In meetings, a sidebar is an exchange between participants that occurs in parallel with the meeting, usually out of the control of the Chair or facilitator. Sidebars can be real or virtual. Real sidebars occur in person. They involve speaking, note passing, or exchanges of looks. Virtual sidebars are executed remotely, usually in text, by email, texting, or even instant message.
Most sidebars detract from meeting effectiveness, because they distract the sidebar participants and those whose attention they capture. Some sidebars are actually constructive, but even if a sidebar has some constructive results, it benefits only its direct participants. That's why its content should be incorporated into the meeting flow.
If we can end sidebars quickly when they happen, and eliminate the need for them, or reduce the frequency of their occurrence, our meetings can be more effective. Let's begin by understanding why people participate in sidebars, starting with the more benign or innocent motives.
- When minds wander, they sometimes generate thoughts that people want to share. Sidebars offer a way to share. And when one person shares a thought with a neighbor, the neighbor sometimes responds, and a sidebar is born.
- If the topic under discussion is uninteresting to bright minds, they seek topics of greater interest. Sidebars offer that possibility.
- When attendees are confused about something, or when they need background to better understand it, they're tempted to ask someone to explain.
- Information seeking
- Sometimes questions arise about subjects unrelated or distantly related to the meeting discussion — "What time is it?", "Where's Carol?", "What agenda item are we on?", almost anything. Sidebars let people get answers.
- Misapprehension or habit
- Some are accustomed to informally structured meeting discussions. They think that engaging in sidebars is acceptable. They're unaware of the norms for this meeting, or they have acquired the sidebar habit. They forget — or never knew — that this meeting doesn't permit sidebars.
The next two causes of sidebars are less innocent.
- Attention seeking
- Some people Most sidebars detract from
because they distract the
sidebar participants and
those whose attention
they capturehave a need for attention. They cannot tolerate the attention of the group being focused on the person who legitimately has the floor. They do whatever is necessary to gain the attention of as many of the meeting attendees as possible.
- Others are dedicated to undermining the purpose of the meeting, the leaders of the meeting, the speaker, or in rare cases, all three. They know that sidebars are a form of disorder, and they use sidebars to prevent the meeting or its speakers from achieving their intended purposes.
Understanding why sidebars happen is essential for choosing appropriate interventions. When the cause is benign, as is most often the case, a gentle, respectful adjustment of expectations or procedures suffices. When the cause isn't benign, we must take a different approach. We'll examine a range of options next time. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
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- Sometimes problem-solving sessions are difficult because we get started solving a problem before we
know what problem we're solving. Understanding the connection between stakeholders, problem solving,
and problem defining can reduce conflict and produce better solutions.
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- In group decision-making, tension sometimes develops between those who favor commitment to the opportunity
at hand, and those who repeatedly ask, "If we do that, how will we do it?" Why does this happen?
- The End-to-End Cost of Meetings: III
- Many complain about attending meetings. Certainly meetings can be maddening affairs, and they also cost
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of them. Here's Part III of a survey of some less-appreciated costs.
- Allocating Airtime: II
- Much has been said about people who don't get a fair chance to speak at meetings. We've even devised
processes intended to more fairly allocate speaking time. What's happening here?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming August 23: Look Where You Aren't Looking
- Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve our ability to prepare for adverse events? Available here and by RSS on August 23.
- And on August 30: They Just Don't Understand
- When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others. The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others. Available here and by RSS on August 30.
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Read more about this program. Here's a date for this
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