What I said isn’t what I meant…


“Meta-communication skills are important for operating effectively without face-to-face contact. In this article I explore what meta-communication is and how meta-communication skills can be developed.”

Dr. Bailey Bosch

Director of People and Culture, Free Range Lawyers

Sometimes organisations are hesitant to engage remote workers because they believe that communication needs to be face-to-face and that their clients don’t want to deal with someone at the end of the phone or on the other side of a screen.

These fears are based on the misbelief that face-to-face communication and service-delivery is superior.  

The truth is people communicate all of the time, it is impossible to avoid it. We are social creatures and are constantly sending out signals to others that are received, read, interpreted and responded to whilst at the same time receiving, reading, interpreting and responding to the signals sent by others. Pretty fantastic really, what the human brain is capable of.

Those who worry about the quality of communication that is done via technology question whether the tasks of reading and interpreting signals can be done without actually seeing the person who is sending the signals.

What they are highlighting as a potential weakness of non-face-to-face communication concerns ‘meta-communication’.

What is meta-communication?

In the early 1970s Gregory Bateson coined the term ‘metacommunication’ to describe the underlying  messages in what we say and do. These are all those other things that go on beneath the surface of a conversation. The non-verbal cues that are so important. Things like tone of voice, body language, gestures and facial expressions that contain meanings that sometimes don’t match up with the actual words being said.

How can we capture metacommunication without being in front of the people we are speaking with?

Well, fortunately technology has advanced so far that with a good connection and high-resolution device, you can easily feel as though you are face-to-face with others.

So, what are some tricks to ensure that non-face-to-face communication is successful? Try to remember the following tips when you are engaging with others over the phone or via video:

Tips for communicating via phone or video

  • Slow the conversation down. When people talk too quickly, they can miscommunicate their message. A fast-paced conversation also makes it harder for the other party to interrupt and seek clarification.
  • Listen with curiosity and interest. Be an intentional listener. Look for the message behind the message. This is crucial for those involved in customer service where the initial conversation may not be a true indicator of the actual problem.
  • Put aside defensiveness. If you are accused of not understanding or misinterpreting the conversation, don’t instantly get defensiveness. Rather seek to understand and ask the other person to explain it again.

If you can work on your metacommunication skills you will have more influence and cooperation from those you are working with. And for organisations who fear their message will get lost in translation if it is not delivered face-to-face, just remember these are learnable skills. Provide explicit instruction to your team around communications and develop simple policies to help them do what they do best – serve your clients – whether that is via technology or in person.