Making Sense of What is Not Said

This paper belongs to Thematic Session 2 of the Gothenburg Meeting Science Symposium

David Gibson, University of Notre Dame (Sociology)

A meeting is a pre-planned face-to-face encounter involving two or more people, usually with a specific purpose that gears into organizational processes. An important challenge faced by both meeting researchers and is making sense of what does not happen–arguments not made, objections not raised, stories not told. Insofar as such talk might have been consequential, its nonoccurrence is equally so, but even with excellent recordings of the meeting itself, it is generally difficult to say whether a particular person’s failure to make a thematically relevant (and even urgent) point was due to (a) ignorance of that point, (b) the lack of desire to make it, (c) the lack of capacity to seize and hold the floor long enough to give voice to it, or (d) the sense that the terms of discussion were such as to disallow it (for example, if the point is evidentiary but the discussion took an ideological or ethical turn). This is problematic for researchers as an obstacle to explaining outcomes like decisions. It is problematic for decision-makers inasmuch as, after a meeting is complete, they will not know whether the lack of (for example) objections to some proposal was due to the actual lack of reservations in people’s minds, or their failure to find an opening in which to voice them; consequently, true consensus is hard to gauge unless participants are forced to explicitly vote (though this fact can be used strategically when a leader does not wish to confront disagreement). Finally, the frustration caused by the failure to articulate one’s views during a meeting can cause mental distress, low self-esteem, and a sense of alienation from the group. Methodological solutions include the measurement of pre-meeting intentions, post-meeting interviews about the meeting (perhaps aided by a recording), and behavioral indicators of conversational suppression, such as aborted sentences and other clues that a person wished to speak.

Start the discussion about this in the Kunsido forum