Metacommunication: the missing piece to your leadership toolbox

Long story short, metacommunication is communicating about how you communicate. It is actually one of the most powerful tools you can develop with your team!

The Surdek Team
September 11, 2023
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Some of the major gripes we hear when working with clients have to do with communication. Have you ever heard the classic: "This meeting could've been an email"? Or on the contrary, people complaining about receiving too many emails?

This can lead to lack of engagement at work, team conflict, or even things falling through the cracks. When you think about it, most of what you do at work—brainstorming, collaboration, emails, calls—involves communication... and that is a good thing!

As a leader, this is why metacommunication is a critical capacity that you need to develop within your team. In this article, we will dig deeper into this concept and how you can use it to make your team communication more effective.

What is metacommunication?

Essentially, metacommunication is communicating about how you communicate with each other. It is made of nonverbal cues to convey meaning, and of verbal cues, like simply talking about it. Let's focus on verbal cues for the moment.

Have you ever discussed the following with your team:

  • Which situation warrants a Zoom, an in-person meeting, an instant message or an email?
  • How often do you need to update each other on a topic? Once a week? Every day?
  • How and where do you communicate in case of a work emergency?

Metacommunication also refers to what is acceptable and what is not acceptable when you are communicating as a team. Do you want to take turns speaking in meetings? Is emailing on weekends acceptable? Can your team members text their team leader (or you)?

It is important to clarify all these questions. It is about creating frameworks to build trust. These are norms and preferences that you should establish with your team. That way, everyone on your team is aligned, knows what to expect and can keep each other accountable.

A quick example of metacommunication

Metacommunication is important in everyday life, but it becomes even more relevant when there are language or cultural barriers. Let's look at this example of cross-cultural communication.

Our client was in a meeting with other leaders from one of her company's international offices. She was getting excited about a concept the team was talking about. She was interjecting often with small sentences to show her appreciation or to add on top of others' ideas.

After a few minutes, our client read the room. She could feel that the people from the international team seemed to be annoyed with her and that the tone of the discussion had changed towards her. She also noticed that others would only nod to show their approval. They would also wait for someone to finish before speaking up.

She waited until there was a silence in the conversation. Then she spoke up and said: "I feel there has been a shift in this conversation. It may be because I was speaking at the same time as some people. It is something I often do with my team when I am enthusiastic. I apologize if this made you uncomfortable. I will do my best to refrain from doing this while I'm here."

After her realization and her quick course correction, the meeting resumed, but the mood was much lighter. That is the power of metacommunication to help teams understand differences in communication styles, personalities and cultures!

This example also demonstrates very well how the way this person noticed part of their leadership game in action, spoke about it with the group in an effective manner and then adjusted accordingly.

How to use metacommunication

1. Build your framework with your team.

One very cool thing you can do is to discuss your communication process and create custom communication rules with your team. For this to work though, everyone on the team needs to give their buy-in. What is exciting is you can develop shared guidelines with your team about how, where, when, in which situation, on which channel and in what manner you want to communicate.

Once everyone agrees to these ground rules, make the team accountable for enforcing them. No emails after 6PM means no one sends emails after 6PM! This means that as a team, you need to set and enforce boundaries when people step over the line.

2. Address misunderstandings, emotions and differences.

When you notice that people are confused or annoyed, like our client in our example above, address it directly. Encourage your team to ask questions if they are unsure of what the meaning of a message is. This will nip any potential misunderstandings in the bud.

As a leader, do not hesitate to bring emotions into it. This is especially through listening and noticing. Do you feel your team is anxious or stressed? Acknowledge this and take it into account in how you speak to them.

Understand that people have different communication styles. They may express themselves in various ways, particularly if language and cultural differences are involved. Soft skills like patience and empathy go a long way here.

3. Create structures for conversations.

A quick hack you can start doing right away : Find a recurring meeting in your schedule and create a structure for it. Say you have weekly updates for a project the team is working on. You can create a 3-question structure to make sure these meetings stay on track.

This means in every meeting, you will cover the same 3 questions every time. These can be quick questions like: What did you learn last week? What do we want to achieve this week? What are any potential roadblocks?

By regularly using the structure, the team is creating new habits. The goal is for it to become second nature. This will make the team more effective in communicating with each other.


Communication is complicated. There are many ways to understand OR misunderstand a message, and the many technologies available today to call, text, chat, send pictures or videos only make matters more complex.

Bringing clarity to the ways you communicate as a team is one solution to address this issue before it becomes an actual issue with your team. Building a shared framework and communicating all day, every day with empathy and awareness are good first steps.

Metacommunication is a capacity that you can build over time with your team through practice. By being aware of how you communicate and agreeing on the methods of communication, you can make your team more engaged and efficient!

How could things be different if you became aware of your team's metacommunication? What powerful tools could you use to help your team today?