Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 26;   July 1, 2015: Ending Sidebars

Ending Sidebars

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We say that a sidebar is underway in a meeting when two or more meeting participants converse without having been recognized by the Chair. Sidebars can be helpful, but they can also be disruptive. How can we end sidebars quickly and politely?
Rep. John Boehner displays the Speaker's gavel

Newly installed Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner (R-Ohio) displays the Speaker's gavel at the start of the 112th Congress in 2011. Although the gavel is unusually large, his Speakership, so far, has been relatively disorderly. It evidently takes more than a gavel to maintain order. Photo courtesy U.S. House of Representatives.

Preventing sidebars from ever occurring again is probably impossible, no matter how high functioning the team is. Although some sidebars are constructive, others are disruptive and distracting. That's why it's useful to know how to bring them to a close quickly, without giving offense.

One note of caution: if you notice other people engaging in a sidebar, and you aren't the meeting lead, it isn't your job to end the sidebar. That job belongs to the meeting lead. It is your responsibility to call the meeting lead's attention to the disorder, but going beyond that is risky. As offensive as sidebars are, taking on the responsibilities of others without their consent can be worse.

Here are some guidelines for meeting leads who want to end sidebars.

Ask a question
Asking the sidebar participants a question gets their attention. It also leaves open the possibility that what motivated the sidebar could be a legitimate concern. For example, ask, "Jack, is there a question or concern?"
Don't apologize
Avoid apologizing for interrupting the sidebar. Apologizing, however disingenuously, validates the sidebar behavior. For example, don't start with "I'm sorry…" as in "I'm sorry, Jack, is there a question?"
Avoid invoking formal authority
Relying on formal authority is risky, especially if some in the meeting aren't your subordinates. People might interpret reliance on formal authority as an acknowledgement that your personal authority is insufficient for maintaining order. If that view takes hold, sidebars will be the least of your troubles.
Deal with repeat offenders
Anyone canAvoid apologizing for interrupting a sidebar.
Apologizing, however disingenuously,
validates the sidebar behavior.
forget for a moment that talking to one's neighbor in a meeting is a breach of meeting etiquette. But a pattern of doing so is at least a performance issue, and possibly indicates malevolence. See "Preventing Sidebars," Point Lookout for June 24, 2015, for more about dealing with malevolence.
Ditch the gavel
Unless your meeting is truly huge, or the meeting is bound by tradition, a gavel is out of place. Most business meetings are small, conducted in conference rooms, without microphones. Still, using your voice to gain everyone's attention can become tiresome. Instead of a gavel, tap a pen on the table or anything that can function as a sounding board — the edge of a laptop screen, for example. For dramatic effect, try silently holding up a hand, palm down, fingers extended, just below shoulder level, and asking for silence with eye contact, one by one, until the only people speaking are the sidebar participants. Embarrassment is a powerful tool.
Respect the speaker
As meeting lead, after you've given the floor to a participant, interrupting that person to deal with a sidebar could be regarded as a breach of etiquette. Politely ask the speaker for permission, and then address the sidebar participants. See "Ask a question" above.

Well, that's all I have for now. Talk amongst yourselves. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Ethical Debate at Work: Part I  Next Issue

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