Level Up

Posted on July 8, 2019


Let’s talk briefly about meta-communication and why it is useful.  Meta-communication is a term therapists use to describe what happens when we communicate about the way we communicate.

I will give you just a moment for that last sentence to sink in.

Meta-communication happens when we talk about how we communicate.  It is one of the tools in the therapist’s bag of tricks.  I think of it as taking the conversation to the next level.  When we get stuck in an argument, we can stop trying to battle out on the level we are stuck on and go to the next level where we talk about what is going on for each of us as we are having this argument.

Fortunately, this is not a professional driver, closed course, do not attempt kind of a thing.  You can try this one on your own and save yourself a lot of money on counseling.

Sometimes a couple really is arguing about what they appear to be arguing about.  However, if things are getting heated, it is more likely that they just got caught up in their pain cycle.  Something caused one of you to feel unloved, unsafe, unimportant, not cared for, not good enough, or something along that line and you reacted (with your own coping strategy) causing a similar experience from your partner.

So give this a try.  If your partner is reactive to something you said or did and that reaction seems out of proportion, try finding out what just happened for your partner.  That might sound something like this, “when I said that, it seemed to really upset you.  What was it about what I said/did that made you so upset?”

Tone is going to be very important here.  You need to sound genuinely interested.  If you sound condescending, expect that your partner will be more upset, rather than less.

If you attempt this and it doesn’t work, it does not mean it was a bad idea.  We just need to take it up another level (meta-meta-communication?[1]).  Couple relationships are systems.  Systems try to maintain homeostasis.  When you try to make a change, the system is first going to try to push you back into line.  It takes some perseverance.

If this happens, here’s another strategy you can try for going to the next level.  Blame me.  Really, I don’t mind.  It might go like this, “I was reading this therapist’s blog, and he said that when you are upset that I should try to find out what it was that made you so upset.  How could I have done that better?  When I have done something that upsets you, what do you need from me at that time.”

If that still doesn’t calm things down, you made need to take a break.  One of my favorite strategies for parenting which also applies to couples’ relationships is that we train in times of non-conflict.  You can attempt the meta conversation when things are calm rather than in the heat of battle when you are both feeling flooded.

The goal here is understanding.  You both do and say the things you do and say for a reason.  Gaining some understanding around that can help change the dance.  Give it a go.

[1] Communicating about how we communicate about our communication.