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.
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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.
- Games for Meetings: III
- 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 III of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we could do about them.
- Agenda Despots: II
- Some meeting Chairs crave complete or near-complete control of their meeting agendas. In this Part II
of our exploration of their techniques, we emphasize methods for managing unwanted topic contributions
- Virtual Brainstorming: I
- When we need to brainstorm, meeting virtually carries a risk that our results might be problematic.
Here's Part I of some steps to take to reduce the risk.
- Why People Hijack Meetings
- When as Chair of a meeting, you have difficulty completing a reasonable agenda, you might be the target
of a hijacking. Here's Part I of a series exploring meeting hijacking.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- 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.