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:
- Mastering Q and A
- The question-and-answer exchanges that occur during or after presentations rarely add much to the overall
effort. But how you deal with questions can be a decisive factor in how your audience evaluates you
and your message.
- FedEx, Flocks, and Frames of Reference
- Your point of view — or reference frame — affects what you see, and how you experience the
world around you. By choosing a reference frame consciously, you can see things differently, and open
a universe of new choices.
- Exploiting Failed Ideas
- When the approach you've been using fails, how do you go about devising Plan B? Or Plan C? Here are
some ways to find new approaches by examining failures.
- Why Sidebars Happen
- Sidebar conversations between meeting participants, conducted while someone else has the floor, are
a distracting form of disorder that can waste time and reduce meeting effectiveness. Why do sidebars happen?
- 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 July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.