The difference between overt and meta conversations
June 9, 2020
Almost all conversations involved two different parts. One part is the overt topic of the conversation, and it is generally pretty easy to recognize – for example, “What are we going to have for dinner?”
There is another part of most conversations, one that is more difficult to recognize or identify. This is sometimes called the “meta conversation.” The meta conversation has its own topic, which is often very different from the overt topic. Meta conversations are usually about some aspect of the relationship between you, and are often unspoken and not consciously recognized by one or both people having the conversation. Examples of meta conversation topics include:
- Do you care about me? Do you love/like/respect/value me?
- Which one of us is in control here?
- I am afraid of what it means about our relationship if we don’t agree.
Identifying the meta conversation can be a powerful tool when an interaction is becoming confusing or difficult. If you are having a difficult time understanding why a conversation is going wrong, try to identify the meta conversation topic. Maybe there is more than one.
There are a number of ways that unaddressed meta conversations cause relational problems. Sometimes you are each having a different meta conversation. If one of you is having a meta conversation about who is in control and the other one is having a meta conversation about whether you care about each other, things will probably be confusing at best. Sometimes we make incorrect assumptions about the other person’s meta conversation focus, which can make us feel unnecessarily hurt, angry, or defensive.
The only real way to know the meta conversation topic is to talk about it with the other person. Talking about the meta conversation is challenging because it is vulnerable to reveal; sometimes it is even scary to revel to yourself. It feels vulnerable to let someone know that their caring or respect for you matters to you. This provides motivation to avoid acknowledging the meta conversation, and it is why people often insist that the reasons they are upset is the overt topic rather than a meta conversation topic about the relationship.
If you don’t believe it is a good idea to talk directly about the meta conversation with someone in any given moment, you can still address possible meta conversation topics. Authentically letting someone know that you care about them and/or respect them will almost always improve a conversation, even if you disagree about the overt topic.
I will leave you with a word of caution: meta conversations are, by their nature, often tricky to identify – even our own. Sometimes the only way to understand your own meta conversation focus is by talking it through with the other person. Whatever else you do, do not try to second-guess others’ meta conversation topics or focus. Figuring out your own unspoken wants and fears is more than enough work to do!
– Tod Fiste, LPC