Many communication experts underestimate it, especially those communicating from a position of
authority: the power and importance of metacommunication. For the sake of clarity, let us first spell

out what we mean by metacommunication. The Greek prefix ‘meta’ means ‘about’. So we are talking
communication about communication, as such. Confusing? Not really. Metacommunication is
something we actually use (or misuse) in everyday situations. ‘This is not the way you should speak
to your father’ is a clear example. The boss of a company – take VRT for example – sending out a
memo using an imperative tone that no one other than the designated spokesperson is allowed to
speak to the press is another example.
Metacommunication is therefore about the ‘tenor’ of a message, about its underlying meaning, and
about the relationship with your interlocutor. How many of you have heard of Paul Watzlawick? Not
so many, I’m guessing. This Austrian-American philologist, who taught at Palo Alto and Stanford
universities, among others, and died in 2007, is known for his five axioms of communication. He was,
in fact, quite a big deal in his field. His best-known and first axiom is: ‘One cannot not communicate’.
We won’t go over all the axioms – just google them or ask ChatGPT. Interestingly, though, he also
had an axiom about metacommunication, which reads: ‘Every communication has a content and
relationship aspect’. Besides the content of the message – however clear it is – the relationship
between those involved in the communication also plays a role. If the relationship is a good one,
there will be more understanding of the message. Of course, the opposite is also true.
Hence the importance of metacommunication: while communication experts very readily focus on
the content of the message, they rarely consider its context. Never forget that what you say or write
also immediately tells you something about how you treat others or how you want others to treat
you. Obviously, this can lead to interference or even breakdown in communications. Having a poor
relationship with the target audience will often cloud the message, leading to difficulties in the
message properly ‘landing’. Watzlawick also stressed the importance of striking the right balance
between what he called analogue and digital language. Analogue represents the content, while
digital represents the non-verbal or relational context. For successful communication, the two
languages should correspond as much as possible.
In conclusion? Above all else, remember that communication is a human process. If, for example,
your organisation knows that a delicate social debate around early retirement is happening at the
moment, now is not the time to send out a press release stating that the CEO is taking early
retirement. While that may seem inherently logical, we recently saw a punishing example of exactly
that. But as an out-and-out trade unionist once told me: ‘Where there are people, there is human

Kris Poté, Vice President, Capgemini, 25 July 2023.