A meta-conversation is a conversation about a conversation — how it unfolded or how you’d like to approach it. Meta-conversations are useful for deciding how we want to handle everyday disagreements with loved ones or colleagues.
We can use meta-conversations to agree, in advance and outside the heat of the moment, the principles we’ll use to resolve them well enough that we can move on. Then, we can fall back on those agreed-upon principles when we find ourselves talking in circles later.
Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson are co-founders of Basecamp, the successful software company originally known as 37signals. They’re well-known for challenging common assumptions about both software design and how companies (and the people in them) work, topics they’ve taken on their bestsellers Getting Real and Rework.
They’ve been pretty meta about conflict, too, identifying ways to get themselves unstuck even when they’re having a heated disagreement. In a recent interview, Hansson described two principles that bail them out when a disagreement is going long. They’re good ones:
Principle 1: Who cares most?
Hansson describes their give-and-take system for using this question:
When we go into a disagreement, sometimes the heat can get pretty hot, but usually there’s one person who cares more than the other person. And we’ve just set up a give-and-take system where whoever cares most if the discussion goes long, wins. That means that sometimes I can care a fair amount about something and then still stay, ‘Ok, I’m going to let it go, Jason, you do it.’ And the next time perhaps I’m the one who cares the most and then we go with my side of things.
They’re not keeping tabs on who’s conceded more often, and this is probably an important proviso. Unless the ratio is wildly out of whack, keeping tabs becomes just another thing to fight about.
Principle 2: Who’s going to do the work?
If I have strong opinions about how a piece of design is supposed to be implemented, well, if it’s Jason who actually has to do the work and corral the troops of designers that he’s working with, well, he just has a natural advantage there. He has naturally higher ground. It doesn’t mean he’s always right, it doesn’t mean we’ll always go that way, but I’ll concede the point more often than not when it falls into his specific wheelhouse, which is design. The same thing goes for programming. We’ll talk about lots of features in Basecamp where it’s mostly a technical challenge, and as the technical person or programmer of the two of us, I get the higher ground when it comes to technical matters. So we have a great mutual respect for that expertise that each of us holds.
There are overlap areas, such as those associated with running their company and marketing. Hansson points out that they can’t usually rely on one having higher ground in those scenarios, because they each have about equal responsibility and experience. So for disagreements in the overlap areas, they use the “who cares most” principle.