Backchannels – A Meeting Within a Meeting

In the late 1990s, as I was pivoting my career from IT architecture and management to cybersecurity, I became a member of some new virtual communities within my employer’s organization. We had a loosely knit virtual security team that consisted of people in numerous departments who were all interested in cybersecurity. Every other Thursday, we joined an audio conference bridge to discuss relevant issues.

Microsoft NetMeeting chat

In 2001, we had a meeting scheduled with some outsiders – I don’t remember if they were with an outside vendor, or another group in the company (it doesn’t matter now). In the days leading up to this meeting, a few of us expressed concern about this meeting and how it would go. I thought about this and had an idea: before the conference call begins, let’s all open Microsoft NetMeeting so that we can send text messages to each other to discuss and control the verbal discussion.

The meeting backchannel was born.

During the call, there were a few key moments where our backchannel was valuable. In one, someone from the other party said something that was not true. In the back channel, someone typed something like, “He’s lying! Someone, please refute this now before he changes the subject!” Moments later, one of our team members spoke up and corrected the earlier speaker.

I’ve used backchannels consistently since that time, generally in situations where we are in conference with parties whose level of trust is unknown, and in situations where conflict is likely to arise. There were times when the use of a meeting backchannel was common – practically the default. Sales calls were a great example, particularly when there were many of us on a call, representing many company departments, including product development, operations, security, privacy, and legal. We could help each other rapidly and keep the flow of the conversation moving in the right direction.

Today, backchannels are the norm – in the circles I run in, anyhow. Depending upon the situation, we’ll discuss the backchannel first, but often it’s an unspoken arrangement. When I’m speaking in a meeting, I’ll keep an eye on a window where incoming private messages from another in the meeting might influence what I’m saying – this can be invaluable. In contentious situations where one of my managers is talking, sometimes I’ll drop a quick note such as “You’re doing great!” to give them the added confidence they might need in the moment.

Modern videoconferencing tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams include a chat feature, where participants can drop in URLs, images, and notes to supplement what they or others are saying. An advantage that Microsoft Teams has over Zoom is that participants can chat with others who are not in the meeting without switching to another tool. In Zoom, you can only chat with people in the meeting; if you need to chat with someone not in the meeting, you’ve got to use a different tool.

At times, I’ve witnessed (and participated in) what I call a “meeting within a meeting” in which a verbal/video dialogue is taking place, and underneath that, a parallel discussion ensues, sometimes in the same meeting’s chat, but more often in a separate chat channel with a subset of the meeting’s participants. Again, we’re tossing ideas, throwing hints, and encouraging those who are speaking, or about to be.

Generally, we do not acknowledge the presence of meeting backchannels. They are often covert, and knowledge of them could be perceived as individuals colluding to influence a conversation and thus, an outcome. But now and again, I’ll implicitly acknowledge a backchannel: in one recent conversation with several business leaders, one of my managers sent a few words to remind me of something. I verbally acknowledged the assistance: “And, in addition, my colleague Kate has reminded me that we also need to consider….” In this example, I’m describing the assistance that helped everyone on the call.

With modern videoconferencing and chat tools, it’s possible to have several texting channels operating at once. There is a real danger here: being poor multitaskers, we humans need to be mindful of where we are paying attention: as soon as we start reading a chat message, we tune out whoever is speaking audibly in the meeting. This happens quite a lot, actually, as I often hear in a meeting these six words:

Can you please repeat the question?

Backchannels really only work when meetings are virtual. In face-to-face meetings, it’s more difficult to hide the fact that one person is typing text messages to another who is also there in the room. It’s considerably more difficult to covertly guide an in-person conversation, since it’s usually necessary for someone to speak up. For instance, while one person is speaking, another recalls an important point that a third person needs to mention. The listener would have to interject: “I think that Jose has another example to describe here, specifically regarding that travel agent customer we met with last week.” This puts Jose on the spot, and the listener is hoping that Jose will understand and proceed correctly with no other help. This is how meetings used to flow: everyone had to pay close attention, take notes, and know when to speak up to make an important point. Backchannels are becoming a crutch, albeit a useful one.

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