Talking About Talking

Talking About Talking, also known as Meta-Conversing, is a skill described by Deborah Tannen in her book That's Not What I Meant.[1] Meta-conversing is where you talk about the conversation you're having. This is a useful skill for any conversation throughout daily life. You can talk about why you're having the conversation, what it's about, or your state of mind. You can also ask for clarification, or ask if someone is ok with having a certain conversation in that moment. You could think of it as a more friendly way of figuring out the frame of the conversation popover available. Supporting your frinds and seeking support can be a lot easier if you talk about your talking and communication.

Here are some examples of meta-conversing:

  • Asking a friend or loved one "Do you mind if I talk to you about something stressful that happened to me?" or something similar. This is a form of meta-conversing you can use to make sure the person you're talking to is willing and able to listen.
  • Similarly, you could say "Can I tell you about something that happened to me, and ask if you think it was [racist/sexist/ableist/etc]?" This is a form of seeking validation popover available.
  • If someone is giving you advice you don't want, you might say "I'm really only looking for you to listen right now, but still, thanks." This is a way to steer the conversation.
  • If someone comes to you with a problem, you could meta-converse by asking "What are you looking for in a friend right now? Do you want advice, my opinion, or just validation?"
  • If you're not up to listening to someone's problems, you can advocate for yourself by saying something like "Sorry, I'm kinda tired and can't really listen right now."
  • Different people have different communication styles. You can use meta-conversing to make sure you're understanding each other correctly. Sometimes, I'll ask my friends "Are you trying to imply that X? Am I getting that right?"
  • Any form of paraphrasing is a good way to make sure you're on the same page. Simply repeating back what you understood from what the other person has said, so they can tell you if that's what they meant.

Of course, you'd probably want to phrase all of these in your own voice and style. Personally, I have found meta-conversing an incredibly useful skill in my life with my communities. I hope you can find it useful too.

[1] Deborah Tannen. (1986). That’s not what I meant! How conversational style makes or breaks you relations with others. New York, NY, USA: Ballantine Books.