Meta communication is a fancy-sounding phrase that just means “talking about how you’re communicating.”
Often, we slip into fraught interactions without deciding on any guidelines. But meta communication can help us agree in advance on everything from how we’ll show courtesy (“no name calling”) to how we’ll structure an exchange (“let’s all give our points of view before anyone jumps in with a rebuttal”) to how decisions are going to be made.
Let me give you an example:
In 2011 (which now seems like a million years ago), my daughter and I moved her out of her soon-to-be-former college dorm.
Yes, she graduated!!
I didn’t take a picture of our car stuffed with Laurika’s stuff, but trust me, it was a chore.
And just before we started moving things from her third-floor room down the stairs, out the gate, across the quad, and into the car, I had an inspiration.
Meta Communication Helps You Set Ground Rules
Since Laurika and I sometimes argue when we’re collaborating on a high-pressure task, it seemed like a good idea to set ground rules before we started hauling boxes.
But what would those ground rules be?
As I thought about this, it struck me that only one rule really mattered: Which of us was going to be in charge (and thus able to dictate things like where to put the yoga mats, or when it was time to stop for lunch)?
Now, normally, the Person In Charge would be me. I’m the parent, and we were putting her stuff into my car. But since this was her stuff getting moved, that wasn’t necessarily a given.
So to clarify things, I launched a meta communication, saying,
It’s going to be really stressful fitting all this stuff into the car, and I don’t want to argue about how we do it. So if you want to be in charge of packing the car, say so. And if you don’t want me to make suggestions, say so.”
When the Big Things are Right, the Little Things are Easier
Laurika did want to be in charge — she wanted to have the final say about how we handled her possessions — but said that she would welcome suggestions.
With that clarified, we threw ourselves into the task of hauling boxes, and 3+ hours later we were heading back to Brooklyn, still argument-free.
This was not as big of an achievement as her graduating from college :-), but it was gratifying.
And we owed it all to meta communication.