Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Confusion Meta-Communication and Mixed Messages

What does the term meta-communication mean? How do meta-messages effect our ability to decipher the information we receive?

Meta is a term from the Greek meaning with, or underneath. In meta-communication, we refer to the additional cues that accompany verbalization in the form of body language, facial expressions and sounds. When we are irritated with our partner we may roll our eyes, sigh, slam doors, tap our foot or purse our lips. When we are pleased with our partner we may smile, leave our arms open or hug. These are all obvious forms of meta-communication. They send meta-messages that speak volumes about our emotions.

In our daily lives we read meta-communication constantly. It comes at us at a furious pace. Most meta-communication is absorbed on a sub conscious level without our ever realizing it. We consciously acknowledge our partner's pleasure in seeing us when they smile upon our arrival, but the additional signals we absorb tell us much more than pleasure. We can sense other emotions as well from their stance, hand use, eye contact, facial expressions and other body language.

When we talk with someone we receive a continuous flow of signals from them regarding how they feel about what they are saying. There are times when we sense that the meta-messages we receive clash with what we are being told. We call these mixed messages. We may be hearing one thing, but our partner's underlying emotions are sending their own meta-messages. Since the two disagree we feel peculiar about what we experience. We might not be able to verbalize what we feel, but something just isn't right. We feel the difference between the verbal communication and the meta-communication and label it a gut feeling.

The way we interpret meta-messages varies based on our own view. Since we are left without direct verbalization, we fill in the blanks ourselves. This creates even more confusion. If we have unresolved issues they can effect what we believe regarding this dichotomy.

An example: One partner decides to visit an auto supply store on the way home from the office in order to pick up parts for the car. Fixing up the car is a hobby enjoyed during free time. When the usual time has passed without a call informing of a late arrival, a worried partner begins to assume that something has gone awry. Thoughts swirl around events from past relationships. Tensions mount. When the two are finally together, accusations fly. One accuses the other of being inconsiderate and not calling to advise of a late arrival. The other accuses of being unable to have time to pursue hobbies and interests. Neither of the partners are revealing the underlying truth.

One partner has fears associated with past relationships where monogamy was not reciprocated. The other has fears associated with a controlling parent who didn't permit free time and expected adult levels of responsibility during childhood. The meta-messages clarify what is not being said in the conversation. One partner could have called on the way from the office to advise of a late arrival. Due to fears of being controlled and not permitted time to pursue hobbies as a child, the call was not made. The other partner made assumptions about behavior based on past wounds that were not applicable to the current relationship.

This argument might have been averted if the underlying truth had been spoken by both parties. Instead of angry accusing words regarding inconsiderate time use, shared fears related to past wounds might have allowed an offer of comfort and reassurance. Instead of justifications regarding behavior meant to avoid being controlled, open discussion might have produced a chance for a realization that hobbies and interests were actually supported.

The meta-communication reveals that these two partners are verbalizing only part of their needs. The underlying messages which effect their thinking patterns are sent in non-verbal ways: angry looks, distancing behaviors, curt responses, tense voices, slammed doors and distrustful glances. Both partners feel the dichotomy in their tensed gut.

Meta-communication allows us to experience the underlying message that may not be shared. We learn to trust our gut feelings realizing that we and our partners are not always aware of the motivation behind our actions. We can increase our understanding of our partner through this realization. As we continue to use our tools for self care in our daily lives, we increase our awareness of our own communication and the meta-messages we send and receive. As we practice self care we increase our self esteem. In this way we give ourselves the gift of effective communication.

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