Double Binded Communication


Often we send ‘mixed messages’ to people. It can be a source of dis-ease in a relationship when a partner or loved one is giving you two opposing messages at the same time. This creates a double-bind as there is not an effective way to respond correctly to the communication.

Most commonly the opposing messages are coming from two different forms of communication – verbal and non-verbal.

A person can, therefore, say two things at the same time which are in conflict or contradict each other.

Example. If I were to say to you (verbally) “I am so happy to see you – come towards me!” While I started walking away from you with a disinterested facial expression. I am telling you two things at the same time “I am happy to see you and I want to connect (verbally) … and I am indifferent about you and don’t want to be around you (non-verbally).

This dissonance tends to cause anxiety in the receiver.

Often the non-verbal communication is being transmitted emotionally – so we can ‘sense’ a discrepancy in what is being said and what is being emoted (for example, people often will respond to “how are you doing?” with an answer such as “really great” when the person is emotionally far from feeling ‘great’.


It is important for us humans to be able to correctly deduce communication so that we have continual feedback concerning the nature of our relationship – we need reassurance that everything is ‘ok’, that we are effectively understanding the other person, and that we are reading the needs of the other person accurately.

Double binded communication removes the congruent feedback mechanism – we, therefore, do not have an effective means of deducing the state of our relationship with the other person. Additionally, we do not have a way to respond effectively to double binded communication (ex. if some who is emoting ‘sadness’ reports that they are ‘happy’… do you respond to ‘sad’ or to ‘happy’… do we respond as if they are ‘fine’ or ‘in need of assistance’? The resulting emotions range anywhere from annoyance to terror.

Children are exceptionally susceptible to double binded communication as it impedes their ability trust their intuition, to develop an ability to effectively empathize, and to trust that people mean what they say.

Adults use double binded communication frequently as a means of appearing professional, being polite, and avoiding conflict etc.

Much double binded communication is unconscious – Every human on the planet has automatic emotional reactions that flash upon our faces called in response to the environment (micro-expressions). a micro expression cannot be controlled – so if you verbalize an opinion that contradicts your emotional reaction to a stimulus, you will be engaging in a form of double binded communication.

For example – let us pretend you are visiting a different culture that has cuisines that you have been implicitly programmed to have a disgust reaction to… If your host says,” we are so happy to have you – and we have good news – we have a fresh selection of the areas finest insects for us to eat tonight.” likely your micro expression would be a combination of fear and disgust… if you then said, “thank you, I am so happy to enjoy the cuisine of your culture.” you would be sending out double binded communication = you say that you are happy, but you are emoting disgust and fear. The solution is difficult in this example as you likely have the goal of not being offensive or impolite = Saying “wow I am disgusted by insects and am fearful about eating them” would likely no go over too well…

There are many other instances where congruence is the best option (meaning what you say), but this can be difficult in a culture that places less value on vulnerability and honesty … and perhaps more value on professionalism, being polite, and avoiding conflict.

to avoid double binded communication we need to develop self-awareness of our emotional state – and increase our courage to communicate messages which reflect our emotional reality accurately.








William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

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