The Meta-Conversation

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Have you ever struggled to make a certain conversation productive?

Maybe you’d like to give your coworker critical feedback that he definitely needs to hear, but you can’t bear to do it because you know he’ll immediately ball up like a porcupine and shoot quills at you while defending himself to the death.

Maybe it’s discussing your upcoming wedding plans with your mom because you can’t agree on whether your second cousin twice removed (and other family in that relationship sphere) should be invited, so the conversation always ends the same way, with you threatening to elope and your mom calling you the ungrateful black sheep of the family.

Maybe it’s you and your team not being able to discuss any problem without it entering a spiraling swirl of negativity, as if everyone were engaged in a competition to one-up each other on describing how f-ed up everything is.

In those situations, it seems like you just can’t win. Every time you get together to try and make progress, you just go around in circles, feeling more and more frustrated and dejected. You start to dread having to talk to this person (or group of people). Eventually, you stop trying, so the relationship devolves into active avoidance.

It doesn’t have to be this way!

Introducing a handy tool that can cut through those repeated cycles of tearing your hair out…

The meta-conversation.

Have you seen the movie Inception, where Leo suggests it’s time to go into the next layer of a dream when they’re already in a dream?

The meta-conversation is the opposite of that.

It’s getting out of the dream you’re in, and zooming one level up. It’s taking a few steps back to have a conversation about the conversation.

When you make room to have a conversation about the conversation, it can help you break out of the patterns that got your conversation stuck in the first place.

Got the defensive coworker who can’t stand any critical comments? Have the meta-conversation with him about how you find it tough to give him feedback because you’re afraid that he won’t hear it. If he gets defensive right then… well, it’s much easier at that point to drop a gentle, “…What you’re doing right now… it’s reinforcing my feeling that it’s tough to give you feedback.” Most people then ruefully acknowledge the point, and now you’ve created a path where that person will be more receptive in the future.

Got the mother who has strong opinions about how your big day should go? Have the meta-conversation in your next call. Instead of diving into the details, say, “Mom, can we talk about how we discuss wedding planning? It feels like we always go around in circles and end up mad at each other. Do you agree? How can we avoid that?”

Got the negative-vibes team? Try this: “Hey, does anyone else feel like we always end our discussions on a bummer note? We’ll start talking about problems, but instead of brainstorming solutions or getting excited about the changes we could make, we devolve into why everything sucks.”

Having the meta-conversation is effective for few reasons. The first is that it’s one step removed from the actual topic of heated discussion, so it’s easier to be objective and less emotional. The second is that it’s an observation about an interaction that is shared, so you’re not pointing fingers, you’re simply saying, “Our conversations have this pattern” or “We seem to always do this…” It puts both parties on the same side of observing the interaction and hopefully finding some common ground. And once you have that common ground — once everyone agrees that the conversation could indeed be better — you can switch into figuring out how to make it so.

For the meta-conversation to go well, keep an open mind. If you go into it thinking it’s obviously the other person’s fault that your conversations get stuck, it’s not going to be as effective as if you acknowledge that all relationships and interactions are a two-way street. Maybe you’re also doing something that’s contributing to the dynamic. Be honest about what you are feeling and observing, encourage the other person to do the same, and listen. Figure out how you can avoid the traps in your next conversation.

I’ve personally encountered a few different variations of the defensive coworker. In one instance, when I finally had the meta-conversation with that person about it, it worked wonders. He acknowledged that yes, he did have a tendency to defend himself, a habit borne from years of winning debate tournaments. But he also shared that my tone exacerbated his defensiveness, because it made him feel negatively judged. We both agreed that next time, I’d start by sharing my intent to be helpful, along with some concrete examples, and if he got defensive I’d remind him of this conversation. Case closed, and our future conversations were way better as a result.

If you’re falling into the same patterns over and over with a relationship or interaction, it may be time to get meta.

If you found this article useful, you will probably find my new book, The Making of a Manager, useful as well. It’s an everything-you-need to know field guide to leading with confidence, whether you are a new manager, a seasoned manager, or someone interested in management down the road. You can order the book here.



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Julie Zhuo

Building Sundial. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager Find me @joulee. I love people, nuance, and systems.