Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 24;   June 17, 2015: Why Sidebars Happen

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?
Braided streams in Grewingk Glacier River

Braided streams in Grewingk Glacier River, Kachemak Bay, Cook Inlet, Alaska, in June 2009. Rivers emanating from retreating glaciers carry large volumes of sediment, producing braided river patterns with multiple channels. Braided channels are variable and dynamic. The Alaska ShoreZone exhibition guide states: "Although the threshold between meandering (sinuous, single channel river pattern) and braiding is not clearly understood, three factors are probably necessary for braiding to occur: 1) an abundant bedload supply (portion of a river's sediment load supported by the channel bed), 2) erodible banks, and 3) high stream power (the potential energy for a given river channel length)."

Sidebars in meetings can be regarded as analogous to stream braiding, in the sense that they represent flows of information exchange occurring in parallel with the official meeting discussion. Based on this analogy, we can expect sidebars to erupt when there is 1) an abundant supply of information to exchange, 2) ineffective control of the attendees' urge to exchange that information, and 3) elevated desire, and perhaps a sense of urgency, on the part of attendees to exchange information. As is often the case, the forces of Nature, by example and metaphor, provide insight into human behavior.

Photo courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Photo credit: Alaska ShoreZone.

In meetings, a sidebar is an exchange between participants that occurs in parallel with the meeting, usually out of the control of the Chair or facilitator. Sidebars can be real or virtual. Real sidebars occur in person. They involve speaking, note passing, or exchanges of looks. Virtual sidebars are executed remotely, usually in text, by email, texting, or even instant message.

Most sidebars detract from meeting effectiveness, because they distract the sidebar participants and those whose attention they capture. Some sidebars are actually constructive, but even if a sidebar has some constructive results, it benefits only its direct participants. That's why its content should be incorporated into the meeting flow.

If we can end sidebars quickly when they happen, and eliminate the need for them, or reduce the frequency of their occurrence, our meetings can be more effective. Let's begin by understanding why people participate in sidebars, starting with the more benign or innocent motives.

When minds wander, they sometimes generate thoughts that people want to share. Sidebars offer a way to share. And when one person shares a thought with a neighbor, the neighbor sometimes responds, and a sidebar is born.
If the topic under discussion is uninteresting to bright minds, they seek topics of greater interest. Sidebars offer that possibility.
When attendees are confused about something, or when they need background to better understand it, they're tempted to ask someone to explain.
Information seeking
Sometimes questions arise about subjects unrelated or distantly related to the meeting discussion — "What time is it?", "Where's Carol?", "What agenda item are we on?", almost anything. Sidebars let people get answers.
Misapprehension or habit
Some are accustomed to informally structured meeting discussions. They think that engaging in sidebars is acceptable. They're unaware of the norms for this meeting, or they have acquired the sidebar habit. They forget — or never knew — that this meeting doesn't permit sidebars.

The next two causes of sidebars are less innocent.

Attention seeking
Some people Most sidebars detract from
meeting effectiveness,
because they distract the
sidebar participants and
those whose attention
they capture
have a need for attention. They cannot tolerate the attention of the group being focused on the person who legitimately has the floor. They do whatever is necessary to gain the attention of as many of the meeting attendees as possible.
Others are dedicated to undermining the purpose of the meeting, the leaders of the meeting, the speaker, or in rare cases, all three. They know that sidebars are a form of disorder, and they use sidebars to prevent the meeting or its speakers from achieving their intended purposes.

Understanding why sidebars happen is essential for choosing appropriate interventions. When the cause is benign, as is most often the case, a gentle, respectful adjustment of expectations or procedures suffices. When the cause isn't benign, we must take a different approach. We'll examine a range of options next time.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Preventing Sidebars  Next Issue

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