Preventing sidebars from ever occurring again is probably impossible, no matter how high functioning the team is. Although some sidebars are constructive, others are disruptive and distracting. That's why it's useful to know how to bring them to a close quickly, without giving offense.
One note of caution: if you notice other people engaging in a sidebar, and you aren't the meeting lead, it isn't your job to end the sidebar. That job belongs to the meeting lead. It is your responsibility to call the meeting lead's attention to the disorder, but going beyond that is risky. As offensive as sidebars are, taking on the responsibilities of others without their consent can be worse.
Here are some guidelines for meeting leads who want to end sidebars.
- Ask a question
- Asking the sidebar participants a question gets their attention. It also leaves open the possibility that what motivated the sidebar could be a legitimate concern. For example, ask, "Jack, is there a question or concern?"
- Don't apologize
- Avoid apologizing for interrupting the sidebar. Apologizing, however disingenuously, validates the sidebar behavior. For example, don't start with "I'm sorry…" as in "I'm sorry, Jack, is there a question?"
- Avoid invoking formal authority
- Relying on formal authority is risky, especially if some in the meeting aren't your subordinates. People might interpret reliance on formal authority as an acknowledgement that your personal authority is insufficient for maintaining order. If that view takes hold, sidebars will be the least of your troubles.
- Deal with repeat offenders
- Anyone canAvoid apologizing for interrupting a sidebar.
Apologizing, however disingenuously,
validates the sidebar behavior. forget for a moment that talking to one's neighbor in a meeting is a breach of meeting etiquette. But a pattern of doing so is at least a performance issue, and possibly indicates malevolence. See "Preventing Sidebars," Point Lookout for June 24, 2015, for more about dealing with malevolence.
- Ditch the gavel
- Unless your meeting is truly huge, or the meeting is bound by tradition, a gavel is out of place. Most business meetings are small, conducted in conference rooms, without microphones. Still, using your voice to gain everyone's attention can become tiresome. Instead of a gavel, tap a pen on the table or anything that can function as a sounding board — the edge of a laptop screen, for example. For dramatic effect, try silently holding up a hand, palm down, fingers extended, just below shoulder level, and asking for silence with eye contact, one by one, until the only people speaking are the sidebar participants. Embarrassment is a powerful tool.
- Respect the speaker
- As meeting lead, after you've given the floor to a participant, interrupting that person to deal with a sidebar could be regarded as a breach of etiquette. Politely ask the speaker for permission, and then address the sidebar participants. See "Ask a question" above.
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- The Shape of the Table
- Not only was the meeting running over, but it now seemed that the entire far end of the table was having
its own meeting. Why are some meetings like this?
- 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.
- Virtual Trips to Abilene
- One dysfunction of face-to-face meetings is the Trip to Abilene, which leads groups to make decisions
no members actually support. It can afflict virtual meetings, too, even more easily.
- How to Waste Time in Virtual Meetings
- Nearly everyone hates meetings, and virtual meetings are at the top of most people's lists. Here's a
catalog of some of the worst practices.
- 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 February 27: Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
- Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties of speedstorming. Available here and by RSS on February 27.
- And on March 6: A Pain Scale for Meetings
- Most meetings could be shorter, less frequent, and more productive than they are. Part of the problem is that we don't realize how much we do to get in our own way. If we track the incidents of dysfunctional activity, we can use the data to spot trends and take corrective action. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
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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.