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  • Jan Gleisner

Who is who around the table? And change it.


Noticed that at the table, some seats are more or less tagged for certain persons? These people seem to be either drawn or pushed there by an invisible hand. Like the chairman or patriark to the upper short side of a rectangular table and the mutes to the lower corners. This is part of the nonverbal communication and specially body language, as it is a matter of where people place their body according to how they feel. In this article we'll explore how the placement can be spotted and understood as well some basic group dynamic processes that follows. We'll also take a look at how different types of tables and chairs matters in this. And as always: Never take only a single nonverbal cue for truth, but rather read clusters of nonverbal (and verbal) cues. But before we move on, let's talk about you.

Lazy, in a hurry or looking for a quick fix? Skip to the resumé.

You

Where do you tend to place yourself at the dinner table at home? At meetings at work? At a café/restaurant? Where you chose to place your body relative a table and other persons around it are part of your nonverbal communication, that signals some of your attitude and social status. But keep mind thou: It's not always a personal choice where to be - people can take a specific seat for practical reasons, when the room is a bit too large or small for the crowd.

At work

You are at work - a staff meeting is coming up and you find yourself in a conference room, with a rectangular table in front of you. Co-workers join in and pick their seats around the table. Without really thinking about it you find a seat for yourself - maybe been sittning there a couple of times before. And all of you starts to silently express your attitude and ambitions as some seats have more to say than others.

The power end

At the upper short end of the table (back against a wall) the most powerful person will be seated most of the times; a leader of some kind like a chairman, boss or teacher. From this seat most other participants can be seen. The seats next to this will most certainly be taken by persons next in line for power. Here you may find a vice president (formal power) and a secretary (informal power, over the agenda and outcome). The next positions will be occupied by wannabes - persons who strive for power.

Falling scale and the observer positions

Further out along the long sides of the table people with less and less power/power ambitions fills up. In the lower corners you will find persons merely observing the meeting, not really participating. These seats are the most invisible where the "observer" are mainly hidden behind others. You won't hear much from those who parked here, unless you force them into discussion. They are not completely powerless thou, as you will see.

The antagonists end

On the lower short side people will sit with their front straight towards the power end, which makes for conflicts between the two ends. The one who takes the seat in the middle of the lower short side may very well be the biggest antagonist to the powerful person/persons in the power end. Count on counterarguments from this end.

Outsiders

At some meetings you may spot a person who doesn't really sit by the table, but rather at some distance away from it. May it be 50 centimeters or 2 meters from the table - it's someone not in line with the others along the table. This can be is a visitor, like consultant being there temporarily. This can also be a colleague who does not want to or is not invited to participate. This person most certainly doesn't feel like a part of the group and will need some encouragement to join. The outsider and the observer roles are sometimes combined in one person.

Meeting dynamics

Through out the meeting you will probably hear someone in the power end bring up a suggestion, the antagonist/-s argue against, the wannabes supporting the boss and not a word from the observers or visitors. People in the middle joins the discussion, perhaps mediating a bit, as they will feel the pressure from both sides. If the observer or the visitor actually says something it will be unexpected among the others. This surprise attack gives their words extra power and may even turn the discussion around. But the observer won't have another moment of surprise.

Why have meetings at all? Jay MacDonald at Meet Well has stated 7 solid reasons for meeting face to face.

At home

Traditional homes

If there is a family at home you may find a power end at the dinner table too, usually in the short end of the table (if such is) with the back against a wall and/or face against the entrance. In traditional/conservative families the patriark always sits here - the man in the house. Second in command would be the spouse/partner who ought to be seated beside him but most times is seated on the opposite side. Kids along the sides. Ought to? Yes, even at home the opposite position is a conflicting one, creating tension between the two partners. With kids in between. Some may argue that the parents need to be near to the children, for close support. But that solution comes with a cost.

Nontraditional homes

There are homes with no favorite seats. More usual in less traditional families where the power is more equally distributed between the parents and the social structure is less set. Therefore two things can be read from the sitting around the table in these homes: If family members (parents and older children) have the same seat every time, the social structure may be more rigid than in families with where seats are free.

Learn more about parenting and the value of family meetings by reading Dr. Phil's article about Making Family Resolutions.

At the café or restaurant

Most coffee tables are squares, arranged so that two or more persons will sit directly opposite of each other. This will, as earlier noted, make way for contradictions and tensions. Sitting with persons we know well and/or already feel very comfortable with won't cause much trouble here. But sittning with strangers or people we do not really appreciate will build up anxiety within us, making us feel uncomfortable. Defensive nonverbal cues will start to show like blocking out with arms in front of us, building walls between us with whatever is available on the table or turning our eyes, heads and even bodies away from the opponent. Some even excuses themselves to hide in the bathroom or having an extended smoke outside. We do everything we can to avoid confronting.

At the first date, this setting brings more tension to an already tense moment. The increased stress level may push a person to far out of his/her comfort zone and make them perform bad, even thou it could make a perfect match. An informal business meeting over a coffee will also suffer from increased tension in converting the meeting from a casual conversation towards measuring power and negotiation. But. In some cases the extra tension can be useful too, like when someone wants to move from small talk to negotiations, make a hard point in some issue or evaluate the opponent.

Changing the order

Changing seats

Now, with some schematics of the relation between tables, chairs and people we can challenge the social order by moving ourselves as we switch seats. At work people will look to the person in the high seat for decision, people in the observer-corners will be overlooked (unless they step up) and hostility will be expected from those on the antagonists end. By getting people onto other seats you will somewhat adjust their roles for the meeting at hand. If you are in control of where people will sit you have the possibility of forcing in mute persons into discussion, silence talkative ones, give power to the weak and cool off antagonists. But by taking a seat that is usually taken by a specific someone else you will challenge this person - count on a verbal and/or nonverbal response from them. It doesn't mean that they ought not to be challenged - they may need it, you may need it or the whole group may need it. Just be clear of your own purpose and ready for the reaction.

The order at home can be challenged in the same way. And will also set of reactions. Ask yourself about the value before going about it, as putting people out of their roles (chairs) just for the fun may be seen as lack of respect. Better make it a joint venture, maybe like an outspoken ambition to learn perspectives and feelings of the others.

In general, you get the confronting climate with people facing each other directly - which may have its value of course. But if you aim at a more open and relaxed meeting like a date or more informal business meeting you should try to sit in a angle towards each other so that both of you have an open space in front of you instead of a person. Less eyeballing and less pressure for to keep on with a non-stop mouthing. And by looking straight ahead (to gather your thoughts) you do no longer give the impression of looking away (for an exit). Business meetings between more than two persons may be difficult to carry out in angle position. But a couple of persons from. each party can switch side at the table, blending up the parties. This breaks up an imagined defense line along the middle the table and creating more of a "we" rather than a "we"-against-"them" attitude.

Need some advice of how to negotiate with someone more powerful than you? Carolyn O'Hara published an article at Harvard Business Review.

Changing chairs

Chairs express power if they have a high back. Arm support will also add to the impression. Chairs that are comfortable will (no surprise) make the sitting more comfortable, making the person more positive overall. So, by switching chairs you adjust (the feeling) of power and attitude for participants. The same can be done to you - someone may fiddle with your power and attitude unless you're on your guard.

Changing tables

The shape and height of tables and chairs makes a difference in how people feel and act. So far we've only looked at traditional tables and arrangements, which are both quite easy to read. So what happens if we exchange the rectangular table in the conference room to a circular one? One observation would be that no one can hide in the corners any longer, forcing them to be more active in the discussions. Also there will be a less distinct power center as well as antagonist center and the power therefore gets more even distributed among all the participants. But that goes for half a truth. If those in charge are very powerful (like a king or president) compared with the rest there will still be a quite distinct power center, making everyone else turn that way.

At home a round table will make it harder for anyone to have fixed places, forcing the family into a more open and flexibel social structure (at least around the table). More members can easily join. The round table makes for a more social life with less emphasis on clearcut family roles. Reading of the situation in such homes: Round tables aids a hearty social atmosphere. Parents can here cover from opposite ends without being each others counterpart and kids will be less caught in a forcefield. But the little ones will be under less control and the parents will need social skills to stay in charge here. Not all parents are up to this task. What you read from a home with the round table is that these families likely value equality and are more liberal when it comes to social structures. And that some of them are socially skilled enough to handle it while some aren't (yet).

As the circular formed table generally boosts a social climate they may, under certain conditions, work in the opposite direction as when it's populated with strangers or a lot of persons. The form includes everyone and therefore makes it harder to start up small with small talking with the closest neighbor - everyone listens and gets involved. This increases expectations within and between people: "Whatever will be said here ought to be good enough to be shared among all of us". That makes it a bit harder to break the ice when you realize that your not going to talk to a single person but to an audience. The more people and more strangers, the more of this effect.

An eclipse formed table work as a compromise between the rectangular and the circular table, both in the respect of social order and physical space available.

High tables either leaves you with a high stool to awkwardly conquer or no chair at all. In either case you are more exposed to people around you as they see you in full figure Therefore some people feel uncomfortable at tables like these. But this also keep people more alert. Low sofa tables (below knee-level) are usually meant to contribute to a relaxed atmosphere. They may have the opposite effect thou, as people can't hide behind them - these tables doesn't work as barriers and especially strangers may feel a bit exposed.

Be creative about tables and chairs and their way to improve or hamper the social climate: The danish designer Monique Engelund has drawn/written about social furniture.

Resumé

Where do you usually place yourself around a table at work, at home or at a café? It signals some of your attitude and social role.

At work: The power end is the upper end of the table and collects those with power and those in desire for power. Along the sides people with less power/desire for power place themselves further away from the power end, and mute observers in the lower corners.

The antagonists tend to gather at the opposite side to the power end. Outsiders sits a bit away from the table and are officially or unofficially not members of the group. Meeting dynamics: Initiatives and decisions from the power end, hard arguments from the antagonists end, mediating middle sections and silence from observers and outsiders.

At home: Traditional homes where dad (the patriark) sits by the upper end of a rectangular table, with back against a wall and/or facing towards the entrance. In nontraditional homes it is more likely that anyone sits where he/she wants and that power is more equally distributed.

Changing the order: Letting people switch seats makes them switch roles. But be ready for some resistance when forcing them out of character this way. Alternate the seats to alternate the social climate either you want to cut down on conflicts, create a competitive climate or widen peoples perspectives.

Changing chairs: Chairs with high back and arm support increases the (feeling of) power and comfortable chairs feeds a positive attitude.

Changing tables: Switch to round tables to even out the power and roles around the table. But mind the higher threshold when it comes to break the ice, and that it takes social skills to control the group dynamic.

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