Meetings: a formal aspect

Meeting as business interaction

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Simon Winetroube about business meetings

Meeting as business interaction

With the rapidly developing need for effective communication in the sphere of business, the domain of Business English teaching faces a wide range of aspects to be taken into account. There is no denying that business tasks include proficiency in both written and oral communication skills.

Communication is known not only to transfer information but also to determine the behavior of the communicants. Thus, psychologically, we distinguish between two aspects of communication: descriptive, or informative, and persuasive. Descriptive or informative aspect of communication transfers the data and represents the contents of the message. Persuasive aspect deals with determining what kind of information it is and how it is to be perceived. Persuasive aspect is rarely revealed in communication verbally (I do not even care for your words), but is mainly implied in the persons behavior. Effective communication, however, psychologically should be characterized by the priority of informative aspect over the persuasive one [1].

>Linguistically it is supported by the conclusions from V.Vinogradovs idea of language functions (communication, information, and influence) about two main speech functions: information and influence [2]. Obviously, influence is correlated with the above-mentioned persuasive function understood broadly. All together it gives us the idea of two clear areas of communication to focus on: content (vocabulary and business issues) and metacontent (how to interact about them).

As far as business communication is concerned, the necessity of the latter aspect cannot be overestimated. The knowledge of the so-called functions, as well as the pragmatic issues of business interaction proves to be no less important than the subject of interaction proper. Whereas they are more or less taken into account in teaching oral communication skills, they seem to be unduly ignored in developing writing business skills. The skill of contextual letter arrangement aimed at meeting the particular covert goal of the sender remains almost untouched.

Among other business activities to be trained in the classroom are traditionally socializing, telephoning, presentations, negotiations, and meetings. Although they present different forms of oral communication (monologue, dialogue, and polylogue), all of them require the ability to take part in the business interaction, which is understood as initiating, keeping up and closing communication on various business issues, both single and long-term, and is the basis of business activity.

As noted by L.V. Scherba, dialogue is the primary and natural form of human interaction. Even monologue proper, as trained in the presentation skill, evokes dialogue interaction, which is realized in the form of follow-up question activity or the necessity to appeal to the audience or even involve it in the contextual development of the speech. Dialogue proper as is common in the course of negotiations may well evoke polylogue interaction. These shifts, or transformations, towards double- or multi-part talk in a particular business activity reflect some characteristics of business-oriented communication and the specific skills it requires to be trained in the classroom those of conversation, which are by no means equal to ordinary speaking skills. The difference lies in the communicative competence included in the first case and excluded in the latter. Whereas possessing conversation skills implies being proficient in both content and metacontent, that is, what we have to say and how we express that by the means of the target language, speaking skills are usually focused mainly on metacontent. Content, contextual, or communicative appropriateness of the conversation element comes into foreground in training the conversation skill. It can be achieved by meaningful use of the language through task-based practice [3].

One of such task-oriented activities is participation in a meeting. It is a fine example of manifold business interaction, combining all forms of oral speech communication (monologue presentations or reports, dialogue question interaction, and polylogue discussion) and enabling meaningful use of the language in a business context.

Business conversations take the most part of the core decision-making activity. They occur in the form of discussions, which usually represent a specific form of communication that of a business polylogue. It finds its realization in the form of a business meeting, a controlled group discussion of three and more communicants of some business issues. Unlike the dialogue, which is restricted to two interactants, polylogue is a communication of more than two participants. The distinction is absolutely necessary and is by no means formal. With the increasing number of participants the character of the interaction trained in the dialogue changes.

: Well Graham, this morning I spent three hours with the unions and basically they want the same privileges as our administrative people. Frankly I don't blame them. They resent the fact that anybody with an office job can do exactly as they please.

: Hold on, what do you mean by that? Are you implying [..]

C: Just a minute, Anne, let Bob finish what he was saying. We'll come to your point later.

A: Anyway, as I was saying,

B:What do you mean by that? You know very well that everybody works forty hours. The only difference is that they can come in any time between seven and ten.

A:Look, all this is very interesting but you're missing the point. The question is not whether flexitime is a valid concept but how we're going to avoid a strike.

C:Now let's move on. Why can't we introduce flexitime in your production department? [..] [4]

As follows from the example, the usual dialogue conditions (a cue followed by a counter-cue) shift towards the need of internal and external regulation and control. It may be explained with the natural tendency of each individual to react to what has been said [5], on the one hand, and the obvious necessity to let every member of the meeting express his or her point of view on the subject, on the other.

Let us turn to other specific features of a business polylogue interaction, so as to be able to make suggestions for effective teaching this essential item of the business English curriculum.

As was shown in the previous example, the participation in the meeting requires special communicative structuring with the help of mutually accepted signals (underlined). Besides, such multi-part conversation activity makes the process of effective contribution more difficult. Except standard simultaneous processes of listening to the speaker(s) and internal formulation of the own response or contribution, we can witness in the polylogue the necessity to enter the whole communication smoothly. It means to determine the point of turn-taking correctly, as well as to signal it in the appropriate way (verbally: may I say something? can I jump in here?; nonverbally: eye contact, fast tempo, etc.) to other participants. The latter may cause additional difficulties to nonnative speakers, as the problem of turn-taking is often to some extent culturally-conditioned [6].

Another characteristic feature of business meetings is their close contextual integration. The flow and outcome of this interaction does not only depend on personal effectiveness, but also on the group awareness and self-positioning within this group. Communicative priority in terms of the above-mentioned turn-taking belongs to those with higher status and power [7]. The distribution of power may be either allocated externally, as in formal meetings, or inwardly, mainly in informal meetings. The student simulations often fail to reach the appropriate decision because of a vague idea about power distribution in the newly formed group. It results in the inability to insist on the correct decision or rigid non-democratic imposing of the personal viewpoint. Both approaches are no-go and are suggestive of the conceptual failure.

The category of formality in a business meeting may also be of difficulty to nonnative speakers of business English. As a rule, students feel easier with the formal setting, since it gives the fixed idea of the procedure regardless of the contextual situation. Informal atmosphere requires deeper analysis of the discourse and better feeling of the group, as well as closer integration and more active involvement in the interaction, as seen in the example:

Sometimes, although you may not believe this, people go away not really being sure whether or not theyve been made redundant. Because the person breaking the news finds it so hard to

Put it bluntly?

You think youre being promoted, yes?

You may think a variety of things.

Summing up, it can be noted that teaching business English is teaching contextual interaction, including both content and metacontent. The most whole-scale activity in this respect is the genre of a business meeting. As one of task-based activities, it combines all forms of oral speech communication. On the other hand, meeting as a communicative activity belongs to a business polylogue, which implies a higher level of the communicative interaction and a number of specific features to be taken into account when teaching it in the classroom.

Among the specific features of a business meeting as a genre of business communication and a part of business interaction are the following. The structure of face-to face interaction becomes more complicated and requires external and internal regulation. Effective contribution to the polylogue includes not only simultaneous processes of intense listening, analyzing and speech formulation, but also that of the appropriate entering the discussion. The category of formality is realized on a number of levels (vocabulary, cultural, behavior, organizational), all of that contribute to the keeping up of the corresponding setting and eventually ensure the constructive outcome of the meeting.

All these features make participation in a meeting an indispensable business skill, enabling the students to keep within the meaningful use of the language and make a step towards effective business interaction.

[1] , , . . -, "", 2000.

[2] . . . . ., 1963.

[3] Marie-Terese Claes. Shifts in language education in business schools. //International Communication in Business. Theory and Practice. Verlag Wissenschaft & Praxis, 1998.

[4] N. ODriscoll, A. Pilbeam. Meetings and discussions. London: Longman, 1987

[5] . . . . // . , 1988.

[6] From an oral interview with S. Winetroube on business meetings. 8.12.1999.

[7] Julie Diamond. Status and power in verbal interaction. Amsterdam, 1996.