3 min read

Naming the meta-conversation

Naming the meta-conversation
Photo by Stephanie Harvey / Unsplash

The other day, my friend/co-worker and I found ourselves in a weird conversation.

The two of us work EST / PST timezones. This may seem like an insignificant difference on paper, but it can create a big difference in our mindset and mood while working together. While I'm having lunch, he's just starting his workday, and when he's having lunch, I'm wrapping up for the day.

We had an unproductive meeting the other day that threw off both our moods. Because of our time zone misalignment, this led to an asynchronous chat conversation starting Tuesday evening my time, that extended into Wednesday morning.

By the time he began his workday on Wednesday, I was feeling annoyed by our chats. I eventually mustered the courage to express how I was feeling, and said, "I'm a bit annoyed at the direction of this conversation. Can we video chat briefly now, or table this discussion for later?"

This was an unnatural moment for me. I generally avoid confrontation and hate admitting when I am upset, especially over seemingly trivial things. Women often face a double bind when it comes to showing emotion in the workplace. Admitting I am upset makes me feel like I am playing into this bias and losing credibility.

I remember a moment a while ago when I cried in front of my old manager, which left me feeling embarrassed and childish. He reassured me that having this reaction was a perfectly adult response, and that I had reacted proportionately to the situation I was dealing with.

It took me a while to internalize this wisdom, but over time, I've come to understand that even in the workplace, we are all just little humans with human reactions. Being an adult isn't about never having emotional reactions or letting things bother you. It is about not avoiding the conversations needed to resolve these feelings, just because we are afraid of how the other person may react.

It is not our job to take responsibility for someone else's feelings. It is our responsibility though to say the things that feel true for ourselves, in a way that is authentic and intentional for the impact we want to have.

I know that when I trust and respect someone, the best way I can show that respect is by taking the time to address things with them directly. One of the best approaches I've learned is to name the meta-conversation early and often, and ask the question of "What’s going unsaid?"

Lara Hogan wrote about this in the skill of naming what’s happening in the room:

Often, everyone else in the room will also sense these things, but folks rarely say them out loud. It might feel too awkward to do so, you might fear derailing the conversation further, or it simply might not be obvious how useful it’d be to voice what you’re noticing.

With the right approach, naming what’s happening is like a reset button: it creates an opportunity to positively change the tone or conversation. Doing so interrupts the cycle of everybody stating their needs and viewpoints, and acts as a reminder that you’re in this room as a group.

She also provided examples for how to go about having this conversation:

“Hey, let’s just take a second to check in: it feels like maybe we are going in circles on this.”

“Hey Cameron, I noticed your shoulders just slumped. I want to check in—how’s it going over there?”

“I just want to hit pause and say, I sense that we are both not feeling heard right now.”

“It feels like the energy in the room just changed.”

I wouldn't say that the phrase "I'm a bit annoyed at..." is the most open question. Borrowing from Lara, it probably would have been better had I said:

"I sense that the tone of this conversation is different than what our conversations are normally like, and maybe there is a meta-conversation going on here. Would you be okay with having a quick video chat now, or tabling until we can find time to meet?"


"I just want to pause this conversation and take a second to check-in; it feels like we are maybe going in circles and talking past each other. How is it going on your end? Would you be open to having a quick video call?"

Even though my phrasing wasn't perfect, naming the meta-conversation allowed us to quickly hop on a video call, and resolve the conversation in ~5 minutes.

It is hard to name the thing when you are feeling upset. I've spent a lot of my life trying to brush things off, and it can be hard for me to even notice how I am feeling in the moment. However, just naming the meta-conversation can often provide a good reset. At the very least, I'm no longer reinforcing a negative loop of chat messages, and that reset alone is enough to get back to a more productive path.

I'm excited to use keep experimenting with this framework and turn those little moments of awkward tension into moments of delight.