seating arrangements

When you prepare for a big meeting, you often think about what to say and what to wear, but forget about a simple, yet powerful decision–seating arrangements.

These meetings can include:

  • Interviews
  • Negotiations
  • Collaboration meetings
  • Presentations

Can you use science to make better seating decisions? Oh yes!

You can follow some easy steps to leverage the science of seating when setting up your meeting or office. Here’s what you should know:

#1: Your Seat Affects Your Mind

This study blew my mind! Researchers found that the shape of your table can affect how you make decisions. Here’s what they did:

  • A total of 350 participants were asked to sit down in one of seven chairs, arranged in various formations, and evaluate advertisements and photos.
  • Participants who sat in a circle reacted more favorably to images that showed groups of friends or family members, and conveyed a sense of belonging.
  • If participants sat in rectangular or square formations, they prefered ads portraying go-getters and cutthroats.

In other words:

“The shape of a seating arrangement has a predictive impact on persuasion.” -UBC School of Business

#2: Couch, Chair or Swivel?

Not all seats are created equal. It’s not just about conference tables! In a typical office you might have multiple chair choices. Let’s dissect them:

  • The Low Sofa: Beware of that couch! I know it looks super comfy, but there are two problems. One, it might be way lower than your business counterpart. This often gives a person the feeling of inequality–even subconsciously. Second, it’s hard to get in and out of it. If you are in a skirt, beware! I only choose a low sofa or couch if my counterpart also is sitting on the couch next to me or on another one across from me.
  • The Swivel Chair: I love swivel chairs around big conference room tables. They’re great for easily making eye contact. However, if you are jittery or like to rock in your chair–do NOT choose the swivel chair or else plant yourself in one place if you have to use one. Constant motion can make you look out of control and distracted.
  • Pillows & Props: Psychologically, we like to have no barriers between us and another person. Be careful of placing pillows, laptops, or clipboards in front of you at a meeting. You do not want to accidentally block someone. One study even found that not having a table between two people helps them feel psychologically closer. Why? Read on…

#3: Shape + Distance = Success

The formation of the seating arrangement and the type of chair are not the only things that matter for successful seating. Distance between participants is also important!

  • The closer you are to someone, the closer you feel. This study found that sitting closer to someone increases our feelings of empathy.
  • Aisle or middle? Researchers at Northwestern University found that when people are seated in a row, those in the center were more likely to claim their fair share for solving problems, while valuing the contribution of their neighbors, while it was much harder for people on the ends to feel included.
  • Co-Ops and Corners: When collaborating with someone I love sitting next to each other to look at paperwork or a computer screen or both of us sitting on the corners next to each other.

Bottom Line: If we can see one another, we are more likely to understand and recognize each other. If we are close to one another, we are more likely to empathize with each other.

#4: Goal-Oriented Seating

You should know what your goal is before taking your seat or setting up seating for a meeting. Remember, circles are great for collaboration AND retention.

Teacher Tip: Research has found that students are more engaged and may retain more learning when the classroom is not set up lecture-style, but instead has clusters of students at small tables, or the entire class sitting in a circle.

Make your seats match your goals.

  • If you want to be close, choose closer chairs.
  • If you want to be collaborative sit next to each other or in a circle.
  • If you have a big room, check out the eleven basic styles of seating and choose the one that is right for you.

#5: Optimize Your Office

All of these tips aren’t meant just to help you choose the right seat. They are also for you to set up easy seating choices. Here’s a few tips to make it easy on your guests and colleagues:

  • Chairs should be equal. Don’t have a couch and a low settee and a few high chairs. Everyone will be at different heights and different comfort levels.
  • Remove Props. No pillows–people either grab them or have trouble sitting around them. The only worthwhile prop is small bowl of candy or mints — keep that blood sugar up!
  • Maximize Eye Contact: Make people can see each other from every seat in your office. If you have chairs along a back wall, people in those seats will feel left out. Give everyone equal seating opportunity.

The Best Seat in the House

Given all this science you should make your own choices. But as a default, my favorite seat in the house is usually the highest chair, with the best view of the room.

But whatever your seating strategies, choose wisely!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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