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:
- First Aid for Painful Meetings
- The foundation of any team meeting is its agenda. A crisply focused agenda can make the difference between
a long, painful affair and finishing early. If you're the meeting organizer, develop and manage the
agenda for maximum effectiveness.
- Asking Brilliant Questions
- Your team is fortunate if you have even one teammate who regularly asks the questions that immediately
halt discussions and save months of wasted effort. But even if you don't have someone like that, everyone
can learn how to generate brilliant questions more often. Here's how.
- Towards More Gracious Disagreement
- We spend a sizable chunk of time correcting each other. Some believe that we win points by being right,
or lose points by being wrong, but nobody seems to know who keeps the official score. Here are some
thoughts to help you kick the habit.
- 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.
- Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
- In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest
adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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