Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 36;   September 4, 2019: How Messages Get Mixed

How Messages Get Mixed

by

Although most authors of mixed messages don't intend to be confusing, message mixing does happen. One of the most fascinating mixing mechanisms occurs in the mind of the recipient of the message.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other people

Warren, an engineer, is attending a meeting with 14 other people. You can't see the others, because he's attending virtually. The others can see each other because they're attending in person. And they can see Warren's image on their laptops. This kind of asymmetrical arrangement can distort meeting outcomes.

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 non-verbal — 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
contradictory interpretations
of what they see or hear
second 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. 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Availability and Self-Assessments  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict 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 welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

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.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

The robotic explorer OpportunityDefinitions of Insanity
When leaders try to motivate organizational change, they often resort to clever sloganeering. One of the most commonly used slogans is a definition of insanity. Unfortunately, that definition doesn't pass the sanity test.
Secretary Tom Ridge, President George W. Bush, and Administrator Michael BrownWhen Stress Strikes
Most of what we know about person-to-person communication applies when levels of stress are low. But when stress is high, as it is in emergencies, we're more likely to make mistakes. Knowing those mistakes in advance can be helpful in avoiding them.
A business meetingStart the Meeting with a Check-In
Check-ins give meeting attendees a chance to express satisfaction or surface concerns about how things are going. They're a valuable aid to groups that want to stay on course, or get back on course when needed.
"The Thinker," by Auguste RodinThey Just Don't Understand
When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others. The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others.
A cat sleeping on grassColumbo Tactics: I
When the less powerful must deal with the more powerful, or the much more powerful, the less powerful can gain important advantages by adapting the strategy and tactics of the TV detective Lt. Columbo. Here's Part I of a collection of his tactics.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Cognitive Biases at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Delicate Arch, a 60-foot tall (18 m) freestanding natural archComing November 20: Paid-Time-Off Risks
Associated with the trend to a single pool of paid time off from separate categories for vacation, sick time, and personal days are what might be called paid-time-off risks. If your team must meet customer expectations or a schedule of deliverables, managing paid-time-off risks can be important. Available here and by RSS on November 20.
What an implicit interrogation can look likeAnd on November 27: Implicit Interrogations
Investigations at work can begin with implicit interrogations — implicit because they're unannounced and unacknowledged. The goal is to determine what people did or knew without revealing that an investigation is underway. When asked, those conducting these interrogations often deny they're doing it. What's the nature of implicit interrogations? Available here and by RSS on November 27.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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:

Reprinting this article

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 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers

On 14The Race
to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program.

Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The
Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.