June 23, 2020  |  David R. Novak

Communicating About Communication

Communicating About Communication

A unique challenge of communication is that you have to communicate about communication to get better at communication.

Think about that for a second.

It’s communication all the way down. Inescapable.

Communication is a process that’s ongoing, everywhere, all around us. It’s not a straight line from A to B as I’ve mentioned a few times. But that’s another story.

Communicating about communication is called “metacommunication” and it’s essential to having better interactions. Metacommunication sounds quite theoretical, and it is. But while metacommunication can feel powerfully blackhole-ish, the idea is ultimately practical.

In practice, in conversation, metacommunication takes many forms. It can be instantaneous nonverbal feedback. It can be passing comments that give a glimpse of a reaction. It can also be a dedicated conversation that boils down to attempting to talk to the person across from you about how communication goes — about how you communicate, together.

The words you actually say in pursuit of this improvement can be quite secondary to the effort itself. Talking about how your relationship is going, how you and the person across from you interact, your preferences, and/or your annoyances, problems, whatever, is how you can actually create better communication right there in between you — just by talking about it.

Metacommunication, At Its Core

Metacommunicating is all about getting a sense or feel for what is going on in a relationship and how you and the other person are relating to (communicating with) one another. Metacommunicating is about figuring out what communication problems and challenges befuddle and befall your relationship and attempting to come up with workable solutions to those problems. This stuff isn’t easy.

Metacommunicating can also confirm things that are going well in your relationship, help determine where attention is necessary, and identify communication stumbling blocks that have caused previous trip-ups.

This is all done, of course, through communication. Like I said, it’s communication all the way down.

Communicate about communicating.

Talking about the state of your relationship and how interactions have been going might all sound silly but it’s a must if you want things to improve with person opposite you.

This might sound overwhelming. Don’t let it be. Metacommunicating is really just a matter of talking — having a bit of conversation — about how things are going between you, what could be worked on, what is going well, and so forth with the person opposite you. A lot of “metacommunicating,” frankly, is just being willing to engage. Engage in good faith and you’ll reap the benefits.

Do you need to do this with everyone? No. You only need to metacommunicate with those people where you both want and are willing to put in the mutual work. One person alone can’t fully change how communication in a relationship goes.

How to Metacommunicate

Metacommunicating can be a purposeful conversation but it doesn’t have to be. It can also be an adept read of a person’s nonverbal responses but it can be more than that. It can be passing comments in conversation. It can be mindful self-reflexivity.

  • “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that like that.”

  • “Hey, I really enjoyed the conversation.”

  • “How would you prefer I get that information to you?”

  • “You’re easy to talk to.”

  • “I feel like when we talk, they’re not listening well.”

  • “I’m sorry I shouldn’t interrupt. I’ll try not to do that.”

  • “Oh, I just keep talking until someone cuts me off.”

All metacommunication.

Metacommunication is having the courage to say to your relationship partner:

  • “Let’s be different. Let’s do things differently.”

  • “I’m sorry I do that when I get angry.”

  • “It really bothers me when you say that.”

  • “When you say or do A, it make me feel B.”

Metacommunication. It sounds complex but doesn’t have to be.

Practical metacommunication boils down to two key questions:

  • “How are we interacting? Would could be better?”

  • “What do I need to do to be better for you and what can you do to be better for me?”

There are a million paths to these core questions, but to me, if you want to communicate better, this is what you have to wrestle with. These answers are the keys that unlock the doors.

Talk about how you talk (or maybe about how you don’t talk!) with one another. Reflect individually. Converse together as a pair or as a group. Feel encouraged to do this more, as difficult as it might be. It’s one of the best ways to make communication better.

Metacommunicating, which if you haven’t figured out by now is actually just communicating, might be difficult or uncomfortable. It might not be easy but it surely is essential to improvement.

Metacommunicating is important if you want relationships to go new places or improve. In the absence of actually working on it, communication is likely to be the same old, same old. Talk about how you talk. Talk about how you interact. A little can go long way.

In art, “meta” means something that is self-referential. In this sense, communication is inescapable. Communication always goes on. We can only attempt to grasp how it’s happening and what we might do to improve it in the hopes of having more fulfilling interactions with others who are open to having a better relationship.

Skills | Good Communication