Chapter 19: Meta-communication
Meta-communication is communication about communication. When communication isn’t working, you can use meta-communication to help you figure out why and to make things better in the future. Many of the techniques we talk about are meta-communication in a broad sense, but in this chapter we’ll talk about a particular kind of meta-communication: conversations you can have once to make lots of future conversations better.
What if someone often uses a particular word or phrase that sparks an unhelpfully defensive reaction in you? Meta-communication can help: bring it up a single time so you don’t continue tripping over it again and again. What if a particular kind of misunderstanding arises over and over again? Meta-communication can help: bring it up once to talk about how to avoid the misunderstanding in the future or how to deal with it more gracefully when it does happen.
Pace’s Story: Learning to Emote
Kyeli and I used to have lots of miscommunications because I’m still learning to emote: to express my emotions nonverbally. She would often perceive my lack of facial expression as me feeling distant or cold, when on my end I was simply forgetting or neglecting to emote. We had some meta-communication about this; we talked about this issue, including some helpful examples from recent conversations. Kyeli talked about her perceptions and feelings. I talked about why emoting is difficult for me given how I was raised. We came to a better understanding of each other, and since then, every time this has happened it’s been less of a problem.
What if a contentious topic arises frequently and there’s no easy solution? Meta-communication can help to figure out boundaries. If the topic can be postponed or only discussed at specific times, then you can limit or reduce the unpleasantness. On the other hand, if it’s not something that can be postponed or ignored, then the only way out is through.
Pace’s Story: Meta-Money
Money used to be a problematic issue for us. We argued about it once or twice a week. It stressed us out and I wanted to make it better, so I asked for some meta-communication. We talked about how we could reduce the frequency or unpleasantness of the money conversations. After talking about it for a while, we agreed to stick to our budget during the month and let non-urgent money conversations wait until the end of the month, when we balance the monthly budget. This works much better for us. We still have a stressful conversation once a month, but that’s a vast improvement over having it happen all the time.
Having one big stressful conversation can feel daunting and scary, but in the long run it’s usually better than having lots of little stressful conversations more frequently.
Meta-communication can also be used to pause a conversation in order to talk about an important issue that might be blocking progress on the main conversation. If progress in a conversation is slow or difficult, consider using meta-communication to figure out why.
Kyeli’s Story: A Tangent of Reconnection
One night, we were having an intense discussion. I got upset and lost in the emotions I was feeling. Pace offered me a hug, but I said I was not in a place to be hugged right then.
She said she wanted to help me feel better before we continued the original discussion, so we postponed everything to talk about how hurt and conflicted I was feeling. I talked a while, had a good cry, and worked it out until I felt more clear. Then we hugged (several times), and settled back into the original conversation.
It was important to me that we engaged in this form of meta-communication. If we hadn’t taken time out to reconnect and reassure each other that we’re on the same team, the conversation would have only become worse and I would have gotten more and more upset.
In this story, we stopped our initial conversation to have an important meta-conversation about reconnecting and being on the same team. When we felt resolved with the meta-conversation, we returned to the initial conversation.
It can help to have a meta-conversation if you find yourself becoming upset, getting lost in your emotions, or if the original conversation gets stuck for some other reason. Meta-communicate to find solutions to recurring problems, to make frequent stresses less frequent or less stressful, and to unblock progress on a stuck conversation.