Pain point: Whispering and sidebar conversations

photo of whispering and sidebar conversations

© Can Stock Photo Inc./sean

This week a reader called me for advice about whispering and sidebar conversations. He is an officer in a small club dedicated to German shepherd dogs. At the last meeting, when a member was giving a report on research she had done, there were two separate sidebar conversations going on.

I was happy to tell him that whispering and sidebar conversations that disrupt the meeting are forbidden under Robert’s Rules of Order. And if you are only 10 or 12 people around the table, they are bound to be disruptive!

One solution the group had thought of was to ask members to stand when speaking. This is indeed appropriate in a large group. For a small board, though, it doesn’t make sense.

Two key questions to deal with whispering and sidebar conversations

There are two key questions:

  • Can you educate the group to see the value of refraining from whispering and sidebar conversations?
  • Is the chair of your meeting willing to enforce this rule?

Education is necessary because nowadays, people are not just going to bow their heads to a higher authority. We have to work to let people see how counterproductive whispering and sidebar conversations are! The bad effects include:

  • Distracting those who are trying to pay attention
  • Lack of understanding from those who are engaging in the whispering and sidebar conversations
  • Discouraging volunteers who feel that their work is not valued
  • Creating a general atmosphere of disrespect
  • Wasting the group’s time

It is also critical that the chair be willing to speak up and stop this. Doing this in a gentle yet firm manner will go a long way towards restraining the behavior.

If you are speaking yourself, and feel awkward requesting that people pay attention, one approach is to simply stop speaking while others are jabbering. Keep a pleasant look on your face and just wait. Usually this will put a top to the whispering and sidebar conversations as well.

Robert’s Rules of Order on whispering and sidebar conversations

Here’s the quotation from Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 11th edition, page 394:

“During debate, during remarks by the president officer to the assembly, and during voting, no member should be permitted to disturb the assembly by whispering, walking across the floor, or in any other way. The key words here are disturb the assembly. This rule does not mean, therefore, that members can never whisper, or walk from one place to another in the hall during the deliberations of the assembly. At large meetings it would be impossible to enforce such a rule. However, the presiding officer should watch that such activity does not disturb the meeting or hamper the transaction of business.”

Have you had to deal with this? Share your stories in the comments!

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Ann Macfarlane

Ann G. Macfarlane is a Professional Registered Parliamentarian. She offers an interactive and user-friendly way to master the key points for effective, efficient and fair meetings. Her background as a diplomat and Russian translator enables her to connect with elected officials and nonprofit board directors and give them the tools they need for success. She is the author of Mastering Council Meetings: A guidebook for elected officials and local governments.


  1. Lon Garrison on October 25, 2016 at 5:30 pm

    Great article and very helpful.I was recently working with a board and during their self-evaluation this topic came up. I will point them this way for additional reference on the topic.

    Along a similar line, I have had board members complain about other board members texting during meetings and obviously having texting conversations with others outside the board. Some have even described situations where a board member is texting with a member of the public or staff and bring those questions or points to the table, sometimes as a complete surprise to all. To me, this presents a challenge for the chair on several levels. What are your thoughts? Have you encountered this? Has anyone taken steps to control this?

    • Ann Macfarlane on October 26, 2016 at 3:50 pm

      Lon, you bring up a very important point. Indeed, this is a challenge for the chair and for the body. We have in mind to prepare a blog posting on electronic devices at meetings, and I will try to do it sooner rather than later.