One of the most difficult problems with collaborative conversation is staying on track. Smart people inevitably get waylaid by tangential ideas that are suggested by their meeting interactions. That’s precisely why many think that team meetings are such a waste. Yet solutions and decisions in today’s business world inevitably require conversations to gain the buy-in of diverse teams and multiple business disciplines.
One underlying limitation business groups face is that few participants have a good handle on sequencing ideas. We used to think that software coders, who constantly work with digital sequencing, should be able to manage linkages. We’ve found, however, that the majority of technical people are unable to make the transfer of digital sequencing to conversational sequencing. Those with an extensive background in the liberal arts are able to sequence conversations fairly well, but most technicians, lacking the arts background, have a great deal of difficulty sequencing conversations. Add the sequencing difficulties to the highly analytical nature of development and conversational misunderstanding becomes the status quo, costing business billions of dollars and sometimes costing jobs for the less capable. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos deals with this problem by forcing all his senior team executives to write out their proposals, using a format forcing reasoned linkages and sequencing in six pages prior to every team meeting. The first 30 minutes of each meeting is spent reading the proposals: then they’re ready to converse.
A second issue growing out of conversational sequencing is obvious: staying on track in a meeting demands that the participants focus their thinking and contributions on the agreed-to objectives. That requires thinking and talking on two tracks during a conversation. Again, few seem to have significant tools to manage that process. Admittedly, thinking and talking on two tracks is initially very difficult for 95% of the population. Yet it is quite learnable over time. Most of us have occasions when we regularly think and talk on two tracks: For example, driving with two or three in a car. Certainly we warn teenagers not to do that. Yet over time as we become familiar with car and highway rules, most of us become quite adept at two-track processes.
In this blog we intend to reveal one very important tool for thinking and talking on the second track, metacommunication (“metacomm”): a tool that is exceptionally useful for staying on task and dealing with interactions effectively.
The prefix meta- can mean a lot of things, but it is best translated as “about.” And so metacomm is a message about a message—or talk about talk. Actually you use this distinction every day, probably without realizing it. When you text or send an email with a seemingly sarcastic comment and then put a smiley at the end, you’re communicating a message about your message. You’re saying that your message should not be taken literally; “I’m only trying to be funny.” Asking somebody to clarify something he just said is also talk about talk—a metacomm. In metacomm, you’re actually working on two tracks: content and relational.
Next week, part two–in which we reveal the forms metacomm can take.
By Dan Erwin & Liam O’Dea