Use meta-communication. I love this point because it sounds SO NERDY. Talking about talking? The prefix meta?! ::Groan:: Nerdiness aside, however, I have found that adding these conversational techniques into our daily communication increases understanding, empathy, and success in difficult interactions.
Meta-communication is talking about talking. To me, it is using verbal introductions and explanations to give context to what is happening within the conversation (and, often, in the relationship). Meta-communication techniques can help us join with others more easily and get out points across more clearly. While it is a whole style of speaking (if you’ve ever seen me speak in person, you’ve certainly heard me practicing it), I’m going to focus on three specific skills: 1) asking to talk, 2) “verbing” your expressions, and 3) building time.
Why does meta-communication work? When we engage someone else in a conversation, we know more than the other person does. You know that you’re hungry; you have known it since you wolfed down that cheese Danish at 9:15am in the breakroom. However, we tend to fall into the trap of assuming that everyone else knows or feels what we do, and thus set ourselves up for miscommunication and misunderstandings. Because no one else knows that you didn’t have a proper breakfast (and they all treated themselves to Dunkin, those lucky jerks), your sudden declaration of “I need some lunch right now!!!” comes across as jarring, if not weird. It comes across as socially strange because no one else has been thinking about your lunch as much as you have, so the intensity of your argument seems to come from left field. We will replay this conversation using all three of the meta-communication techniques to see how using these skills can enhance our points.
- “Asking to talk.” Asking to talk is a powerful skill. So often we engage in conversations without really listening; we just wait to talk. People usually talk to us because they are asking for support and empathy, not advice or similar stories (because they inevitably sound like one-upping). When someone is talking to you and you have a point to make, instead of butting in (“intercepting the conversational football” as one of my clients says), ask to talk. By doing so, you show your conversation partners that you value their story and want to play a part in it, but on their terms. The key is to really mean the fact that you are asking. If the task feels pro forma, people won’t appreciate it. So if you ask, really ask (not the mistake I describe in step #2); if they say no, let it go.
Examples of this technique include, “Hey, do you mind if I add something?” “Are you open to a suggestion here?” “Are you looking for advice or do you just want to vent?”
Regarding the situation above, you might say: “Hey guys, do you mind if I say something? I’m really hungry and I’m going to go to lunch if anyone is interested.”
- “Verbing” your expression. There are so many wonderful words in the English language! And “talk” is, to turn a phrase, cheap. In all honesty, we usually don’t need say that we are talking. We just talk. When we “verb” our sentences, however, we give needed context to what we are about to say and vital clues to our audience as to where we are coming from and what we are trying to accomplish with our suggestion. Using verbs to introduce what we are saying gives depth to our communication, which increases its effectiveness. The better the verb, the clearer the meaning. In short, don’t just talk… emote! Grumble! Hypothesize! Question! (And consult your thesaurus app for more)
Examples of this technique include: “I’m wondering if…” “I’m concerned that….” “I’m curious about…”
Regarding the situation above, you might say, “Hey guys, I’m wondering if anyone is hungry? I’m going to get lunch.”
- Building time. Adding the concept of time to what we are saying helps our audience understand us better, which increases the effectiveness of our communication. Building time into our communication gives more context to what we are saying, which allows our audience to regulate their emotional reactions and responses. You likely do parts of this technique now, with words such as “later” and “tomorrow.” We can make our communication even clearer, however, but making the concept of time more concrete and immediate, rather than vague and distal. It gives our audience time to think, which makes them feel better, which increases the chances that we get the response we want.
Example of this technique include: “In about 10 minutes…” “After dinner, I…”. “This walk should talk about two hours…”
Regarding the situation above, you might say, “Hey guys, in about 15 minutes, I’m going to head down to the cafeteria if anyone wants to come with me.”
Meta-communication is a great way to clue other people in to what is going on in your head without giving them too much information. A little context goes a long way when trying to get your point across. When your point comes across clearly, you get the work done quickly and move on to the next task. If you find yourself saying often that “Why don’t they get where I am coming from?” or “Well they should’ve known that!”, then this technique is for you.