As we discussed last time, sidebars in meetings arise for a variety of reasons, including boredom, irrelevance, habit, confusion, intentional disruption, and more. Understanding some causes of sidebars helps us find strategies and tactics for preventing them. For serial meetings of people who work together over a period of time, several approaches are available.
- Have ground rules or norms
- Clarity about norms or behavioral expectations is essential. Agree together not to engage in sidebars. When a sidebar happens, agree that anyone in the meeting can ask the Chair for order, but only the Chair can ask the meeting in general for order. The knowledge that everyone is empowered to ask for order deters those who might be contemplating initiating a sidebar.
- Focus agendas
- Wide-ranging agendas contribute to sidebars by including topics so varied that there are always some people uninterested in whichever agenda item is current. Uninterested people, at times, don't feel a need to pay attention. Keep the agenda narrow enough that everyone wants to pay attention.
- Focus invitation lists
- Interest in the discussion prevents sidebars. If possible, limit the invitation list to people who are interested in all or most agenda items. Focusing the invitation list makes focusing the agenda easier. Focusing the agenda necessitates focusing the invitation list.
- Shorten meetings
- Focusing agendas and invitation lists might be possible only if we replace that single weekly meeting we've been having, with two shorter, more sharply focused meetings. Shortening meetings also reduces the likelihood that attendees might need to step out (physically, electronically, or mentally) to attend to other pressing matters.
- Shorten attendee contributions
- Long-winded, low-information contributions to the discussion create in some people the urge to converse about something else. Explicitly request that contributions be brief, relevant, and on point.
- Limit exchanges
- Sometimes two attendees, recognized by the Chair, strike up an exchange that few of the others have the background or desire to follow closely or understand. The participants in the exchange toss the ball back and forth, and eventually the minds of the other attendees begin wandering. Sidebars erupt. Limit this behavior by agreeing to a three-exchange limit between attendees.
- Limit presentation length
- Limiting Understanding some causes of
sidebars helps us find strategies
and tactics for preventing thempresentation length compels presenters to get to the point and eliminate fluff, which increases information density, and therefore reduces listeners' urges to participate in sidebars.
- Avoid specialized discussions
- Specialized, technical discussions are more likely than most to captivate only a few attendees. The minds of others then tend to wander, and sidebars can erupt. Keep discussions accessible to all. If a discussion wanders into territory accessible only to specialists, defer it, or allocate it to a committee or task force.
- Know how to deal with malevolence
- As discussed last time, some sidebars are intended to disrupt the meeting. Such behavior is a performance issue. Unless the offender is someone you directly supervise, address the issue with the offender's supervisor.
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: I
- Whoever facilitates your distributed meetings — whether a dedicated facilitator or the meeting
chair — will discover quickly that remote facilitation presents special problems. Here's a little
catalog of those problems, and some suggestions for addressing them.
- Virtual Trips to Abilene
- One dysfunction of face-to-face meetings is the Trip to Abilene, which leads groups to make decisions
no members actually support. It can afflict virtual meetings, too, even more easily.
- Costs of the Catch-Me-Up Anti-Pattern: I
- Your meetings start on time, but some people are habitually late. When they arrive, they ask, "What
did I miss? Catch me up." This is an expensive way to do business. How expensive is it?
- Preventing Meeting Hijacking
- Meeting leads, meeting Chairs, and facilitators must be prepared to deal with meeting hijackers. Hesitation,
or any ineffectual action, enhances the hijacker's chances of success. Here are suggestions for preventing
- Naming Ideas
- Participants in group discussions sometimes reference each other's contributions using the contributor's
name. This risks offending the contributor or others who believe the idea is theirs. Naming ideas is
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