Meta-conversations are some of the most interesting kinds of interactions we can have and are essential to greater understanding between people – interpersonally, professionally and otherwise. Parsimoniously speaking, it’s a way of addressing how we’re speaking about things, and how those ways may be interfering with solutions and progress – and then correcting them. Oddly though, many people fear being frank in the way that this requires. Yet it’s these very conversations that palpably offer a huge sigh of relief when we’re having them. Some examples follow:
-Alan is trying to get Ellen to move in with him in the near future, but whenever they discuss it she feels pushed and shuts down. Alan is now becoming distrusting and resentful. So he moves to the meta-conversation of asking Ellen whether there’s something in how he’s bringing it up that may be turning her off. And though he avers that he clearly does want to move in together, he understands that he needs to figure out how he may be obstructing the very thing he wants. His frank and open statement helps Ellen feel more willing to address it. And so she describes how she gets into ‘rebellious mode’ when she feels there’s an expectation about what she ‘should’ do; it then paves the way for a series of discussions that ultimately allow them to talk about when and how they’ll move in.
-Kate is pretty enamored of Nell; they’re spending several days and evenings together, and yet Kate senses some skittishness in Nell about getting closer, both physically and in rarely calling or initiating plans. But Kate is fairly certain that Nell likes her. So she takes the leap of opening up a dialogue: telling Nell that she’s quite taken with her but isn’t clear why Nell sometimes seems reticent. Kate is quick to let her know that she’s in no way complaining, but simply interested in seeing where this can go, and realizing that by getting a sense of what’s going on for Nell, they’ll manage their way through this better. Bottom line is that the talk itself created greater closeness and trust – two of the most necessary factors in starting (and maintaining) any relationship.
-A man has written to a woman on a dating site; he suggests that they speak but she demurs, saying she’d prefer to write a bit longer before moving to phone. He replies that he doesn’t like emailing because of tendencies to build inflated beliefs about the other, and for that reason he’d prefer to talk – ending by saying he “wishes her well in dating” if she’d rather not try. She finds herself feeling almost rebellious, not wanting to ‘give in’ to what feels like a power struggle. But she decides instead to write him a note describing her initial response, and that because she doesn’t want to automatically be reactive and say ‘no’, she’s going to take some time to think about it and likely give him a call shortly. This short interaction itself eased what could have been a quick end to further contact. She does call him, and early on he describes how unusually comfortable he feels with her for her openness and willingness to talk freely..
-Jeff has spoken often in therapy about how his manager (Sara) doesn’t value him or his suggestions. He offers an example of one particular meeting. I show him the likely inaccurate assumptions he’s making and offer alternate explanations for Sarah’s attitude/behavior; and we spend the next part of the session coaching him on how to ‘meta-converse’ with her. At the next meeting he tells her that he’d sullenly walked out of their earlier meeting believing she was assessing him poorly – but that he recognizes the ineffectiveness of doing that as it aborts further useful conversation. Sara actually develops a level of respect for his simply bringing the subject up, and tells him that she herself had been trying to determine why she wasn’t giving him more challenging assignments. With further discussion, she realizes that it was his very attitude that she was reacting to… and then confirms that his decision to speak with her so openly and incisively about this is the very thing that gives her the confidence to channel more of the work back to him; a critically important conversation that took no more than 10 minutes.
Meta-conversations aren’t magic and don’t by themselves lead to inevitably rosy outcomes. But they do very much allow the wiggle room to work through problems that had remained seemingly intractable. The self-efficacy and confidence one gains from using them is self-reinforcing – because it’s so much more likely to achieve better outcomes.