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Volume 1, Issue 14;   April 4, 2001: The Shape of the Table

The Shape of the Table

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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

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