One of the first challenges in starting a new organization is to choose a name for yourselves. It’s a bit like choosing a name for a baby. It feels a big decision that you will have to live with for some time! We brainstormed many ideas, discussed and rejected them. Nothing felt right. Finally, Kevin proposed ‘Metalogue’ and this immediately energised us. The concept spoke to how we aspire to be with our clients.
A client recently asked us to help them to ‘get’ their senior management to realized that they had to change. Implicit to our conversations was the assumption that someone else had to do the changing. The CEO thought the Executive needed to change. The HR team thought the CEO needed to change. Whoever spoke argued that someone else was the problem. We (the consultants) were needed to do the changing of others. When we raised the conversation to a meta-level by pointing out this pattern, the conversation started to change and those involved were more willing to acknowledge the part they played and their influence.
The central idea in a metalogue is that the structure and form of a conversation is relevant to the problem being discussed. By raising the conversation to a ‘meta-level’ a new understanding of an issue can emerge which is connected to a change in relationships.
The concept of metalogue
We first came across the term metalogue in Gregory Bateson’s seminal book ‘Steps to an Ecology of Mind’.
Bateson was an incredibly influential social scientist who was interested in such wider ranging subjects as anthropology, psychiatry, ecology, social patterns, cybernetics and epistemological questions about learning and knowledge.
In the opening section of the book, he defines a metalogue as:
“… a conversation about some problematic subject. This conversation should be such that not only do the participants discuss the problem but the structure of the conversation as a whole is also relevant to the same subject’.
He describes a conversation between a daughter and her father in which the daughter asks:
“Daddy, why do things get in a muddle?”
The father asks her what she means and they discover that things only get in a muddle when (other) people touch them. They explore how the act of tidying something up creates a muddle. The Father observes that things get in a muddle because:
“…. there are more ways which you call “untidy” than there are ways which you call “tidy.”
The daughter starts to develop the idea that ‘tidy’ holds different meanings for different people:
“…. because if I have a special meaning for “tidy” then some of other people’s “tidies” will look like muddles to me —even if we do agree about most of what we call muddles.”
The daughter notices that whether something is ‘tidy’ or a ‘muddle’ is based on what a given person considers to be ‘tidy’ in a given situation.
The conversation continues in this circular and expanding manner. Bateson’s writing is illusive. He does not attempt to explain what he meant through this father – daughter conversation. Perhaps it exemplifies a metalogue in that a conversation about muddles ends up in a muddle. In this sense, the content of the conversation is reflected in its form. We could also see the conversation as a commentary on how our attempts to tidy up or order our world is creating muddles. Or it demonstrates how our language constructs our world and implies meanings that shift and unravel when questioned. The form of the father talking to his daughter also represents a form in which the father is assumed to know and yet the process of the daughters questioning expands the father’s understanding. What comes through most strongly is that by attending to the language, categories and meanings that we assume, a richer deeper understanding of an issue emerges.
What does this all mean in the world of organisations?
If we take the idea of metalogue seriously then we need to look for how the nature of a problem being discussed is reflected in the form of the conversation. In other words, there is a relationship between form and content. The language, tone, categories and metaphors that are used in the conversation convey particular meanings to those involved that is reflected on the problem being examined.
This might feel rather esoteric and irrelevant to everyday life. However, many of the difficulties that organisations experience are reflected and maintained through the structure of the conversations about these difficulties.
A few examples may help to illustrate the basic idea.
An organisation that delivered two basic services for many years struggled because of conflict between the two business units. No amount of effort or reorganization seemed to resolve the conflict. Whenever a discussion took place about the basic problem, the basic conflict was mirrored in the conversation itself. Members of each unit would imply and take the position that their work was better in some shape or form that the work of the other unit. The conversation would become self-referential with each unit defining themselves in opposition to the other group. The conversation took on a competitive, win-lose dynamic. The structure of the problem was thereby reflected in conversation about the problem. What seemed very difficult in this organization was for anyone to notice this pattern and to reflect upon it.
The UK’s remaining or leaving the European Union is perhaps another example. The conversation in the media, between politicians or between family members tends to take a rather polarized, black and white form. Both sides feel passionate about their position and reject the position of the other side. The form of the conversation once again mirrors the content of the problem itself in that no one can seem to agree on the nature of the relationship that the UK wants with the European Union.
In our consulting practice on a daily basis we come across seemingly intractable problems which manifest themselves in conversations about the problem. Holding this idea of metalogue in mind, we are most helpful when we draw attention to the form of the conversation: the language that is used, the patterns that emerge between individuals, the assumptions, beliefs and feelings that are implicit in what people say. By focusing at this meta-level of the conversation (rather than the content), we facilitate a shift in the form of the conversation. People start to notice what they mean, the assumptions that lie behind what they mean and the assumptions they make about what others mean and how their relationships with others are reflective of this process. In essence, our work is about helping our clients to have a different conversation about themselves.