Metacommunication is a type of communication that takes place when participants in a conversation comment on or provide context for the content being discussed.
It typically occurs as a secondary form of communication following, and often influencing, the primary message or statement.
This form of communication enables both parties to understand how to interpret and respond to the information shared.
For example, if someone says, “I was just kidding,” after making a joke, they are using metacommunication to indicate that their initial statement was not serious and should not be taken literally.
This statement allows both parties to adjust their interpretations of the conversation and understand that no offense was intended.
So, metacommunication provides an extra level of meaning within conversations.
Definition of Metacommunication
Metacommunication is a type of communication that occurs at a secondary level beyond the literal meaning of words or phrases.
It typically involves exchanging information between two or more parties, facilitating an understanding of the context within which they communicate.
In its simplest form:
“…metacommunication can be defined as communication about communication” (Feltham et al., 2017, p. 103).
Metacommunication can be used to regulate conversations, draw attention to non-verbal cues, manage expectations, and develop shared meaning when engaging in conversations.
As Carlson and Dermer (2016) state:
“Metacommunication offers clues about how to interpret the conversational data we receive from another person in any given conversation and throughout its duration” (p. 1061).
From a scientific perspective, metacommunication is based on theories such as social constructivism and speech act theory, suggesting that individuals use language not only to convey literal messages but also to indicate relationships between speakers and establish a shared understanding (Jensen et al., 2016).
Studies have found that the use of metacommunication can increase feelings of connection between participants in conversations and enhance mutual understanding (Hass-Cohen et al., 2017).
Carlson and Dermer (2016) claim that:
“…individuals who are unable to master the nuances of metacommunication, picking up on subtle social cues, and responding appropriately may struggle socially in their personal and professional relationships” (p. 1061).
Simply, metacommunication means understanding how to interpret and exchange communication with others.
- Paraphrasing or summarizing: Many skilled speakers will paraphrase what they said at the end of a section of a conversation in order to ensure the content of a message is reinforced.
- Using metacommentary: Making comments such as “I don’t know if I’m explaining this well, but…” to acknowledge and address potential communication barriers can help you check to see if the conversation is on track.
- Saying “just kidding”: Explaining afterward that a joke was just made to not take offense from anything stated previously is common in many cultures and shows appreciation for everyone involved in the conversation. So, saying “Just kidding!” after telling a joke ensures that no one is offended.
- Checking-In: Teachers often engage in metacommunication by pausing and asking their students if they are still following, or if they would like to re-visit a section.
- Show of hands: Another way teachers use metacommunication is to ask students for a show of hands if they feel they understand or not.
- Nodding in agreement: Nodding, when listening intently, demonstrates attentiveness towards both parties involved in a conversation and indicates mutual understanding on both sides. For instance, nodding while someone is speaking provides reassurance that their message has been received without having to interrupt them or interject with verbal confirmation.
- Ending a statement with a tone of voice: A dismissive or condescending tone at the end of a specific statement can convey disapproval without using explicit language. For example, “That’s interesting…” said unconvincedly could signal that you disagree with what was said.
- Making eye contact: Establishing direct eye contact during conversations conveys attentiveness and trustworthiness between participants. For example, making eye contact while saying, “On what basis do you make this assumption?” emphasizes your question while also showing respect and interest in the other person’s opinion.
- Making an ironic comment: For example, “Great job” said with a sarcastic tone can indicate disapproval of something, even though the phrase’s literal meaning is to praise something.
- Using a pause: Pausing before or after making a statement can draw attention to its importance and provide context for what is being said. For example, “I think…we should move on” can emphasize that you believe it is time to change the topic of conversation.
- Interrupting politely: Showing politeness when interrupting someone else talking is seen as good manners in many cultures and helps maintain respect between speakers by conveying consideration for one another’s views. For instance, saying, “I apologize for interrupting, but I think I have something important to add,” conveys genuine concern for the conversation without appearing dismissive or rude.
- Using emojis: Emojis are often used in text-based conversations to convey emotions that cannot be expressed through words alone to provide additional context for exchanging messages between two people. For example, adding an angry face emoji alongside an aggressive sentence can show displeasure without directly stating it out loud.
- Using metaphor: Metaphors are culturally-understood terms that describe something as something else, even if they aren’t. For example, if you call someone as “beast” at running, they’re not literally a beast, but the person you’re talking to will understand you mean that they’re an excellent runner. This is used in metacommunication when someone states something literally then metaphorically to add context or understanding.
- Laughing after someone else tells a joke: Laughter serves as an endorsement of humor shared among people engaging in conversations and shows support rather than disagreement or offense taken from jokes told by others. For example, laughing nervously after somebody says something funny indicates appreciation despite any potential discomfort caused by the joke itself.
- Taking turns: Demonstrating patience during conversations allows equal opportunity for everyone to express themselves freely while maintaining mutual respect between participants exchanging information or opinions on different topics. An example could be starting each sentence with phrases such as “My turn now? Ok then…” which shows consideration towards those present at the conversation while ensuring fairness throughout its duration.
Origins of Metacommunication
Gregory Bateson was an influential anthropologist who first introduced the concept of “metacommunication” in the 1970s (Craig, 2016).
He defined metacommunication as a way of communicating that goes beyond the surface level, allowing people to make implicit statements or emit gestures and facial expressions that give additional context to their messages.
Metacommunication has its roots in cultural anthropology. Bateson noted that it is common across different cultures, with examples dating back thousands of years, such as using hand signals by Native Americans to warn tribe members of danger.
Nevertheless, he suggested that metacommunication had gained greater prominence in contemporary society as a result of modern technologies and media types like television and radio (Craig, 2016).
These technologies allowed people to convey messages through sound and imagery, which served as a form of non-verbal communication.
Since then, this theory has been further explored by many scientists, with much attention given to how metacommunication can be used effectively within groups or when dealing with conflict (Craig, 2016).
Verbal and Non-Verbal Metacommunication
Verbal metacommunication is using spoken language to convey messages beyond the literal words being said. This can be done through sarcasm, irony, or any other type of language that carries a meaning different from its literal definition.
An example would be saying “Great job” with a sarcastic tone to indicate disapproval instead of praise.
Non-verbal metacommunication refers to communication without words and involves things like posture, gestures, facial expressions, and even silence (Schuttler & Burdick, 2010).
For instance, nodding your head while listening to someone else speak can show attentiveness and agreement without needing to utter any words.
The distinction between the two is clear: one utilizes spoken word, while the other depends solely on physical gesture (Schuttler & Burdick, 2010).
Both types are powerful tools for expressing implicit meaning during conversations and can help enhance mutual understanding among participants by conveying sentiments that cannot be expressed through words alone.
Importance of Metacommunication
A metacommunication is an important tool in communication as it helps people convey implicit meanings and sentiments that cannot be expressed through words alone (Craig, 2016).
By utilizing non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, gestures, posture, and silence, people can add context to their messages beyond their literal meaning.
Metacommunication can help facilitate better mutual understanding between participants as it allows them to pick up on things like mood and emotion without needing to state it expressly.
Interestingly, engaging in active listening and interpreting between the lines is an invaluable skill for a psychotherapist. It can aid them not only in understanding what might be causing distress but also in developing trust with their clientele (Hass-Cohen et al., 2017).
Metacommunication can also improve conflict resolution within groups by allowing members to sense the tone of a discussion or to detect disagreement or hostility before it escalates into something worse.
Tips for Improving Metacommunication Skills
Building effective metacommunication skills is key to successful communication. By being aware of non-verbal cues and learning to interpret them accurately, one can ensure that messages are effectively conveyed.
A few tips for improving metacommunication skills are:
- Being authentic and honest with yourself about your emotions.
- Listening actively in order to gain understanding, rather than just formulating a response.
- Paying attention to non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and body language can give insight into the speaker’s emotions.
- Taking pauses in conversations ensures that what needs to be said is expressed clearly.
- Considering cultural differences when communicating with people from different backgrounds to prevent miscommunication caused by unfamiliar customs.
The abovementioned strategies can help enhance the understanding between conversation participants, build stronger relationships, and resolve conflicts more easily.
Metacommunication is a secondary layer of communication used to convey messages beyond the literal words being said. It involves using verbal and non-verbal cues to express implicit meanings and sentiments.
Introduced by Gregory Bateson in the 1970s, it has since become an important tool for successful communication. As a traditional way of communication, metacommunication can be verbal or non-verbal.
In both cases, metacommunication can help facilitate mutual understanding among conversation participants and create stronger relationships.
Improving metacommunication skills should involve being honest and authentic with oneself, actively listening, paying attention to non-verbal cues, taking pauses in conversations, and considering cultural differences.
Carlson, J., & Dermer, S. B. (2016). The SAGE encyclopedia of marriage, family, and couples counseling. London: SAGE Publications.
Craig, R. T. (2016). Metacommunication. The International Encyclopedia of Communication Theory and Philosophy, 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118766804.wbiect232
Feltham, C., Hanley, T., & Winter, L. A. (2017). The SAGE handbook of counselling and psychotherapy (4th ed.). New York: Sage.
Hass-Cohen, N., Natrajan-Tyagi, R., & Arzt, J. (2017). Metacommunication in couple and family therapy. Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy, 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-15877-8_538-1
Jensen, K. B., Craig, R. T., Pooley, J., & Rothenbuhler, E. W. (2016). The international encyclopedia of communication theory and philosophy. London: John Wiley & Sons.
Schuttler, R., & Burdick, J. (2010). Laws of communication: The intersection where leadership meets employee performance. New York: John Wiley & Sons.