Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Metatalk Guidelines
 and Examples

How to make effective

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW


The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/skills/meta_wks.htm

Updated  01-09-2015

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      This is one of a series of articles in online Lesson 2 - learn communication basics and skills to get more daily needs met. Progress with this Lesson depends on concurrent progress on Lesson 1 - free your wise true Self to guide you in calm and stressful times.    

         Metatalk uses the observations from process-awareness skill to discuss " how we communicate," vs. what we're communicating about. Metatalking identifies significant communication blocks so you can eliminate them.

       This article (a) summarizes key guidelines for effective metatalk, and (b) illustrates typical meta-comments that could begin communication-problem resolution. The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it   

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • this introduction to metatalk, and...

  • how to give effective feedback to other people


      Effective metatalk means "Discussing our communication process cooperatively so that (a) we each feel understood and respected enough, and ( b) we're able to identify major communication blocks to resolve together.

      Can you do this now with key people in your life?

     Guidelines for Effective Metatalk

          Keep these guidelines in mind as you grow this powerful communication skill... .

  • Mutually-respectful metatalk works with adults and kids!;

  • Meta-comments are neutral, factual observations about your communication process (e.g. "I notice that you often look down or away when we talk about intimacy."). Meta-comments aim to help you both meet more of your current needs, so offering them respectfully is a potential gift, not a criticism, complaint, or attack.

  • Develop the habit of clearly knowing why you're making a meta-comment or other feedback before you speak.

  • Pleading (I'm 1-down) or condescending or sarcastic (I'm 1-up) metatalk will probably degrade your communication and relationship. If your communication partner gets defensive from comments like these, one option is to choose to listen empathically (i.e. briefly say back their response without judgment), so they feel heard. When their emotions come down and they can hear you better. Then restate your meta-comment.

  • Using your partner's name sincerely in your meta-comment (or in general) may make it easier to get and keep their attention, unless you overdo it...

  • For sensitive communication problems, plan your meta-comments in advance, and practice them alone and/or with an objective partner until they become more natural and spontaneous;

  • Make your meta-comments as brief, factual, and specific as you can, to minimize misunderstandings and sermons, and getting lured onto other subjects. One way to do this is to describe specific environmental conditions, and behaviors of your partner, that could be recorded on film or tape, rather than describing personality traits.

  • Be aware of any expectations about your partner's response to your meta-comments. If you expect him or her to (ultimately) reject or ignore your feedback, or if you feel unjustified or ambivalent in making it, your odds for success drop.

  • If your partner can hear and accept your comment, often the next step is to use win-win problem-solving together;

  • Allow yourself to experiment with metatalk and develop your own style and skill, rather than being perfect at it. This skill doesn't always work, but it does raise the odds you'll fill your current needs more often...

  • Notice your reactions as you read the meta-comment examples below. If the examples seem weird, awkward, or strange, it implies you're not used to using this skill. Give the skill a try, be patient, and note the results!
      What ever meta-comment you choose, successful social-problem resolution hinges on each partner (a) being guided by their true Self, and (b) consistently feeling that the other person's current needs are just as important as their own (a mutual-respect attitude).

      Let's go from the theoretical to real life now. This is what metatalk sounds like in action...

  Sample Metacomments

      Note the theme of these sample responses to common communication (relationship) problems. Option: asterisk or highlight any situations below that you specially want to improve:

1) You're unsure if your partner is willing to receive a meta-comment now:

"(Partner's name), are you open to some feedback about how we're talking now?" (What if s/he isn't?)

2) Something feels wrong between you and your partner, but you don't know what:

"(Name), I need to be quiet for a bit. Something's not feeling right about us to me, and it's making it hard for me to listen to you now. Can you wait with me while I try to get clearer?"

3) You feel 1-up (superior) or 1-down (inferior) toward your partner (vs. mutual respect):

"I want to own that I'm feeling critical of you now, and it's getting in my way"; or "I don't know why, but I feel intimidated by you now. Would you be willing to shift (from the present subject) now and take a look at that with me?"

4) You're unsure what your partner's communication needs are:

"I'm confused, (name). What do you need from me now?"

5) Your communication goal doesn't seem to match your partner's:

"(Name), I sense that our communication needs don't match now. I need to ______. What do you need from me now?"

6) You're distracted by something and can't focus on your partner:

"(Name), I'm feeling really distracted by _______________. Could I take care of that and resume with you at (specific time)?"

7) You want to express anger and/or frustration at your partner safely:

"(Name), I am REALLY irritated and frustrated with you because (specific behavior)! Are you in a place to use empathic listening with me on this? If you're not, I need to agree on a time when we can work on this! I'm so upset so I can't hear your side of it right now."

8) You want to express gratitude or praise so your partner hears you.

"(Name), when you (describe their specific behavior), I feel really (grateful / proud of you / appreciative...), because (specific reason). Thanks / Nice job!" This is an assertive ''I'' message.

9) You don't feel safe to talk honestly with (tell the truth to) your partner:

"I'm pretty nervous about saying this... (Name), I can't be really honest with you about (specific subject). I'm scared that (specific reason). Will you problem-solve with me on this?"

10) You don't understand your partner's current thoughts:

"I'm confused. Could you make your point another way?" or ...

"Could you recap your ideas in a few sentences?" I want to be clearer on what you mean."  or...

"So what is it that you want me to know (about their topic)?

      Another useful option is to use a hearing check.

      Recall - these are examples of possible meta-comments you can make in common social situations.

11) You're bored by your partner:

"(Name), I'm having a hard time staying interested in (their topic) right now. Maybe I can hear you better another time." or  "Could you summarize what it is you want me to know (about this topic)?"

12) Your partner seems 1-up (disrespectful): i.e. you currently feel put down or discounted because s/he: constantly interrupts you / talks non-stop / changes the subject before you're done / ignores or derides your ideas / name-calls / works while you talk / is sarcastic / avoids your eyes, etc.

"When you (specific current behavior), I feel my needs aren't very important to you. I feel ignored, hurt, and resentful!" ("...and I want you to stop doing that.")

13) Your partner seems 1-down: e.g. s/he discounts (disparages) her/his own current feelings, needs, or thoughts.

"(Name), when you say 'I'm probably wrong again' (or other specific behavior), I feel you put yourself down, and I get very uneasy / uncomfortable / ________."

14) Your partner is (now or often) uncomfortably curt or silent:

"Looks like you need to be brief / quiet now." or...

"Am I doing anything that stops you from saying what you're thinking or feeling?" or

"When you choose to (be so brief / remain silent) I feel ___________."

"What do you need from me now?"

15) Your partner (often?) leaves before you're done:

"When you take off before I finish our (talk / issue / conversation), I feel unimportant, frustrated, and put down! I need to know if I'm doing something that blocks your talking with me. Will you work on that with me?"

16) Your partner frequently (or now) won't look at you:

"(Name), when you avoid my eyes so much, I feel uneasy and distracted from what you're saying." ("Do you have a problem with me right now?")

17) Your partner brings up an old conflict you thought was resolved:

"(Name), I get REALLY frustrated when you bring up (the specific old issue) again and again! I feel punished, attacked, and weary! What do you need from me so you could let go of (this issue)?"

      This problem usually indicates your partner isn't aware of what s/he really needs from you, and repeatedly focuses on surface issues. Digging down can disclose the primary unmet needs, and the other skills can help to fill them.

18) Your partner rambles on and on:

"Whoa (fingers in ears)! I feel swamped. You're saying so much! When you need to do that, It gets hard for me to hear you after a while." ("You don't really need any input from me right now, yes?")


"(Name), when you talk on and on without asking for my response or asking about me, I feel increasingly used, hurt, and resentful. Can we talk about this?"

19) Your communication partner sends a double message (their words don't match their body / face / tone):

"Please stop, (Name) - I'm getting confused. Your face looks (specific emotion: sad / angry / bored...), but you say you're not. What gives?" (Note: sending frequent double or "mixed" messages is a clear sign of false-self wounds.)

20) Your partner makes (wrong) assumptions about you - e.g. s/he finish your sentences, or tell you what you're thinking, feeling, wanting, or really meaning:

"(Name), I'm starting to resent your making assumptions about me. When you tell me what I'm 'really' feeling or thinking, I feel 1-down and ignored by you. I feel like I'm the kid, and you're the adult. (... And I'm going to call you on it when I notice you 'mind-reading' me, because I really need you to stop it.)"

21) Your partner uses information you've shared to attack or criticize you:

"Name), I feel really betrayed by you. I trusted you with (specific information), and I feel like you're using it against me. I'm feeling a lot less safe in confiding in you!"

22) Your partner says you're playing communication or mind games:

"So you feel manipulated or conned by me just now..." (Wait for a response...) If "yes":

"I'm pretty frustrated that you feel that way. I'm trying to tell you honestly what I (think / feel / want), and to clearly hear what you need." ("What is it I'm doing that makes you feel that way?" or "What do you need me to change?")

+ + +

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - can you describe the several main themes underlying these sample meta-comments? One theme is prompt, respectful assertion about a communication problem. A common alternative is stuffing or repressing your feelings and needs, which is a lose-lose option that may signal that a false self rules you. Note that your odds for success are best using your own words, not parroting these examples... 

 Your Own Situations

      Use the above examples as a guide to composing your own meta-comments:

  • Situation:


Possible meta-comment:

  • Situation:


Possible meta-comment:


  • Situation:


Possible meta-comment:




      This article complements the overview of the powerful communication skill of metatalk - talking co-operatively with a partner about your communication process. The article (a) defines effective metatalk, (b) offers guidelines for using this skill well, and (c) gives 22 examples of possible meta-comments to common communication problems.

      Recall why you read this article. Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or ''someone else''?

      The unique guidebook Satisfactions (Xlibris.com, 2nd ed., 2010) integrates the key Lesson-2 Web articles and resources in this nonprofit Web site, and provides many practical resources.  

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      For more examples of effective responses to annoying social behaviors, see this.

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