You walk into a conference room and you are faced with a HUGE decision…
- What’s the best seat?
- Should I sit near the boss?
- Where in the world should I sit?!
Where you sit in a meeting matters WAY more than you think! And science has some great tips for us on where to sit at a conference table and how to optimize our seating choices.
Bottom line: Not all seats are created equal.
Environmental psychologist Robert Sommer was the first to find that where we sit in a meeting greatly affects several things:
- People’s perceptions of you–how do you mark your territory?
- Your feelings toward others and what is being said in the meeting–do you feel included or excluded?
- The status of your relationships to others in the room–how close are you seated to the boss?
Before I tell you the science…watch the video to see if you can play the seating game:
Take the Table Test
It’s time to look at what the science has to say about these questions. Here’s how to pick the perfect place to sit in a meeting.
Step #1: Your Seating Game Plan
Here is a graphic of a typical conference room:
Position A: The Power Player
This seat usually is reserved for the boss, the VIP or the person leading the meeting. This is especially true if a projector screen is behind them.
Positions B & C: The Allies
The people sitting right next to the boss usually are seen as the most supportive of the Power Player. This may or may not actually be the case. However, it is handy to be able to whisper things in the boss’s ear. You also are more likely to be heard by the boss if the group is talking all at once. Dr. Richard Winters of the Mayo Clinic, who also is a professional and executive coach for healthcare leaders, calls these the flanking positions:
“When you sit in this position you can influence the flow of the meeting by assisting. You can draw attention towards or away from topics. You can prompt a speeding up or slowing down of the agenda.” — Dr. Richard Winters
What’s the difference between B and C? Read on…
Position D: The Middles
The middles are going to get less eye contact and less floor time simply because of the nature of a boardroom table. This can be a good place to go into stealth mode. If you have no choice and have to sit in the middle, be prepared to speak up if you want to be heard.
Insider Tip: If you lean forward and raise your hand slightly you can garner eye contact and attention if you want to add an important comment.
Position E: The Contender
If you are sitting opposite your boss, you better have a lot to say. Typically, when we are facing off with someone, we feel more contrarian toward them. Be keenly aware of this if you end up in this seat.
- If you want to be a Contrarian — be ready to speak and address the Power Player directly.
- If you do not want to be a Contrarian — but are forced into this seat — be more verbally and non-verbally supportive. To counteract your seat, smile more, nod more and give more supportive feedback.
Insider Tip: Sometimes if two people are running a meeting they take both ends of the table. This is a great way to physically show a balanced viewpoint, with info coming from both sides.
Position F: Sideliners
Need to sneak out early? Don’t want to be heard? Aren’t a Power Player just yet? Then the sideline is for you. This can be near the door — especially if you have to leave, or as an assistant — behind the boss.
Step #2: What’s your goal or mode?
What’s your goal or mode in a meeting? Dr. Winters has found that people typically either want to be seen and heard, or don’t. I have found we are trying to balance two behaviors in a meeting:
- Attention Mode: I want to talk a lot. I want to be heard. I want to be noticed.
- Stealth Mode: I want to talk less. I don’t want to be noticed. I may even want to hide.
Neither of these are wrong, but it’s important to be purposeful. Stealth mode can be great for listening in a meeting where you don’t have much to contribute to the agenda. Attention mode can be great if you want to be noticed by the boss and take a leadership role.
Bottom Line: You should know your goal or mode before going into the room. This will help you make the best seating decision.
Step #3: Practically Speaking
Do you have to pee a lot? Do you have to leave early? Is there a chance you might get an urgent call from a client? Will you want a coffee refill? These questions seem small, but aren’t when you noisily have to leave in the middle of a meeting. Before you plop down in a chair, think about your plan of action and if you *might* need to get up at any point.
Nothing is worse in a meeting than when you are about to make an important point and someone is crawling over chairs to get to the bathroom.
Bottom Line: Don’t be THAT person. If you might have to leave, be a sideliner–position F or D, near the door.
Step #4: The Big B
Who’s the Big B? Your boss! The decision maker! The big cheese … I guess that would be the big C. Anywhoos, your VIP should affect your seating choice. Before you decide, you should know your goals. The science is pretty clear here. Research from Cornell University found that:
The closer you are to someone physically, the closer you feel to them.
In other words, the closer you sit to your boss the stronger their perception of empathy. Closeness is not the only issue to consider. You also want to think about line of sight. If you have a lot to say to your boss or will be presenting considerably, you might consider being opposite them — so you are in their direct line of sight. This position comes with some risks, but might be a good strategic choice if you want to make an impact.
Bottom Line: Use the boss as a compass.
Step #5: Sides Matter
This is my favorite piece of science for this whole article! Should you sit to the right or left of a Power Player? Science is clear:
If you want to be heard, sit to the left of a Power Player. If you want to be unnoticed, sit to the right of a Power Player.
This is true in business and even teaching!
“One study found that teachers kind of ignore students who sit to their right, and students who sit to the left generally perform better and are called on more. The same holds true in business: Research shows more deals are made when you sit to the left of a potential client.” –Joan Raymond, former teacher, principal and superintendent
Bottom Line: The best choices for Attention Mode are A, B and E. The best choices for Stealth Mode are D, F and C.
Step #6: Be a Seating Pro
If you want to be the master of perfect seating, I have a few tips for you:
- Take Note: Typically, people take the same seats over and over again. Pay attention to where your boss normally sits. Pay attention to where the biggest talker usually sits — do you want to be able to see them more easily, hear them more easily or be far away from them entirely?
- Arrive Early: I would rather come to an empty room than a full room and be stuck with the Contrarian seat or a sideliner seat.
- No Head Chair: Sometimes you get into a room and the conference table has no head chair. This was likely an attempt to equalize the room. No worries! In this case, the positions shift slightly, where the Power Player usually is assumed to be the middle of the sides:
Step #7: My Super-Special Seat Sleuthing Tips
Yay for alliteration! Okay. So, these are truly my expert-level tips and they are only if you really want to be serious. Here’s what to keep in mind:
- Proximity Denotes Agreement: Humans can’t help it. We think that objects closer together are connected. If you sit next to someone, you often are subconsciously tied to their ideas. Do you have someone who talks too much? Don’t sit near them. Do you have someone who you often agree with? Sit near them!
- Be the Greeter: I always, always try to get a chair facing the door. Why? I get to smile and greet people as they walk in. This is an amazing way to make a first impression if you have not met someone before and a great way to project authority and warmth as people walk in.
Presentations Change the Game: If the meeting includes a slide presentation, that can change the game a bit. I try to choose the chair with the best view of the slides and presenter. This is because your comfort and ability to see the presentation might be more important than your position around the table — especially if the presentation won’t have much discussion.
Step #8: But What About a Circle?!
Circular tables are great! If I have a choice, I always want a circular table. It allows better eye contact and equality. The only issue with circular tables is that the Power Player — if there is one — dictates the new seating positions. The Contrarian is always opposite the Power Player, Allies are always to the left and right and Middles fill in the rest.
What seat do you choose? Whichever one you end up with, choose wisely! Your seat matters more than you think.
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
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