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.
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:
- Think Before You PowerPoint
- Microsoft PowerPoint is a useful tool. Many of us use it daily to create presentations that guide meetings
or focus discussions. Like all tools, it can be abused — it can be a substitute for constructive
dialog, and even for thought. What can we do about PowerPoint abuse?
- Games for Meetings: I
- 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 I of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we can do about them.
- Chronic Peer Interrupters: I
- When making contributions to meeting discussions, we're sometimes interrupted. Often, the interruption
is beneficial and saves time. But some people constantly interrupt their peers or near peers, disrespectfully,
in a pattern that compromises meeting outcomes. How can we deal with chronic peer interrupters?
- 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?
- The Six Dimensions of Online Disinhibition: II
- The online disinhibition effect appears in computer-mediated communications. It is due to relaxation
of inhibitions that demand civility. It's still impactful 20 years after its identification, but it
might be less so in today's workplace cyberspace.
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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