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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- Would Anyone Object?
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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