Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 14;   April 4, 2001:

The Shape of the Table

by

Last updated: January 17, 2021

Not only was the meeting running over, but it now seemed that the entire far end of the table was having its own meeting. Why are some meetings like this?

Jack struggled with his frustration — another meeting totally out of control. Despite his repeated, insistent requests, the sidebar conversations wouldn't stop, and now they involved more than the usual suspects. He wondered why he had ever accepted this job.

Most of us address this problem by working on our skills. That's always helpful, but we rarely consider Context — the setting in which we hold the meeting. Sometimes Context is the key.

Perhaps you recall that in the Viet Nam peace negotiations, the negotiators first spent months negotiating the shape of the table. Many observers in the U.S. considered this a sign of deadlock, but historians now agree that the issue was politically important. So it is in working environments. The shape of the table, and our positions around it, strongly influence the flow of the meeting.

The traditional configuration is a long rectangle, with the meeting leader at the head. Though there are exceptions, proximity to the leader indicates status. Since this configuration has problems, avoid it. Choose the right room for the job, and choose a room that's flexible enough to meet your needs. Here are some factors to consider.

Out of the actionFor small meetings use a room with a round table. This facilitates frequent and spontaneous pairwise exchanges. The wrong shape can keep some people out of the action.

For larger meetings, the meeting leader should avoid sitting at one end. Instead, sit in the middle of one side. The ends are too far from each other, which makes facilitating the meeting difficult. When you sit at the middle of one side, you have good access to all participants, and they have good access to you.

For any size meeting, a long, extremely narrow table makes it difficult for people at opposite ends to participate. Multiple foci of conversation can develop more easily, spinning the meeting out of control.

Sometimes
Context
is the key
Some meetings require multiple foci, if there are breakout sessions. For such meetings, you might not be able to meet in one room, but if you can, choose one that supports your breakout pattern — one that has separate tables. Push them together for the single-focus portion of the meeting, and pull them apart for breakouts. After a breakout ends, move the furniture back to a single-focus configuration. This draws a strong boundary between the single-focus and multiple-focus portions of the meeting.

Other meetings — brainstorms, for example — need no table. Choose a room without a table, or one with a table you can move to the side.

Whatever your needs, as the meeting planner, you have an advantage over the Viet Nam peace negotiators. You can decide what you want — you needn't spend three months negotiating the shape of the table. But if you do have to negotiate it, choose a room with the right table for the job. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Focus of Conflict  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenhZLYrRMtUnyjppRsner@ChacotqZAFalhYTBMgJWoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A cup of coffeeHow to Procrastinate
You probably know many techniques for procrastinating, and use them regularly, but vociferously deny doing so. That's what makes this such a delicate subject that I've been delaying writing this article. Well, those days are over.
Fugu Rubripes, the Fugu fishEmbolalia and Stuff Like That: I
When we address others, we sometimes use filler — so-called automatic speech or embolalia — without thinking. Examples are "uh," "um," and "er," but there are more complex forms, too. Embolalia are usually harmless, if mildly annoying to some. But sometimes they can be damaging.
A black kite, a species of hawkEmbolalia and Stuff Like That: II
Continuing our exploration of embolalia — filler syllables, filler words, and filler phrases — let us examine the more complex forms. Some of them are so complex that they appear to be actual content, even when what they contain is little more than "um."
Mohandas K. Ghandi, in the 1930sJust Make It Happen
Many idolize the no-nonsense manager who says, "I don't want to hear excuses, just make it happen." We associate that stance with strong leadership. Sometimes, though, it's little more than abuse motivated by ambition or ignorance — or both.
A forest pathThe Goal Is Not the Path
Sometimes, when reaching a goal is more difficult than we thought at first, instead of searching for another way to get there, we adjust the goal. There are alternatives.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

stacks of gold coinsComing January 27: Cost Concerns: Comparisons
When we assess the costs of different options for solving a problem, we must take care not to commit a variety of errors in approach. These errors can lead to flawed decisions. One activity at risk for error is comparing the costs of two options. Available here and by RSS on January 27.
A vial of COVID-19 vaccineAnd on February 3: Cost Concerns: Bias
When we consider the costs of problem solutions too early in the problem-solving process, the results of comparing alternatives might be unreliable. Deferring cost concerns until we fully understand the problem can yield more options and better decisions. Available here and by RSS on February 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenhZLYrRMtUnyjppRsner@ChacotqZAFalhYTBMgJWoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!