Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Communication Dynamics in a Coordinator’s Meeting at the European Parliament

February 21st, 2009


I was introduced in this Coordinator’s Meeting as a researcher looking at “how we can cope with our language system.” This is the first time I’ve heard someone here characterize my research: that statement boils it down quite nicely!
Coordinator’s meetings occur just prior to Committee Meetings with the goal of delineating in advance the lines of engagement from each political group in the imminent debate. Every political group selects an individual to become the group expert on work being done in each of the Parliament’s permanent or temporary working committees. Someone (an MEP not present in this meeting) likened the role of a Coordinator to the position of a political commissar in the old Soviet system.
In this particular Coordinator’s meeting there were six men and eleven women from various countries, no simultaneous interpretation. The Chair (a position that rotates among the Coordinators – at least in this case) provided an overview of the agenda and invited questions and input. Not everyone spoke, but of those who did their English was readily understandable despite accents, except for one person whose accent became more prominent for a few phrases. In my notes, I recorded this incident as “lapsed into thicker accent, hard to follow (for me).” I remember that I was listening without extra effort, suddenly lost comprehension for a brief span (probably less than ten seconds), and then the words became distinctly audible again. I was not taking content notes at the time, which is why I added the caveat “for me” – someone who was really following the message, and/or knows this person well or is used to their style, and/or knows the topic in detail, may not have experienced a comparable disconnect. No one asked, so I have to presume I was the only one who struggled in that moment – or that there is a culture of not asking, or some criteria as to when one asks and when one does not ask.
A Coordinator provided some background on dynamics between his group’s Shadow Rapporteur and the Rapporteur of one of the Reports on the agenda, explaining that there is deviation from usual practice in terms of procedures (respective to the field addressed by the report) and that the Rapporteur is not engaging with the Shadows as much as last year’s Rapporteur had done, which this Coordinator characterized as “strange.”
Note: The role labels are fantastic, aren’t they? The Rapporteur is the person responsible for writing the final Report, which means he or she must coordinate the organization of required data and – especially – the negotiations among the different political parties about differing viewpoints, strategies, and concerns. The Shadow Rapporteurs work as liaisons between the Rapporteur and each political group. As a team altogether, the Shadows and the Rapporteur work out kinks or at least clarify exactly where the sticking points are and what they consist of. The Shadows are specific liaisons from a political group to a particular Report, whereas the Coordinators are liaisons from the political group to a Committee as a whole. (Right? Usually Coordinators are not also Rapporteurs or Shadow Rapporteurs, but sometimes two roles may be assigned to a single person.)
The Coordinators specified what’s missing in the current version of the Report that still needs to be addressed, emphasizing the stance of their political group and pointing out which areas are sensitive but nonetheless need to be pressed. A particularly harsh criticism from . . . (I think it was from the European Commission, who is an institutional partner in the crafting of legislation) . . . was noted as “not balanced” and “unacceptable.” In short, “we will have to make many amendments.”
Another topic was highlighted by the Chair as the one that might become “the most politically sensitive.” It was unclear to me, later, whether this same issue was characterized as “the hardest topic” or if that description was being applied to a different – although related – matter. Some praise was given for previous accomplishments that can now be built upon. The praise may have been prelude for mentioning an area that will prove challenging: “I know we won’t agree on this, but I put it out.” Background information was added on “an on-going thing, not here in the report. I tell you in case it comes up in discussion . . . we fear the usual suspects will bring it in . . .” and an assertion that the point-of-view of those most closely involved is that “we feel no foul play.” Finally, a new/breaking concern was shared, including references to previous similar situations and the warning, “this will be the hottest topic for the next months.”
While the general conversation was conducted all in English, there were a few side conversations that occurred periodically around the table in other languages. No one was perturbed; I noticed these asides because of the dilemma that kind of interaction sometimes poses for signed language interpreters… when a side conversation is loud enough for many in the room to overhear, do you interpret into signed language so the Deaf person(s) present are privy to the same information? And (more sticky, given the general imbalance of power), do you interpret into spoken language the side conversations among Deaf persons that can be seen and understood by other signers in the room? The twin dilemma of accessibility/power centers around the interpreter’s forced choice between the general conversation and the side conversation: which is most important/relevant to be conveyed? Is the interpreter the individual best suited to make this judgment call? And – if not the interpreter, then with whom does the responsibility rest?
As with the Intergroup Meeting I observed, the absence of simultaneous interpretation did not seem to adversely the communication of the group in the immediate interaction, but I wonder about the ripple effect of the loss of contextual information to the interpreters which shapes the nuances and subtleties of the utterances they interpret. Interpreters can hardly orient an interlocutor’s text to a precise reference point that the interpreter does not know is implied, such as:

  • deviations from past practice
  • predictions of political sensitivity or particular difficulty
  • issues not in the report but expected to be raised
  • perceptions or conclusions regarding those issues
  • the intended target of amendments being the continuation of an historical stance or to soften criticism or to provide balance

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