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Facilitating group discussions
Facilitating group discussions

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6.3 Side chatters

People chat with those next to them instead of paying attention to the group discussion.

The challenge

  • Some of the side chats are short and respectful, but others are long and disruptive.
  • When a serious or contentious item is on the table, some people turn to a colleague and tell them what they really think, rather than share their comments with the group.
  • At some point, the side conversations become distracting.

What’s really going on

  • Some people do this subconsciously.
  • Others mistakenly believe that if they’re not actively engaged in the topic under discussion, it’s OK to conduct a side meeting.
  • Side chatting can be symptomatic of a low trust environment where people are reluctant to speak openly.

Facilitator pitfalls

  • Ignoring side chatting, perhaps because senior people are doing it.
  • Failing to identify if side chatting is a sign of confusion, disagreement or other hidden problems.
  • Allowing a group to meet without effective ground rules that define behaviours.
  • Making judgemental or confrontational comments when trying to end side chatting.

Intervention strategies

  • Help the group create a balanced set of ground rules or meeting guidelines that help them control side chatting.
  • If a distracting side chat takes place and you feel that you need to intervene, try this approach using open, supportive language:

    I’m concerned that we’ve lost you to the conversation and are making decisions without you. Your ideas are valuable so we need you back in the conversation.

  • If a topic suddenly causes everyone to turn to the person next to them, try a structured partner chat. Ask each person to find a partner, and set a time frame. Let them have their side chats, and then gather up as much of their discussions as they’re willing to share.
  • If certain people are persistent side chatters, take them aside and offer them feedback:

    I’ve noticed that you engaged in several lengthy side chats in today’s meeting. I found this to be very distracting. Would you please not do this in future meetings?