Rigidity, Fluidity and the Mixed Message

Toward the end of the cuban missile crisis in 1962, tensions were rising and nuclear war was becoming a near certainty. Russia and Cuba were constructing a nuclear site on Cuba with a firing range that could devastate over 80% of USA’s land. Russia famously denied any such plan at the United Nations Meeting that year, but USA had spy photos confirming the activity.

Public threats, navy blockades, back channel communications. Kennedy vs Khrushchev. But also behind the scenes the Kennedy brothers were battling their own military brass who were itching to fight the communists.

On day 11 of the crisis, Khrushchev telexed the White House agreeing to pull out of Cuba. After all the meetings and threats the crisis was over. On the morning of day 12, the Kremlin sent another telex contradicting their telex from the night before: they were proceeding with the Cuban site and threatening war.

What do you do when you receive a mixed message from someone?  How do you handle contradictory signals?

The White House was at a loss of what to do. Had Russia experienced a Ku de Tat overnight?  Was Khrushchev still in power?   Were both messages from him, or did two different people send two different messages not knowing about the other? When you’re in cold war with someone, you cannot simply pick up the phone and ask. The White House was in a dilemma and the stakes were as high as can be.

Bobby Kennedy suggested what appeared to be an absurd solution: act on the message you like, ignore the message you don’t like. Proceed as if you never received the second message. It worked and has since become a literal textbook case in human communications.

We receive mixed messages from people all the time and they cause anxiety in us because they put us into cognitive dissonance. The worst form of mixed message is a “double bind.”

Here is an example of a classic double bind: A mother gives her son two shirts for Christmas, a blue shirt and a red shirt.  The son likes both shirts equally, but later in the day, he comes to the dinner table wearing the blue shirt.  The mother remarks, “What’s the matter, don’t you like the red shirt?”

A double bind is where you cannot possibly hit the target.  Narcissists and abusers are specialists in putting people into double binds. If you are in a relationship of frequent double binds, seek help as soon as you can.

But for the more frequent, less toxic mixed message, the Bobby Kennedy solution is effective: proceed with the preferred message. Ignore the contradictory message.

The reason this little dynamic works is because of the simple reality that most communication is fluid, not rigid, yet we often receive communication as rigid.  Very rarely does someone communicate rigid, fixed unbending message. Often times, people do not even realize they are sending mixed messages. By proceeding with one, ignoring the other, you place the burden of clarity where it belongs – back onto the communicator.  The communicator can then clarify what they really mean or as often happens, passively do nothing.  Amazingly, that is what Khrushchev did.  When JFK took his brother’s advice and proceeded to act on the preferred message, Russia complied and the crisis was averted.

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