The prefix Meta- comes from the Greek. It originally meant “after,” so when late Greek scholars were cataloging Aristotle’s works, they called his books on fundamental philosophical assumptions “metaphysics,” meaning nothing more profound than “the books that come after the books about physics.”
Aristotle’s metaphysics seeded inquiry into existence’s overarching questions. As a result, meta has come to mean overarching, higher, over, above, about, or, to recall a term from previous postings, upleveling. I’m a big fan of “going meta.”
Meta-cognition means thinking about thinking. Meta- learning means learning about how to learn. Meta- communication means communicating about communicating, for example, talking with your partner about how you talk to each other.
Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup
Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup
Meta-communicating with your partner can work wonders. Using the best of meta-communication, a couple in conflict can temporarily transcend their roles within the relationship and sit together above it, gaining insights into how they interact, which is usually a lot more productive and honest than ground-level games of who’s-at-fault-hot-potato.
Which is not to say that you can’t play who’s-at- fault-hot-potato on a higher plane. In fact, meta- blaming is easy. “You know, when I step back as a neutral observer, our pattern of communication is clear. You’re neurotic and I spend all my time trying to calm you down.” Sometimes we go meta to overcome our biases and sometimes to exercise our biases with the unearned credibility of feigned neutral authority. It’s often hard to tell which of these two sharply divergent motives is operative.
The problem has to do with being an individual and a team member at the same time. Individuals have their own agendas and teams have theirs. The agendas overlap—but not completely. It’s always a little unclear when team members are advancing their own agendas and when they’re advancing their team’s agenda. We serve both as our own lawyers (looking out for ourselves as clients) and as the judges adjudicating on behalf of the greater good. The problem is especially complicated in personal partnerships because the stakes are so high—and at least these days, couples make up their decision- making process as they go along, so somebody’s got to look out for the partnership, suggesting ways to handle things fairly, and both of the eligible somebodies are also busy being their own advocates.
Going meta is a signal that you are transcending your role as advocate and adopting the role of judge. But that signal can easily be faked. Indeed, the signal is implied by most of the things we say. A subtext in a lot of communication is “I have no bias. I’m only interested in what’s neutrally true.” To summon the language of meta-communication only states that implication explicitly.
Going meta is seeing the forest for the trees, which is an interesting turn of phrase. For the trees’ sake? Not originally. The original is “can’t see the forest for the trees,” meaning that the trees are obstructing the view of the overall forest. To see the forest you have to ignore the trees a little. Or to tap other metaphors for going meta, to read between the lines, you have to pay a little less attention to the lines. To avoid getting lost in the details you have to ignore the details a bit.* When your partner goes meta and starts seeing the forest for the trees, you have to wonder, is the move for you or against you? Is it an act of love or a new way to ignore you?
Or is it early warning that your partner is leaving the forest altogether? Analysis can be a prelude to separation. At face value, going meta is stepping outside for the sake of what’s inside, but sometimes going meta is a euphemism for having one foot out the door. Is it about the relationship or up out of it? Here, meta’s original Greek meaning as after (or beyond) comes back to disturb us. By moving into meta-communication, is your partner moving beyond communicating? No wonder so many partners find going meta unromantic.
Going meta has this in common with any other stepping back we might do as a good deed. Take, for example, “Giving each other space.” Have you ever noticed how hard it can be to give requested space without also sort of leaving in a huff? There’s a thin line between the two.
Meta-communication opens a can of worms. What if one partner wants to go meta and the other doesn’t? What if you having divergent styles of meta- communication? How do you talk about the differences? Do you meta-meta-communicate? Or do you say “never mind” and try to stuff the worms back into the can? The dilemma about whether to dig deeper or back out can be paralyzing.
In fact we can and do meta-meta-communicate. It’s fairly complex, but it’s a variety of complexity human minds are well suited to. Heck, I’m doing it right now, talking about the habits of meta-communication. Still, if the idea causes a few groans, it’s understandable. Ultimately, going meta on going meta traps us in an infinite hall of mirrors. It’s one reason that psychology and other behavioral sciences have such a reputation for interminable navel gazing.
Even though the ability to go meta is a gift—some would say it’s the core of human genius—it’s a perilous one. Meta-communication at its worst is two people trapped in a hall of mirrors bickering about their respective positions, their voices reverberating in an acrimonious din.
I’ve dedicated my life to going meta, which is why I write these pieces about tracking motives in thought (meta-cognition) and conversation (meta- communication) so as to enhance meta-learning. No doubt, when I bring my work home with me, my fascination with the meta makes me a difficult partner. Here are some tips I’m trying to follow to avoid the perils:
1. Minimize visits to the meta: Relationship is at its best when it’s working well enough that you don’t have to talk about it. But—
2. Don’t go meta only when you’re in trouble: The natural tendency is reserve meta-communication for rough times, because when things are going fine there’s no reason to talk about how things are going. However, if you talk about your relationship only when you’re in trouble, you form discouraging associations—making stomachs clench whenever meta-communication comes up. You can go meta to say loving things too, so mix some of those in. “You know what I like about the way we communicate?”
3. Decide whether you want the perils of a meta- free or a meta-friendly relationship and find a like- minded partner. There are happy couples that rarely if ever go meta. There are other happy couples that regard going meta as a necessity for maintaining their bond, and so develop the skills to go meta competently. Either approach has its risks and downsides, so pick your poison and a passionate partner who shares your preferences.
4. Whether you do or don’t meta-communicate, at least cultivate a tacit understanding that meta happens: You have to be brain-dead to never have an analytical thought about the nature of your partnership. And yet a lot of the rhetoric used to stop meta-communication implies that meta- communication is for worry-warts—people who think too much and other dysfunctional types. “Why do you always want to talk? Why can’t we just have fun?” If you don’t want to have a meta-conversation at a particular time, say “Not now.” Even “I have a headache.” If you never want to talk that’s also OK, provided you have a compatible partner (see #3), but pretending that you’re too pure-hearted to analyze (and your partner isn’t) is a form of oppression, and a separation waiting to happen.
5. If going meta becomes a mess, get someone else to do it: Neutral third parties whom both partners trust can provide insights into your communication styles without destabilizing the relationship. Don’t think you can single-handedly analyze the relationship back to health if it’s gotten in trouble, especially (meta-cogitate on this well, dear Jeremy) if the trouble has to do with how much you analyze it.
6. Have something else more important to do together. This is a tough time for dating, because we no longer have rutabagas to harvest together. Look at the Match.com ads. People say they want to spend time with their partners going to movies, eating out, running on beaches—all play; no work. I once dated someone for a eight months before we ever did any physical labor together. It was a relationship that in its death throes had become nothing but a conversation about our relationship. May that relationship have died so that yours may live. Stock your partnership from the start with collaborative activities more consuming and interesting than meta-conversation.
*Philip Larkin, one of my favorite poets, puts this diminished focus on each individual this way:
Thinking in terms of one
Is easily done—
One room, one bed, one chair,
One person there,
Makes perfect sense; one set
Of wishes can be met,
One coffin filled.
But counting up to two
Is harder to do;
For one must be denied
Before it’s tried.