Here's a brief explanation of metacommunication, surely not enough to do this important topic justice--but a start.
The prefix meta- can mean a variety of things (Give examples), but as used in communication, philosophy, and psychology, its meaning is best translated as about. Thus, metacommunication is communication about communication, metalanguage is language about language, and a metamessage is a message about a message.
Look at it this way. You can communicate about the world——about the desk you’re sitting at, the computer you’re using, or the passage you’re reading right now. This is called object communication; you’re talking about objects. And the language you’re using is called object language. But you’re not limited to talking about objects. You can also talk about your talk; you can communicate about your communication. And this is referred to as metacommunication. In the same way, you can use language (that is, metalanguage) to talk about language (that is, object language). And you can talk about your messages with metamessages.
Actually, you use this distinction every day, perhaps without realizing it. For example, when you send someone an e-mail with a seemingly sarcastic comment and then put a smiley at the end, the smiley communicates about your communication; it says something like “this message is not to be taken literally; I’m trying to be humorous.” The smiley is a metamessage; it’s a message about a message. When you say, in preface to some comment, “I’m not sure about this, but . . .,” you’re communicating a message about a message; you’re commenting on the message and asking that it be understood with the qualification that you may be wrong. When you conclude a comment with “I’m only kidding” you’re metacommunicating; you’re communicating about your communication. In relationship communication you often talk in metalanguage and say things like, “We really need to talk about the way we communicate when we’re out with company” or “You’re too critical” or “I love when you tell me how much you love me.”
And, of course, you can also use nonverbal messages to metacommunicate. You can wink at someone to indicate that you’re only kidding or sneer after saying “Yeah, that was great,” with the sneer contradicting the literal meaning of the verbal message.
Here are a few suggestions for increasing your metacommunication effectiveness:
< Explain the feelings that go with your thoughts.
< Give clear feedforward to help the other person get a general picture of the messages that will follow.
< Paraphrase your own complex messages so as to make your meaning extra clear. Similarly, check on your understanding of another’s message by paraphrasing what you think the other person means.
< Ask for clarification if you have doubts about another’s meaning.
< Use metacommunication when you want to clarify the communication patterns between yourself and another person: “I’d like to talk about the way you talk about me to our friends” or “I think we should talk about the way we talk about sex.”
< Be careful that you don’t substitute talk about talk for talk about the issues. It’s easy in an argument, say, to focus on the talk—for example, objecting to the terms the other person is using or the tone of voice—and avoiding talking about the infidelity or the gambling debts.