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:
- 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.
- Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: III
- Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings (meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or
video) can make life much easier for everyone by taking steps before the meeting starts. Here's Part
III of a little catalog of suggestions for remote facilitators.
- Discussion Distractions: II
- Meetings are less productive than they might be, if we could learn to recognize and prevent the most
common distractions. Here is Part II of a small catalog of distractions frequently seen in meetings.
- When the Chair Is a Bully: II
- Assertiveness by chairs of meetings isn't a problem in itself, but it becomes problematic when the chair's
dominance deprives the meeting of contributions from some of its members. Here's Part II of our exploration
of the problem of bully chairs.
- Overtalking: II
- Overtalking is a tactic for dominating a conversation by talking to stop others from talking. When it
happens, what can we do about it?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 21: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
- People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on March 21.
- And on March 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: IV
- Narcissistic behavior at work is more damaging than rudeness or egotism. It leads to faulty decisions that compromise organizational missions. In this part of the series we examine the effects of constant demands for attention and admiration. Available here and by RSS on March 28.
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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.