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Volume 14, Issue 46;   November 12, 2014: Face-Off Negotiations

Face-Off Negotiations

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Last updated: August 8, 2018

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

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