A meta-conversation is focused on the way we are conversing. It’s a conversation about the conversation(s). Meta means “after” in Greek, but tends to refer to a high-order of things. I like to think of having a meta-conversation as getting “above the conversation.”

When To Have A Meta-Conversation

Of course, few people have a meta-conversation unless its needed. Consider having this conversation when you have:

  • Repeated unsatisfying conversations, not getting the result you want or fast enough or with real agreement.
  • Are comfortable enough to suggest this conversation or committed enough to an improvement with the person or team (you don’t have to be comfortable).
  • Cannot be successful unless you stop the typical pattern.

A couple of examples in my work stand out.

A High-Powered Team Exhausting Itself with Conversation

Last year, I worked with a team with very smart, seasoned leaders. We set the agenda for our first meeting with pretty good timeframes for the topics. By the end of the first morning, we were very behind in the agenda (which made me unsatisfied).

I asked the team to reflect on how the dialogue was going. A bit of “deer in the headlights” gave way to some easy comments like “we’re not staying on topic” and “we are talking over each other.” I asked, “Is this morning typical for you as a team?” They said “yes, especially when we are making tough decisions.”

I asked the team to spend the next 15 minutes with me considering the dynamics and the impact. They were quite surprised to further identify:

  • One team member reticent to jump into the fray, the team missing his contribution.
  • They were stating their agreement with their own story, rather than just agreeing.
  • Decisions often needing to be made after the meeting.
  • They trust each other and enjoy the intellectual banter—they like to talk with each other.

One person said, “we are wasting our most precious commodity—our time.”

Immediately team members shifted their behavior, slipping from time to time, but not losing their enthusiasm for the discourse.

A Cordial Conversation with Underlying Distrust

Years ago, I worked with a boss and direct report (again pretty senior). They were separately furious with each other, with a growing distrust. As part of the work, we had a number of joint sessions. For this writing, the content of their anger and distrust is immaterial. We worked that through. And, we also had a meta-conversation. Each executive seemed to take an
attack—retreat—defend approach to conversations.  All very cordial in tone, but the words and cadence told the story.

As we talked about the behaviors, word choice and patterns, they recognized that they were making every conversation a power-struggle.  And, these two leaders had power in their roles (even despite the reporting relationship). They had lost a practice of listening and inquiring with each other. Their current pattern set the stage for re-igniting their anger and distrust.

In both of these examples, the behaviors were unconscious patterns that had developed over time. Bringing awareness to the patterns in the conversation along with the impact on results and satisfaction helped them make different choices.

Having a meta-conversation requires an interest in the relationship and a commitment to best possible results. If you are uncomfortable exploring this concept at work, try starting with your family at home. I have had numerous meta-conversations with my teenager.