To talk about the conversation in mentoring

What does it mean to metacommunicate?

Verbal metacommunication is a form of communication where we talk about and analyze an ongoing conversation by “taking a step out of it”. To some extent metacommunication resembles an ordinary conversation because it has a content, a dialogue form and a time frame. Baltzersen (2008) divides the concept into threekey questions:

– What do we metacommunicate about?
– How do we metacommunicate?
– When do we metacommunicate?

The “what-question” refers to the metacommunicative content which can be divided into three subcategories. First, we can talk about the conversational content. This is not the same as the fact that all conversations will have a content; we don’t always make the content of conversation into a subject of conversation. For instance, the mentee might say: “We have talked so much about what I did in the classroom, perhaps we could also discuss some relevant theories” The focus is not on subject matters, but rather on conversation subjects to discuss during mentoring.

Second, we can talk about the conversational relationship. This may often be experienced as some kind of evaluation of the conversation. It´s possible to focus on different aspects of the relationship such as proximity/distance (e.g. “I think we should talk more openly”, symmetry/asymmetry (e.g. “You don’t need to tell me what to do all the time!”), evaluation of the other(e.g. “Why do you need to be so harsh when you are talking to me?) or evaluation of oneself (e.g. “I guess I seem a little uncertain when I am talking to you”). We can also metacommunicate if we sense there is a potential mismatch between what the person is saying and how the person is behaving. For example, it might be necessary to metacommunicate if the mentee shows dissatisfaction through the body language (e.g. “You say that you are happy, but to me you look upset.”).

Thi, we can talk about the use of conversational time. This can be done in different ways, for instance by discussing how often the conversations should take place (e.g. “Perhaps we could meet more often?”), speaking order (e.g. “I would like to speak first this time”) length of conversation (e.g. “I’m running out of time, can we make this conversation as short as possible?”) or speed (e.g. “I have another meeting to go to, you will need to get to the point.”) Below is a chart showing how we can categorize various metacommunicative statements and questions based on Baltzersen’s (2008) definition.

Example What can we metacommunicate about How can we metacommunicate When can we metacommunicate
“How would you sum up the conversation; what did we agree on?” Talking about the conversational content Dialogical The past conversation
“Do you constantly have to tell me what to do?” Talking about the conversational relationship (symmetry-asymmetry) Monological The past conversation
“Yes, Per, if I understand you right, you would like advice on how to handle some of the more difficult students in your class. You are disappointed that they are so disruptive.” Talking about the conversational content (paraphrase) Monological The “here-and-now” conversation
“What do you mean by saying that?” Talking about the conversational content Monological The “here-and-now” conversation
“There are many questions that are difficult to put into words. You simply feel uneasy. Remember that you don’t need a well formulated question in order to come talk to me (…)” Talking about the use of conversational time (degree of accessibility) Monological The future conversation

Furthermore, writing tools can also support metacommunication. We can for instance make a written agreement, a summary or write a reflection document. In the literature on mentoring it is usually recommended that a written agreement is established early on in the mentoring process (see for instance Nilssen 2010). Such agreements can be of varied content, form and length. Some institutions that offer mentoring have also created a general template with suggested topics to include in the agreement (See more in article about written tools in mentoring).

The advantage of this kind of agreement is that both parties get a chance to present their expectations. If the agreement is specific, this may reduce the amount of misunderstandings later in the process. The parties will also feel more commited. In addition it might be easier to talk aobut sensitive subjects.

Different types of strategic metacommunication

In professional mentoring there are different ways to metacommunicate. Some of them are:

– To talk about the professional form of communication.
– To talk about the mentoring relationship.
– To ask questions that will clarify a conversation.
– To sum up the mentoring conversation.
– To talk about what we should not talk about.

To talk about the professional form of communication

In this article we discuss different ways to metacommunicate in professional mentoring conversations. For example, one interesting question is who should decide the topics of discussion. Carson and Birkeland (2009) claim that it is important to talk about the mentoring pedagogy. One reason is that many mentees expect to get a lot of advice (ibid: 37). Some mentees would also prefer that the mentor makes choices for them, and they can therefore easily become frustrated.

Both Carson and Birkeland (2009: 126) suggest that the mentoring strategy should build on an informed consent from the mentee. If the mentee opposes against a specific mentoring approach, this should be taken into account. A difficult situation might emerge if the mentee want to use a mentoring strategy that the mentor dislikes (Nilssen, 2010).

Usually, the mentee chooses the conversation topic, while the mentor decides how to structure the mentoring process. Carson and Birkeland (2009) question whether this is the best solution. Baltzersen (2008) finds that among students who find metacommunication important in thesis supervision, only around half of the students experience that this kind of communication is used. The reason is probably that the students see it as the mentor’s responsibility to take such an initiative (Lauvås and Handal, 1998).

To talk about the mentoring relationship

According to Nilssen (2010) feelings will always determine how we relate to each other. This is also the case in mentoring. It can sometimes be appropriate to talk about the mentorship relation. A mentor explains: “In my group of mentees there was a person taking the lead, who was very keen on speaking during the mentoring sessions. Another student would speak only when asked to. We discussed this. Was this how we wanted our sessions to be? Should everyone contribute? What did we want? The quiet student said that she would like to speak more, but that she didn’t feel good at expressing herself orally. We agreed that everyone should speak with the skills we had.” (Nilssen 2010:82)

To ask questions that will clarify a conversation

As mentors we will continuously ask ourselves questions tacitly in the ongoing mentoring conversation: “Am I challenging her too much?”, “Are we going in circles?”, “Are we moving forward with the conversation?”, “What do we avoid discussing?” This kind of thinking often takes place solely inside the mentor’s head, but it influences on the direction of the conversation. Sometimes these questions will be made explicit in the conversation in order to clarify ambiguities and misunderstandings. Below are some examples:

– “I understand that we disagree, but I am certain that I know what you are thinking when…”
– “I don’t understand what you mean by…”
– “I get a little uncertain when you put it that way.”
– “I wonder if I said something wrong.”
– “Do you mean that…?”
– “Do you think that we should rather…?”
– “I would like to talk to you about the… I wonder if I have misunderstood.”
– “If we talk it over a little more, perhaps we could…”
(Carson and Birkeland 2002:98)

To sum up the mentoring conversation

It is usually recommended to sum up the mentoring conversation by agreeing upon the main discussion points. The summary should not be too extensive, but is should give both parties some time to reflect on the status of the situation and the way ahead (Carson and Birkeland 2009: 83-84). It can also be beneficial to start every conversation by summarizing the last conversation.

Empirical research on the value of metacommunication

Baltzersen (2013) finds that there is a strong positive statistical correlation between the degree of metacommunication and the perception that the communication is good. Regular conversations about the conversation appear to prevent conflicts. It is also possible talk about what we should not talk about.


– Baltzersen, Rolf K. (2008): Å samtale om samtalen. Veiledning og metakommunikasjon. Bergen: Fagbokforlaget.
– Baltzersen, R. K. (2013). The Importance of Metacommunication in Supervision Processes in Higher Education. International Journal of Higher Education, 2(2), p128. [1]
– Carson, Nina og Åsta Birkeland (2009). Veiledning for førskolelærere. Kristiansand: Høgskoleforlaget.
– Nilssen, Vivi (2010). Praksislæreren. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.
– Lauvås, Per og Gunnar Handal (1998): Hovedfagsveiledning ved Universitetet i Oslo. Oslo: Pedagogisk forskningsinstitutt, Universitetet i Oslo. (Rapport nr.1)