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? rbrensDaBMTItJCwaKsgNner@ChacCrQTBGMzBwhIqYTXoCanyon.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:

Bowery men waiting for bread in a bread line in New York City in 1910Agenda Despots: II
Some meeting chairs crave complete or near-complete control of their meeting agendas. In this Part II of our exploration of their techniques, we emphasize methods for managing unwanted topic contributions from attendees.
Sen. Robert Packwood, Republican of OregonPatterns of Conflict Escalation: I
Toxic workplace conflicts often begin as simple disagreements. Many then evolve into intensely toxic conflict following recognizable patterns.
Braided streams in Grewingk Glacier RiverRisk Acceptance: One Path
When a project team decides to accept a risk, and when their project eventually experiences that risk, a natural question arises: What were they thinking? Cognitive biases, other psychological phenomena, and organizational dysfunction all can play roles.
A fictional tornado striking ManhattanBad Trouble: Misdirection
When Bad Trouble develops at work we have a chance to see what our organizational cultures are made of. Many of our colleagues respond constructively. When they don't, misdirection tactics are popular. Here's a little catalog of misdirection responses.
Horseshoe Lake in Shaker Heights, OhioWhen You Feel Attacked
Verbal attacks might be upsetting, but in creative conflicts they're usually permissible if related to substantive matters. When verbal attacks are personal, they can be unfair and illegitimate. The ability to recenter yourself quickly is invaluable.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerComing October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
An owl of undetermined speciesAnd on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.

Coaching services

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

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!
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.
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!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.