How often do we begin what seems like a casual conversation, only to realize that something has happened. Emotion has entered and we are no longer talking about the subject at hand. Yet, we keep trying to talk about the casual subject while our thoughts wander to the meta message.
There is a scene in Annie Hall that I often think about when this happens.
We see in this film clip, a classic first date, where both of them are saying one thing and thinking something totally different. Their thoughts are shown as subtitles. What makes this scene so memorable is that these subtitles or “meta messages” frequently occur in conversation, including business conversations. And, in life, there aren’t any subtitles.
In the film, Annie Hall chose to end both the conversation and the meta messages by reminding Woody Allen that he had to leave.
In my experience, the more history we have with another person, the more likely we are to step on historical land mines in the course of our conversations. Ending the conversation and continuing later is an option. If the conversation becomes heated, sometimes this is the best option. Alternatively, we have an option to pause and talk about the meta message. In other words, have a conversation about the conversation.
‘Meta’ from Greek is a prefix which means ‘about’ or ‘beyond’.
Here’s how you might move from a conversation that’s getting difficult to a meta-conversation:
- Pause. Once you observe either you or the other person is feeling anything other than neutral.
- Name what you observe, about each of your viewpoints, e.g. I have the sense we started out talking about the agenda for our next meeting, and there is something else on the table.
- Follow the Vistage model, stay in a questioning mode, “What is it about the next meeting that is giving you concern?”
- Keep your language neutral. Stay away from the 5 “fighting words”. “You” (use I), “Always” (use frequently), “Never” (use seldom), “But” (use and) “Why” (use what).
- Work toward mutual understanding, rather than being right.
- Allow the other person to respond. I find that restating what I believe I just heard is helpful. And, then continuing to stay in a questioning mode.
And, allow the possibility that the intended conversation may have to wait until another day.