature of an event, a thing, or a situation, and too little significance to other attributes. See "The Focusing Illusion in Organizations," Point Lookout for January 19, 2011, for more.
In the example of Kate and Warren above, Kate's two-part message to Warren is, "attend meetings in person, and if you can't, then call me and we'll talk." But Warren wants very much to attend meetings virtually. When he hears Kate's two-part message, the focusing illusion causes him to focus on the part of the message he likes: "if you can't, then call me and we'll talk."
Warren's confirmation bias tends to lead him to seek interpretations he likes, and to avoid interpretations he doesn't like. So "call me and we'll talk," suggests to Warren that there will be an opportunity for Warren to defend his request to attend the meeting virtually. He doesn't include in his considerations other interpretations, such as a conversation about his unconstructive attitude or his substandard job performance.
So how could Kate have framed her message to limit the risks arising from confirmation bias and the focusing illusion? A one-part message is a good option. The second part — the clause that covers a possible exceptional case when Warren can't attend a meeting in person — isn't really necessary. Contacting one's supervisor in exceptional circumstances that affect performance is generally a default option that applies to everything. Using this one-part message approach, Kate could have said, simply, "Warren, we need you to attend the Thursday meetings in person." Such a simple statement leaves little room — or at least, less room — for misinterpretation.
Because over 200 distinct cognitive biases have been reported in the literature, message mixing that occurs in the mind of the recipient is difficult to avoid. But we can make some progress in limiting the risk by crafting messages that are simple and clear. Top Next Issue
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Decision Making and the Straw Man
- In project work, we often make decisions with incomplete information. Sometimes we narrow the options
to a few, examine their strengths and risks, and make a choice. In our deliberations, some advocates
use a technique called the Straw Man fallacy. It threatens the soundness of the decision, and its use
is very common.
- Naming Ideas
- Participants in group discussions sometimes reference each other's contributions using the contributor's
name. This risks offending the contributor or others who believe the idea is theirs. Naming ideas is
- High Falutin' Goofy Talk: II
- Speech and writing at work are sometimes little more than high falutin' goofy talk, filled with puff
phrases of unknown meaning and pretentious, tired images. Here's Part II of a collection of phrases
and images to avoid.
- More Things I've Learned Along the Way: IV
- When I gain an important insight, or when I learn a lesson, I write it down. Here's Part IV from my
personal collection. Example: When it comes to disputes and confusion, one person is enough.
- Significance Messages
- Communications about important matters must provide both the facts of a situation and the significance
of those facts. The facts often receive adequate attention, but at times the significance of the facts
is worthy of more attention than the facts.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 4: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
- Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
- And on October 11: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: II
- Self-importance is one of four major themes of conversational narcissism. Knowing how to recognize the patterns of conversational narcissism is a fundamental skill needed for controlling it. Here are eight examples that emphasize self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 11.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info