Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 46;   November 12, 2014: Face-Off Negotiations

Face-Off Negotiations

by

In difficult face-to-face negotiations — or any face-to-face negotiations — seating arrangements do matter. Here's an exploration of one common seating pattern.
The U.S. and Russian delegations meet to negotiate the New Start Treaty

The U.S. delegation, left, meets with the Russian delegation, right, at the Bilateral Consultative Commission on the New START Treaty, in the U.S. Mission at Geneva, Switzerland, on March 28, 2011. The "face-off" configuration is a traditional seating plan in diplomatic negotiations. That it is traditional in diplomacy does not imply that it is effective in the workplace. Photo by U.S. Department of State, courtesy Wikimedia.

Conference room tables come in two basic shapes — rectangular and round. Sometimes the round tables are a bit oval, and sometimes the rectangular tables have gracefully curved sides, but generally, the round ones are round, and the rectangular ones are rectangular. When we use these tables for two-party negotiations, the negotiators often choose a most unfortunate seating arrangement that I call the "face-off."

In the face-off, one negotiating team sits along one long side of the rectangle, and the other sits opposite, along the other long side of the rectangle. If the table is round, the two teams arrange themselves opposite each other as best they can, if possible leaving gaps between the ends of the two arcs separating the teams.

The face-off configuration hampers negotiations. By physically arranging the two teams opposite each other, this configuration sets one team against the other. It's likely that the inclination many of us have to sit near people we know, and with whom we share past experiences and visions of a shared future, leads to this arrangement. But by distinguishing "us" from "them" the face-off configuration can actually make straightforward negotiations difficult, and difficult negotiations impossible.

How can we do something different that might actually facilitate negotiations?

Randomize your own seating
One approach is to discuss the possibility in advance with your own team, and reach consensus about randomizing your own seating. That is, when you arrive, intentionally choose not to sit together as a team.
This can work, The "face-off" seating configuration
hampers negotiations by physically
arranging the two teams
opposite each other
provided your team is the first to take seats, which is easily accomplished if your team is hosting. It does have the unfortunate and unintended effect of imposing the randomized arrangement on the other team, which can make some of its members uncomfortable.
As host, set out place cards
If the session is being hosted at your facility, you can set out place cards bearing either personal names or team names. This somewhat more genteel approach achieves the intended result independent of which participants sit down first.
Although this method randomizes seating, it also imposes an arrangement on the other team, and that can be a bit off-putting.
Let it happen and call attention to it
A third approach is to just let people sit wherever they want, and then address the seating arrangement if needed.
Letting it happen has two advantages over the two methods above. First, the face-off configuration might not happen. Maybe the participants will sit more or less randomly. Second, by calling attention to the face-off arrangement, and noting its risks, you present the two teams with an opportunity to work out an issue that is probably much simpler than the negotiation itself. They then have a chance to practice solving a problem together, and a chance for a quick victory.

The third approach is an example of a problem solving strategy based on doing nothing, or doing very little. Minimal intervention often works best. Go to top Top  Next issue: Ten Approaches to Managing Project Risks: I  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenqIZQfxMnzFEfnPemner@ChacgbyjZvNLNixBCLEaoCanyon.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 Conflict Management:

A multi-function phoneDeniable Intimidation
Some people achieve or maintain power by intimidating others in deniable ways. Too often, when intimidators succeed, their success rests in part on our unwillingness to resist, or on our lack of skill. By understanding their tactics, and by preparing responses, we can deter intimidators.
Benjamin FranklinPractice Positive Politics
Politics is a dirty word at work, as elsewhere. We think of it as purely destructive, often distorting decisions and leading the organization in wrong directions. And sometimes, it does. Politics can be constructive, though, and you can help to make it so.
A group of Emperor PenguinsWhat Do You Need?
When working issues jointly with others, especially with one other, we sometimes hear, "What do you need to make this work?" Your answers can doom your effort — or make it a smashing success.
The Headquarters of the Public Employees Retirement Association of New MexicoSo You Want the Bullying to End: I
If you're the target of a workplace bully, you probably want the bullying to end. If you've ever been the target of a workplace bully, you probably remember wanting it to end. But how it ends can be more important than whether or when it ends.
Dr. Ben Carson speaking at CPAC 2015 in Washington, D.C., on 26 February 2015Characterization Risk
To characterize is to offer a description of a person, event, or concept. Characterizations are usually judgmental, and usually serve one side of a debate. And they often make trouble.

See also Conflict Management and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An informal meeting geometryComing November 21: Make Suggestions Privately
Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk. Available here and by RSS on November 21.
A beefsteak, with some amount of fatAnd on November 28: Wacky Words of Wisdom: VI
Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" seem valid often enough that we accept them as universal and permanent. Most aren't. Here's Part VI of a collection of widely held beliefs that can be misleading at work. Available here and by RSS on November 28.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrencWzKSsodTgyBOLimner@ChacFjEzvVSePorjcpAQoCanyon.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 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post 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!
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.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.