Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 25;   June 24, 2015: Preventing Sidebars

Preventing Sidebars

by

Sidebar conversations between meeting participants waste time and reduce meeting effectiveness. How can we prevent them?
An informal meeting geometry

An informal meeting geometry. Meeting geometry can play a role in causing (or preventing) sidebars for both virtual and face-to-face meetings. In face-to-face meetings, sidebars are deterred when everyone can easily hear everyone else, even when they converse in whispers. In virtual meetings, we can deter sidebars by having everyone call into a bridge line, rather than share access to a single speakerphone at each virtual site.

Photo courtesy Cannon River Offroad Cycling and Trails.

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 them
presentation 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.

Despite your best efforts, some sidebars might still erupt. Our topic next time will be ending them. First in this series | Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Ending Sidebars  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spendyour 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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenyIKUxNjmDWGXDAjCner@ChaczQfQHfJetGELKymBoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Meetings:

A tournamentQuestioning Questions
In meetings and other workplace discussions, questioning is a common form of conversational contribution. Questions can be expensive, disruptive, and counterproductive. For most exchanges, there is a better way.
A broadcast-only sporting event during a pandemicSocial Distancing for Pandemic Flu
It's time we all began to take seriously the warning about a possible influenza pandemic. Whether or not your organization has a plan, you can do much to reduce your own chances of infection, and the chances of mass infection, by adopting a set of practices known as social distancing.
A view of the site known as the Rock Garden, on MarsHow to Ruin Meetings
Much has been written about how to conduct meetings effectively. Here are some reliable techniques for doing something else altogether.
Silly putty dripping through a holeOn 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.
A collaborative discussionAllocating Airtime: II
Much has been said about people who don't get a fair chance to speak at meetings. We've even devised processes intended to more fairly allocate speaking time. What's happening here?

See also Effective Meetings and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A large audience listening to a speakerComing August 15: Getting Value from Involuntary Seminars
Whatever your organizational role, from time to time you might find yourself attending seminars or presentations involuntarily. The value you derive from these "opportunities" depends as much on you as on the presenter. Available here and by RSS on August 15.
The Jolly RogerAnd on August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenvhlKypujqmjIJvolner@ChacGxAAQVJsRXErEMSnoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.