"The magic of meeting necessitates having multiple voices" - An Interview with François Cooren

Here is an interview with François Cooren, Professor of Communication at the University of Montreal and former President of the International Communication Association. François’ research interest is in organisational communication more broadly, but given the importance of meetings in organizational live, much of his research ends up being about meetings (e.g. this book), which is why he also was on the Advisory Committee for the Gothenburg Meeting Science Symposium. The interview was conducted via email and some links were added afterwards.

Are you curious what the art of ventriloquism has to do with the art of good meetings? Then read on (and feel free to comment below)!

François, the department where you are professor has gained a global reputation in the field of management and organization theory as the centre of the so called “Montreal School of Organizational Communication” which proposes a new way of thinking about organizational communication. Could you briefly describe what distinguishes the Montreal School from other approaches and what this means for our understanding of meetings?

Our school, as we began to be called from the beginning of the 2000s, starts from a premise, which is nicely summarized by John Dewey in Democracy and Education: “Society not only continues to exist
by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication.” This quote, which James R. Taylor, the founder of our school, kept reminding us, invites us to investigate the organizing properties of communication, that is, to find in communication the building blocks of organization.

Regarding the question of meetings, this approach leads us to analyze how organizational elements are not only staged and reproduced in this kind of discussions (mission statements, principles, rules, procedures, objectives, strategic plan, numbers, reports, etc.), but also created, articulated or transformed. For the Montreal School, everything happens on the terra firma of interaction and nowhere else, which means that participants should not only be seen as actors who make a difference in this kind of setting, but also as passers, mediators or intermediaries by which specific realities express themselves.

This decentered vision of communication has important consequences to analyze how authority and power function. We manage to grow our authority when we are seen by others as embodying
other authors that appear to speak through us. For instance, someone, an accountant, for instance, has power because she is the voice of numbers, which themselves are supposed to express a certain financial reality of the organization. Even if meetings are always situated and located, communication is a way precisely to dislocate the here and now and allows people to access the there and then. Any participant in a meeting can be seen as a medium through which certain aspects of a situation express themselves.


De : Christoph Haug via Kunsido noreply@kunsido.net
Répondre à : Christoph Haug via Kunsido replies+772bb024d085293748023835a999d7bb@forum.kunsido.net
Date : mercredi 27 mars 2019 à 12:17
À : François Cooren f.cooren@umontreal.ca
Objet : [Kunsido] [PM] Interview about meetings and meeting research


Christoph Haug


27 March

François, the department where you are professor has gained a global reputation in the field of management and organization theory as the centre of the so called “Montreal School of Organizational Communication” which proposes a new
way of thinking about organizational communication. Could briefly describe what distinguishes the Montreal School from other approaches and what this means for our understanding of meetings?

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You mention a number of things that I think would be interesting to clarify some more. Let me start with the quote from Dewey, which brings to mind two questions: What is the difference between existing “by communication” and existing “in communication”? And, since Dewey speaks about society whereas the Montreal School is about organizational communication: How do you get from society to organization? Aren’t these two very different objects of study?

While we are used to thinking about communication as something that happens in organization, Dewey’s quote leads us to think that, reversely, organization might also be something that happens in communication. Of course, this logic is applicable not only to organizations, but also to anything or anyone, in my opinion. For instance, we exist in communication whenever people talk about us in their conversations, which means, for instance, that something like a reputation is a form by which we exist to others. A society exists in communication because talking about what a society needs to do or to be, for instance, is a way to make it exist in a certain way in our discussions (and, of course, I acknowledge that some discussions matter more than others depending on who is involved (a prime minister vs. mere citizens) and where this is taking place (in a café vs. in a parliament)). This is what Latour would call a performative view of society, a view according to which we are the ones who can actually define or negotiate what it is made of or what counts in it.

Now if we reflect on the distinction Dewey makes between “existing by” and “existing in,” the preposition “by” appears to insist on the mediative existence of society. Instead of “by,” he could then have said “through,” which is a preposition I tend to use a lot. When a law is enacted, for instance, it is an act of communication, but it is also a performance by/through which society gives itself, by proxy, an element – here, a law – that will constrain or enable the conduct of its citizens (this is just an example, I could have taken many others).

With the preposition “in,” Dewey, I believe, insists on the fact that society has to be found not only through these communicative acts, but also in them and nowhere else. With the preposition “through,” it still seems that society exists elsewhere and is expressed/embodied/materialized through communication, but by saying that it exists in communication, it means that there is no outside, as far as society is concerned. As James R. Taylor kept reminding us, without communication, there is no society and no organization. This ultimately leads us to a relational ontology, which constitutes the latest development of this constitutive approach (see Kuhn, Ashcraft & Cooren, 2017).

And yes, society and organization are two different objects of study, even if they have some common features. A society is not an organization to the extent that it is not created for a specific function (a society is, to some extent, its own finality. It just is), while an organization always is created with a specific objective or function in mind (making profits, helping others, providing services, etc.). The idea of a communicative constitution, however, applies to anything (an organization, a society, ourselves, etc.) or anyone and this is why I spoke elsewhere of the communication constitution of reality (CCR). Reality is communicatively constituted because it is literally made of relations.

So perhaps the first thing we can note about the Montreal School is that it sees communication as constitutive of reality in general and of organization in particular. If we stop communicating, the organization ceases to exist.

To some extent, this strikes me as a common sense idea: if we destroy all the legal documents that define the organization, as well as all the policies and strategic plans, oh, and the logo, of course, it seems plausible that the organization disappears. But the idea that communication constitutes organization (often abbreviated as CCO) seems to be more provocative than that. When you say:

you’re not mentioning documents at all. You are talking about interaction. Everything happens in interaction. Could you explain what you mean by that? Isn’t interaction something rather fleeting, ephemeral and nothing like “solid ground” (terra firma)? And surely things happen when we don’t interact?

It depends on what we mean by interaction. When I am reading a book, I am, to a certain extent, interacting with it in that reading is a two-way street, so to speak, as it allows the book to tell me a story, for instance. I am using the term “interaction” in a very broad sense, as any experience is, to a certain extent, an interaction. Contemplating a landscape, for instance, is an interaction to the extent that this landscape gives itself to be seen through my contemplation (this is, by the way, why we speak about data in science, even if data (what is given) implies its mirror action (what is obtained)).

This is the essence of a relational ontology, as it shows that any action can always be seen from the perspective of what I am interacting with. For instance, if I am following arrows that lead me to the bathroom, it means that these arrows, by definition, are leading me there. If I am learning something from a book, it is because this book is teaching me something (as well, of course, by proxy, the author of the book, as well as the publisher, etc.). Any action has a mirror action, which explains why studying interaction is so interesting.

Now, to go back to your question. Documents are crucial in organizations, as they are a source of stabilization (to some extent, they embody what the old sociology would call their structures, a term that I am using in practice, but that does not explain anything in theory, as it is a form of shortcut and a hodgepodge term), but they make a difference only if they are invoked or if they somehow lead people to do what they do. So for me, documents must be part, directly or indirectly, of interactions in order to make a difference, otherwise they are just things that we forget about in shelves where dust accumulates. A mission statement, in order to make a difference, has to be invoked or known by members in order to make a difference in their daily life. If it is invoked or ventriloquized, it is part of the interaction. If it is known by someone and it animates his or her action, then it is part of his/her interactions.

Instead of talking of interaction, Barad (2003, 2007) prefers to speak of intra-action, which means, for her, that the relation creates, to some extent, the relata. I understand what she means and I agree with her up to a point. When I am driving my car and I notice a yellow vest on the side of the road, I am slowing down because this yellow vest caught my attention and alerted me about the presence of someone whose car appears to be broken down. What Barad tells us is that the relation that makes this experience possible creates two relata: on one side, I have been warned about the presence of a car and its driver along the road, and on the other side, the car and his driver have been noticed by me. This is the essence of intra-action, but there is still interaction (this term is still useful), as the car and myself are not reducible to these experiences, beyond their creative dynamics.

I know I am using examples that do not illustrate what we traditionally have in mind when we speak about interactions, but this is to show what I mean when I am using this term. I could have used classical human interactions, but I have already done that in several articles, books and chapters so I am trying to broaden the point I am making.

So let’s note that another building block of the Montreal School is its the relational ontology: whatever exists, exists in relations rather than in some kind of substance. Nothing just exists, everything exists in relation to something else, and, you even say: is constituted in this relationship.

So what does this have to do with meetings? You mentioned meetings a couple of times. You said that in meetings organizational elements such as mission statements, principles, rules, procedures, objectives, strategic plan, numbers, reports, etc.are not only staged and reproduced, but also created, articulated or transformed. And you described meetings as a kind of portal (if I may say so) through which participants can access or communicate with another world:

And here we can see your relational ontology in action, as it were, when you immediately add:

It is not just the participants that use the meeting to access a world that lies beyond the meeting itself, but that world, those “aspects of the situation”, as you say, also use the participants to “express themselves.”

So what exactly is expressing itself in a meeting? Can’t we just keep things simple and say that the participants are expressing themselves?

Yes, that would certainly be more simple to think that only human participants express themselves in a meeting. I am not denying, of course, that they do express themselves since what they say is often crucial in my analyses, but I want to be able to go one step further and pay attention to what is invoked, convoked or evoked in these discussions. Invoking, convoking or evoking is, each time, a way to give a voice to what is invoked, convoked or evoked (this is what the suffix “voke” means).

When someone alludes to numbers that are supposed, according to her, to show the bad financial situation of a company, this person is not only expressing herself, but also, through her speech act, giving a voice to these numbers, which are presented as showing that the company is in trouble. This is what these numbers are supposed to do, according to her, and this could, of course, be contested by others around the table. For me, this simple shift (from the expression of people to the expression of the things they are talking about) is crucial, as it allows me to reconnect the scene of the meeting with its context and show that the context is talked into being, as Heritage would say, which means that this context expresses itself in this meeting, which also means that it starts to exist.

Earlier, you used the metaphor of ventriloquism to characterize this invocation of context:

This idea of ventriloquism is central in your work. Indeed, you have proposed a (meta-)theory of communication according to which communication is itself a form of ventriloquism. How can this theory help us understand meetings? Or how has it helped you to understand meetings?

Ventriloquism is the art of making something or someone say things (faire parler, as we say in French). It’s a metaphor I am using, a metaphor that obviously has its limits, but that allows me to highlight that when we communicate, we are both ventriloquists and dummies. We are ventriloquists because speaking, writing or more generally, expressing oneself is always a way to make other things expressing themselves, whether it is letting facts speaking for themselves, invoking what a document says, or evoking what a situation dictates. But we are also dummies (or figures, as ventriloquists sometimes call their dummies) to the extent that things lead us to say what we say, like for instance, when we are enthused, angered or preoccupied by something that leads us to speak up.

When I am studying meetings (or interactions in general), I therefore try to unfold these voices that are enfolded in what we say, which is, for me, the essence of analysis. What is a meeting after all? It is the coming together of people who are supposed to talk about specific topics and sometimes make decision about what to do regarding what has been discussed. This means that there are basically two orientations: an epistemic orientation where people try to figure out what is happening somewhere and a deontic one where people try to figure out what to do about this situation.

What I noticed in studying meetings is that we tend to be the voice of what preoccupies or concerns us, which is, of course, normal. If you put together an accountant, a engineer, and a salesperson, they will come with specific concerns/preoccupations that will match their respective expertises (financial aspects for accountants, technological aspects for engineers, and marketing aspects for salespersons). Each time they will speak, you will notice that they will ventriloquize and be ventriloquized by these concerns that will lead them to defend such or such position. They will therefore tend to have different views about what matters in a specific situation, which means a form of negotiation will hopefully have to take place. When these people speak to each other, they, in fact, also speak to specific matters that end up responding or not to each other.

This is what interests me in a meeting: not only what people tell each other, but also how matters of concern end up responding or not to each other, so that a form of compromise or integration (in Mary Parker Follett’s sense of the term) can take place.

Yes, Mary Parker Pollett’s dictum to depersonalize conflicts and to obey instead “the law of the situation” indeed seems to match your ventriloquist idea of listening to the matters of concern that express themselves in a meeting.

But what to do when some participants don’t allow those matters of concern to be foregrounded - either by refusing to explain what matters to them or by ignoring what matters to others? Do you think it is possible for meetings to do their magic even under these conditions or do certain requirements have to be fulfilled in order to reach compromise or integration?

At this point, I think that we may have to rely on Ross Ashby’s law of requisite variety, which says that a system must try to become as complex as the environment it is dealing with. When some voices are systematically ignored in a meeting, it means by definition that what matters to the people whose voiced is silenced does not get a chance to express itself. This consequently means that the situation that participants are trying to deal with will not have a chance to express itself in its complexity in this meeting.

I recently wrote a paper where I am trying to show that undecidability and surprisability need to be paradoxically cultivated in meetings. A meeting where there is no surprise or where people do not experience a form of undecidability might be a meeting where the same voices come back over and over and where alternative voices don’t have a chance to get heard. Having a meeting where multiple voices can be heard is a meeting where people might experience undecidability precisely because these multiple voices dictate courses of action that appear incompatible and contradictory.

This does not mean that no decision can be made, it simply means that at least people around the table realize that the situation might be (surprisingly?) more complex than they initially thought and that compromises or integrations might be necessary. This could also mean that some sacrifices might be at stake, but at least these sacrifices will be knowingly made. For me, the magic of meeting necessitates this imperative of having multiples voices heard, as this is the condition of integration.

Thank you, François, for taking the time to answer these questions.