In complex business conversations, metacomm can profoundly impact conversations and make them far more constructive and efficient—even timesaving. To a significant degree, metacomm functions to facilitate conversation and is highly useful for training participants in sequencing 101. In our studies and experience with metacomm, we have found a number of these forms especially useful.
Monitoring processes. Conversations that stick to your planned objectives to focus on problem solving, innovation or developing cross-disciplinary agreements, readily become mere discussions rather than action-oriented. However, the use of metacomm can serve to facilitate the conversation, following the implicitly agreed-upon rules and making effective use of time to achieve the set expectations.
Feed forward. A particularly useful form of metacomm, this form emphasizes why you’re relating a narrative or developing extensive content. Metacomm can keep the direction, flow and boundaries of the conversation more clear. It helps the others get a general picture of the messages to follow.
Summary. This is a highly useful and even necessary form for complex conversations. As a facilitator of teams working on major corporate objectives, I made it a personal rule to help them summarize and clarify issues every seven or eight minutes. Otherwise, team members readily get lost with tangential observations not germane to the conversational objectives. Once a group has developed expertise in metacomm, there is rarely need for a professional facilitator.
Topic change. People especially appreciate a message which asks whether one is finished and if the topic can be changed to a different subject. It makes it comfortable for an individual to say that she is not finished with the issue at hand or it’s quite alright to change the topic at this point. Although rarely used, this metacomm form of respect inevitably leaves teammates with good feelings. Obviously, it also lets the metacomm user decide whether to stay on topic or switch to another. On some occasions, it sets up a healthy negotiation.
Content paraphrase. This form acts as a clarifying statement in the conversation. The given talker may agree or elaborate, restate or reframe a conversational issue for the person paraphrasing. Though many business people know about paraphrasing, few actually understand the form in much depth. Nor are they readily able to use it.
Feelings paraphrase. Emotions and relationships are a profoundly significant part of any conversation, business or otherwise. Recognizing and then clarifying one’s own or another’s feelings can often shift an important conversation into more productive interaction.
As you get familiar with metacomm, you’ll notice that effective communication always runs on implicit rules. Except for the most general rules, like understanding that a question requires a response--or asking to change a topic, say, from project scope to project timelines, conversational expertise is exceedingly rare in the workforce. The consequence, of course, is that miscommunication and breakdowns are the norm, not the exception. Some studies reveal that misunderstanding is the case in more than 50% or the time. They happen, for example, with inadequate listening, tangential thinking, poor analogies, limited vocabulary, nonverbal mistakes, misreading and misusing tone, sensemaking and framing failures, misreading of politics and personal subtexts, or lack of sequencing ability—any of which can screw up a conversation. Still, there’s no doubt that conversation is the gold standard for innovation, problem solving and decision making. It’s the only real capacity that can bring an entire organization’s wisdom to bear on key issues. The relatively new tool of metacommunication is one of a number of means for limiting misunderstanding and making conversations effective. Those who are willing to invest in these behavioral technologies will be able to face—and shape—the ever-evolving future.
Note: In the next few weeks we will be providing examples of the different metacomm forms.
If you missed Part One, check it out here!
Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.
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