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For personal success, get beyond the words and metacommunicate

Meta means beyond. And though it has varying definitions, in its simplest form, metacommunication means going beyond regular communication to get the full point across. It means making sure everything—spoken or unspoken—gets communicated to, and from, both sides.

Most employment situations are rife with unspoken expectations and assumptions, says Barbara Kay, LPC, RCC, a business psychologist and productivity coach in Wheaton, IL.

Employees don’t know or don’t understand what their leaders expect, don’t meet those unspoken expectations, and see their careers lag as a result.

That’s where metacommunication comes in. It lets the administrator find out what the firm truly wants and in turn shows the firm the value of what they’re getting.

15 minutes? Maybe 30? Please?

In most firms the administrator gets only an annual review, Kay says, and often the review is formal, structured, and rigid to the point that both sides “miss the unspoken things.”

That’s scarcely enough time to know the firm’s full expectations and stay in line with meeting them for the next 12 months.

It’s the administrator who has to start the metacommunicating and it’s done by asking the managing partner for time to talk about the firm’s expectations for the job.

Ask for 15 minutes at a minimum, though 30 minutes is better, “And an hour is optimum.”

If the answer is no, try a few weeks later. And keep trying. This is essential.

Law administrators are responsible for a tremendous number of things, she explains, and while they may start out on the right path they can easily take a wrong turn. Also, “People’s priorities may shift based on circumstances,” and the shifts partners make aren’t always spoken about.

The direction may be to cut expenses and keep “a lean and mean staff” when, unbeknownst to the administrator, the managing partner has heard client service is suffering and wants to hire more staff. And nobody has thought to tell the administrator.

A good way to start may be, “I want to make sure I’m on the same page as you and the firm with respect to the expectations you have of me.”

Uncovering the unspoken

Go into the meeting and ask, “What are the priorities you want me to pursue?” In other words, Kay says, “Find out what will get an A on the report card,” or what’s high on the partners’ priority list and what they are paying attention to most.

From there, ask, “How am I doing in terms of executing your top priorities?”

That’s not begging for a compliment. It’s providing the partner with an opportunity to tell the administrator what things are important to the firm, what’s being done well, and what could be improved.

Also if another priority has come up, it’s a reminder for the partner to reveal it.

That’s metacommunication. It brings out all the facts.

What if the partner doesn’t provide enough information on what the preferences are?

Nail it down with, “Is there anything you’d like me to do more or less of?” Or, “If we get to the end of the year and you’re absolutely thrilled with my performance, what will I have accomplished?”

Take notes and then verify it all

Kay points to two more factors essential to a good meeting.

One is to take notes during the conversation but not to get buried in the note taking.

Keep the eye contact going. This is a time to make a professional and personal connection. Staring down at the notepad is hardly conducive to metacommunicating.

The other key factor is to follow up afterwards to verify the accuracy of what’s been heard.

Send an email summarizing what’s been said and what’s to be done. For example, “If I understood you correctly, your highest priorities are A, B, and C. You want me to put more focus on D. And success for me would be to accomplish E, F, and G.”

Dear diary …

Now set up a diary to track progress.

In it, list goals the managing partner wants to see accomplished during the next six months to a year.

Under each goal, list the activities it will require. To get that, just ask, “What do I need to do to achieve this?” That’s the action plan.

A lot of managers list the goals but don’t break them down into activities, Kay says. “They know what they want to accomplish by the end of the year, but not what they need to do every day, or week, or month to get there.”

She recommends following an approach that’s been around since 1981 and is still in force. It’s called SMART and it means that each activity has to be:

Specific: spells out what will be done

Measurable: can be measured for success

Achievable: realistic enough to be completed

Relevant: has a direct impact on the goal itself

Time bound: has a deadline for completion

For example, if the goal is to improve staff retention, one step might be to schedule individual meetings with staff during the next three months to discuss their professional development and satisfaction.

That’s specific because it’s spelled out. It’s measurable because the meetings can be put on the calendar and marked off. It’s achievable because the meetings will be scheduled and won’t conflict with other duties. It’s relevant because staff comments can be used to improve morale. And it’s time bound because it has an end point.

Anything I don’t know about?

Throughout the year—preferably quarterly, or even monthly, check back with the partners.

And stay positive in the meetings, Kay says. View them as an opportunity to get in better alignment with what the firm wants.

Go over the diary entries and go for yet more metacommunication. Show what’s been done. Ask if anything has changed or if new events have occurred. Ask if, “Is Tthere is anything different I should be aware of? Is there anything going on that calls for a change here?”

If a practice area has been added, for example, the partners are likely to have a new focus on staffing, revenues, and marketing. This is the time to recalibrate and fine-tune the plan as necessary.

Be direct about asking, “How am I doing? Am I on track with what you want?”

But also be aware that the meeting is not a review. It’s a checking-in time to see what needs to be continued and what needs to be changed.

Any manager, she says “is much more likely to be successful” when there’s frequent alignment with the boss. The work stays on track and the boss knows it.

Metacommunication = metagood

At year’s end, take the completed diary to the managing partner. The presentation format depends on the relationship and also on the way the firm operates.

If the atmosphere is formal, it can be presented in writing. Or an informal conversation might be appropriate.

Show the original goals, action steps taken to achieve each goal, changes made throughout the year, and the end results.

With metacommunication, the administrator has known all along what the partners wanted to achieve and has taken the right steps to achieve it. Now the firm “has a clear record of what the administrator has accomplished.”


Related reading:

8 quick ways to improve communication with your staff


Good communication speeds up the billing


Wish you’d never said that? Here’s how to save the day and perhaps your job


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