The Psychogeography of ‘Meeting Seating’

Meetings . . .they bring people together.  Or so I’m told.  I’m not a fan of meetings, but I’ve recently learned something very interesting – that psychogeography plays a fascinating role in influencing overall meeting effectiveness,  engagement by participants, and perceptions of leadership and authority. 

Pyscho….whattya call it?

Psychogeography!  It’s the study of the effects of the geographical environment on the emotions and behavior of individuals – basically, how your physical spaces affect you.  I like to think of it as your personal Fung Shui.

Have you ever paid attention to where people decide to sit in your meeting room, and in what configuration?  Where people sit during a meeting may not strike most people as particularly compelling; seating arrangements are usually left to chance.  However, the manner in which people are seated in meetings can change the dynamic altogether.  Physical spacing yields clues as to authority and positions. It can also reveal ‘unofficial roles’ that people would like to assume in the meeting as well as in the organization.

That’s psychogeography at work.  Let’s explore what I mean…

Seating Configuration

Rectangular – Power Play

In a rectangle seating configuration, seats at the short dimensions are perceived as “power positions”.  Accordingly, if you want to be ‘close to power’, sit near the ends.  While it may not convey a sense of equality, this seating configuration is extremely effective at conveying power and authority.

Horseshoe – Encouraging Participation

This seating arrangement encourages eye contact between the meeting facilitator and participants, and also permits the facilitator to close the physical gap between him/herself and each participant.  This has the effect of inviting discussion and developing rapport.  This configuration is particularly effective in large(r) groups of ten or more where discussion of agenda items is expected and/or encouraged.

Circular – Democracy Rules

In a circular seating arrangement, there is no obvious “leadership” position, and so it’s the best configuration if you’re attempting to promote a democratic environment. Based on equality. Without a table, participants may feel a bit ‘revealed’, because subtle nonverbal cues are easily discerned.  Interestingly, participation tends to be higher in circular seating arrangements relative to the rectangular configuration, but so does conversation between “neighbors”.  Consequently, it may be difficult to control the interpersonal dynamics.

Square – Formality

If you want to convey a more formal, authoritative approach to your meeting, then a square configuration works best, particularly if people in leadership positions are represented in all seats on a single side.  This configuration tends to put distance between organizational leadership and subordinates.  It also prevents any one person from seeing the faces of other participants.  Interestingly, a square seating configuration coupled with a table with a “hole” in the center has the effect of encouraging greater participation and more lengthy discussion by some members, while making others less talkative.  Conversely, a solid table has the effect of increasing participation among all members.

So be thoughtful about seating arrangements.  With careful planning, you can set the tone for your next meeting, skillfully navigate the meeting toward your desired goals, and guarantee a successful outcome.

Cheryl M. McCormick, Ph.D., Founder and CEO, Ascend Nonprofit Consulting and Executive Coaching, www.ascendnonprofits.comcheryl@ascendnonprofits.com

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