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:
- Discussus Interruptus
- You're chairing a meeting, and to your dismay, things get out of hand. People interrupt each other so
often that nobody can complete a thought, and some people dominate the meeting. What can you do?
- Figuring Out What to Do First
- Whether we belong to a small project team or to an executive team, we have limited resources and seemingly
unlimited problems to deal with. How do we decide which problems are important? How do we decide where
to focus our attention first?
- Blind Agendas
- Effective meetings have agendas. But even if a meeting has an agenda, the hidden agendas of participants
can cause trouble. Another source of trouble, less frequently recognized, is the blind agenda.
- On Facilitation Suggestions from Meeting Participants
- Team leaders often facilitate their own meetings, and although there are problems associated with that
dual role, it's so familiar that it works well enough, most of the time. Less widely understood are
the problems that arise when other meeting participants make facilitation suggestions.
- Stone-Throwers at Meetings: II
- A stone-thrower in a meeting is someone who is determined to halt forward progress. Motives vary, from
embarrassing the chair to holding the meeting hostage in exchange for advancing an agenda. What can
chairs do about stone-throwers?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 19: Unintended Condescension: I
- Condescending remarks can deflect almost any conversation into destructive directions. The lost productivity is especially painful when the condescension is unintended. Here are two examples of remarks that others hear as condescension, but which often aren't intended as such. Available here and by RSS on February 19.
- And on February 26: Unintended Condescension: II
- Intentionally making condescending remarks is something most of us do only when we lose control. But anyone at any time can inadvertently make a remark that someone else experiences as condescending. We explored two patterns to avoid last time. Here are two more. Available here and by RSS on February 26.
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Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.