Virginia Satir was a therapist working with families, teaching them to communicate with each other by first making them aware of the silent messages they were sending to each other. An awareness of these silent messages, or meta-messages, are necessary for truly effective communication. I’ve broken these meta-messages down into four major categories: spatial, vertical, audial and gestural.


Spatial meta-messages: 

How close? Also known as “proximal meta-messages”. These are the silent messages we send by the distance we keep from others. When we venture in up close to someone, right up in their face, we are in intimate proximity. It means one thing to be this close if we are in a loving relationship and quite another if we are arguing with that person.

Imagine an invisible defensive shield or bubble all around yourself. When you are irritated, your bubble grows; when you are friendly, or in a good mood, it shrinks. We go through our days with our defense bubble growing and shrinking without even ourselves knowing it. Sometimes our shield comes too close to someone else’s shield. When that happens, our warning system goes off and we are on high alert.

A person intentionally entering the personal space of another is sending the following messages:

I’m coming for you.

I’m not afraid of you.

I want to hurt you.

A person who is backing away so as not to allow another to enter their space is saying:

I’m afraid of you.

I won’t let you in.

I don’t want to get hurt.


Vertical meta-messages:

How tall? While spatial metamessages are sent when someone invades our self-designated defense shield, vertical metamessages are sent when someone puts him/herself in a physical position of superiority (by hovering, standing up tall, intentionally towering over another, etc.) or inferiority (by cowering, slouching or shrinking). Put simply, this is a battle of one-upsmanship. In our speech patterns we see is as using words as put-downs.

A person who is trying to be taller is saying:

I am mightier, so I am right.

I am bigger and stronger.

I am your superior.

A person who is cowering is saying:

I am afraid.

I can’t get away from you so I am making myself less visible.

I am inferior.


Audial meta-messages:

How loud? Metamessages of volume or audial metamessages are based on how loud a person speaks.

Raising or lowering a voice can send a strong message. These are usually the first metamessages we are consciously aware of and exert control over. Unless a person is completely devoid of social graces, you wouldn’t normally yell at someone who is standing directly in front of you unless you were angry.

We learn the impact of audial metamessages even before we can talk. As infants, we learn that crying will bring us attention, whereas, soft cooing, doesn’t. When an infant wants attention, they cry until their needs are met. They don’t give a whole lot more information other than “WAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!!”. But, that’s all we need to start checking into their needs. Do they need a bottle? Does their diaper need to be changed? Is something pinching them? Is the sun in their eyes? Do they want Mommy around? Until the parents figure out the right combination, that baby will continue to send their message.

It isn’t until a child learns to finesse their communication style that they understand the underlying meaning of yelling in another person’s face. As we grow older, we also learn about the power of an overly soft voice in a tense situation.

A person who raises their voice louder than necessary is saying:

I’m not feeling heard.

I don’t want any feedback.

A person who speaks softer than necessary is saying:

I don’t want anyone to hear this.

It’s pointless to even speak because I won’t be heard anyway.


Gestural metamessages:

What’s moving? These are the silent messages we send by the way we clasp our hands, cross our arms, roll our eyes, look down at the ground, shift our weight from one leg to the other, etc. Think of how hard it is to communicate without using your hands. We get into a conversation and don’t even notice how much we rely on our hands to get our point across. It must be very hard for Presidential candidates to monitor their own hand movements during debates.

Hand movements are one form of gesture, yet we silently communicate with our whole body. Whole books have been written on what our body movements belie. Think of what a person is saying when they:

-cross arms against chest: I’m not open to you.

-roll eyes: I’m looking in space for the meaning of what you’re saying.

-looking down at the ground: I’m bored/sleeping or I’m afraid that you can tell what I’m thinking.

-raise eyebrows: That interesting. I need to see that in its entirety.



Understanding and applying meta-messages in our daily routines can affect our lives by:

-changing our relationships from indifferent to engaged

-increasing our value as an employee

Imagine the teacher who endures a student’s outburst in class and validates the frustration they must be feeling with a new math concept. Or a customer service representative who handles a screaming customer by calmly repeating the problem back and making sure the customer has been heard. Or a playground supervisor who seats two boys down at a table where they can see eye-to-eye instead of going chest-to-chest to discuss their problem with each other.

Awareness of meta-messages by noting the appropriateness of space, size, volume and  gesture allows people to deal with each other on an even playing field leading to the goal of mutual respect. When mutual respect is achieved in a relationship, much more can be accomplished, much more quickly.


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