How to Back-Channel

In any communication involving more than two people, there is more than one conversation happening. In a group meeting or in a conference, even though the focus is supposed to be on one person at a time, every individual is potentially communicating at the same time with other people in the group. Back in the old days, we’d do this by trading knowing glances with our compatriots. In the classroom, kids used to pass notes (on paper).

Today, we back-channel electronically. We text our buddy about the person speaking. We Slack with our team in a company-wide pep session. In a conference, we tweet about the person on stage.

A back channel can serve as a life-line back to sanity. And good back-channeling can be practical.

A back channel can also be extremely disruptive.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about back-channeling to keep it kosher:

1. You suck at multi-tasking

The most important thing you need to know about the act of participating in a live back-channel conversation is that you’re bad at it. You might think you can follow one conversation while holding another, but the chances are quite good (97% in fact) that you can’t, not really. While you are writing or reading that private text on your computer or phone, you’re missing whatever is happening in the main session.

If you’re in a work meeting, you’re not being paid to ignore it. But I’m not going to say that you should never back-channel. Just be sure you know the costs of doing it.

2. Be kind

Or at least be circumspect. As the old saw goes, “Never put anything in email that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of The New York Times.” You need to be extra careful when you’re writing something private while your attention is divided, which it is, by nature, when you are back-channeling. The chances are higher that you’ll say something cruel by mistake, or worse, mistakenly send that message to the wrong people.

You own the thoughts in your head. Once you press “send,” you don’t.

3. No jokes

If your goal in sending a private message to someone in a group meeting is to get them to laugh, then you’re being a jerk.

There’s no need to be completely Vulcan, though. It’s one thing to help reassure a nervous friend in a meeting with a private comment like, “I don’t care what he says, that wasn’t your fault,” but it’s another to make fun of someone. You’re not 12 anymore.

4. Mind your environment

If your body language is out of sync with others in the room, it will be noticed, and it will look weird. There’s a reason we meet in person: most of our interpersonal communication is nonverbal, and you’re likely to reflect the tenor of a back channel conversation whether you mean to or not.

Speaking of environment, if you’re in a glass-walled conference room, what’s on your screen could be reflected for others to see. For the sake of your own career, be careful.

5. Be useful

In an educational setting, a discussion leader might even want to set up a formal back channel. The Educause association says that a meeting leader need not fear the back channel. In fact, it can be formalized:

“The effective use of the back channel may change the interactive dynamic of scholarly discussion. By acknowledging — or taking control of — the background conversation, the presenter can initiate a second channel where timid audience members can see questions posed by others and be drawn into the discourse.”

In a professional meeting, back-channeling can be helpful if you use it to provide supporting material (like links, documents, or historical background) for what’s happening in the meeting. I’d even recommend that a person new to a group might think about establishing a meeting buddy ahead of time, so he or she can ask relevant questions as the meeting progresses. Corporate jargon is best learned in context.

A dissenting view

I provide these thoughts because I believe it’s inevitable that people will always chatter and back-channel in meetings. People are gossipy by nature, and I don’t believe that’s always bad.

But my friend Will Pemble, author of Goal Boss: The Art & Science of Getting Stuff Done, disagrees. He writes,

“Few things are more disruptive to a high performing team than the sidebar. Sidebars obliterate teamwork. A sidebar shows disregard for the person talking, and the group as a whole. When two people are having their own private meeting within the meeting, the rest of the team can no longer rely on or benefit from their contribution. Keeping focus on your team, especially when the conversation may not directly involve you, is a hallmark of high performance and teamwork. No sidebars.”

What’s it going to be for you? Dividing your attention, but sharing human connection and extra intelligence with friends during tedious work meetings — or complete devotion to the group session you’re in at the time?

However you work, I hope that you do it intentionally, and intelligently.