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.
Do you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Games for Meetings: IV
- We spend a lot of time and emotional energy in meetings, much of it engaged in any of dozens of ritualized
games. Here's Part IV of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we could do about them.
- Problem Not-Solving
- Group problem solving is a common purpose of meetings. Although much group problem solving is constructive,
some patterns are useless or worse. Here are some of the more popular ways to engage in problem not-solving.
- Ending Sidebars
- 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?
- Contribution Misattribution
- In teams, acknowledging people for their contributions is essential for encouraging high performance.
Failing to do so can be expensive. Three patterns of contribution misattribution are especially costly:
theft, rejection/transmigration, and eliding.
- Formulaic Utterances: III
- Formulaic utterances are phrases that follow a pre-formed template. They're familiar, and they have
standard uses. "For example" is an example. In the workplace, some of them can help establish
or maintain dominance and credibility. Some do the opposite.
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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