Do your partner’s communications confuse you? Sometimes do their facial expressions and body language fail to match the words they say and lead to misunderstanding and hurt feelings. Learning how to communicate with clarity is a skill that builds strong and happy relationships. It is a skill you can learn easily.
We all send mixed messages.
We send a mixed message when we say one thing and mean another. Our tone, facial expressions, or our body language conflict with our words.
An angry person might say everything is fine while closing his fists tightly. Someone might say “Fine, go ahead to the party without me” with a sad expression and cracking voice. The meaning of the words “I don’t care” can vary. If said with a biting tone and the arms of the speaker folded, these words might mean the exact opposite or they may have been uttered in resigned frustration. Sometimes it’s difficult to suss out.
Our words account for only part of our total communication. Messages are also communicated by posture, gestures, facial expression, vocal tone, and other qualities of voice. If your words do not match with the tone of your non-verbal communication, then you are sending a mixed message.
Mixed messages confuse the receiver, who May or may not ask for clarification. When you know how to communicate with clarity, you align your words with your vocal tone, facial expression, and body language. This alignment of elements leads to more coherent communication and reduces confusion and friction in relationships.
What makes people send mixed messages?
Mixed messages reflect internal conflict in the speaker. Let’s see how this might play out in Janet and Dave’s marriage:
Janet’s husband Dave informs her that he has reserved Sunday mornings to play golf with his buddies. The words sting, and Janet isn’t sure why. A part of her wants to be a good sport and support her husband’s interest. Another part of Janet feels hurt, taken for granted, and abandoned. She believes that Dave would think she is trying to restrict his freedom if she asks him not to go. To avoid an argument, she opts to encourage his choice to play golf with his buddies.
But Janet’s inner struggle continues. It leaves her in turmoil each Sunday as she kisses her husband goodbye with the sadness of a five-year-old girl on her face. After a couple of weeks, Dave picks up on Janet’s mixed message. He asks her if she really feels comfortable with his playing golf. He tells her how sad she looks when she says goodbye, leading him to feel it isn’t really all right. Janet admits to her feelings of hurt and abandonment. She asks her Dave to consider changing his golf dates to every other Sunday and to plan a couple of weekends at the seashore together. He agrees.
Later in the summer, Janet realizes Dave would miss his favorite tournament if he keeps to their agreed schedule. She doesn’t want him to lose out on something she knows is important to him, and urges him to play even though it is an off weekend.
A 5-Step Strategy – Communicate with Clarity in Your Relationship
Step 1: Before uttering a mixed message or shaky communication, take a few moments. You can always count to ten or take several breaths before speaking. Search inside yourself for areas of rebellion, rumbling, or contradiction. Explore how an inner conflict might feel in your body. For instance, your throat might feel dry, your chest tight, or your palms sweaty. If you feel conflicted, you might need more time before you speak. Let me give you a trick that therapists use to buy time when unsure how to respond: They ask the client, “Can you say more about that?” Try it. (In Janet’s case, she could’ve stalled for time by asking what the golf dates meant to her husband.)
Step 2: Decide whether you’re clear about what you want to communicate. If you’re still uneasy, try to identify the source. You may still feel uncertain or confused and not ready for a solution. (Janet had the option to postpone her response to Dave until she was ready.)
Step 3: The decision about whether to share your inner conflict is always yours. Carefully consider the time, place and likely reaction of the receiver of your communication. (Janet decided to share her inner conflict to help her husband understand her mixed messages.)
Step 4: Explore your anxiety at sharing your inner conflict. Is it based on a fear of rejection, ridicule, or abandonment? (Janet had the option of searching her past for similar experiences to help her understand her strong reaction.)
Step 5: If you decide to share your inner conflict, you could open the conversation with something like “I find that I’m having some mixed feelings about what you’re saying. I wonder if we can talk about this some more.” (Janet and Dave had the option to discuss her conflict, which opened the door for them to find a compromise they both felt comfortable with.)
Your communication (and your relationship) will improve if you can avoid mixed messages and learn how to communicate with clarity in your relationship. Try this 5 step strategy and pay attention to how your partner responds. Check in with yourself around your own confidence in your conversations. If you find this process difficult, consider reaching out for help. For over 40 years we have taught couples how to communicate with clarity by giving them a toolbox of skills that can easily be learned with practice. We can help you too.
Reach out for a complimentary phone call to explore how we can help you learn to communicate with clarity and build a strong and happy relationship.