Form follows function: Some psychodynamics of re-arranging the furniture

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When I was growing up, my mother would not seat a group of guests for dinner without place cards. The daughter of a Presbyterian minister who became a pastor’s wife herself, she had some strong ideas about entertaining. One was that where you seat people has a real effect on the conversation at the table.

I’m saying I came naturally by the seating fixation that I displayed as a teacher. Lucky enough to have my own classroom for most of my teaching career, I had a free hand to plan the best configuration of desks, tables, chairs, and comfy seating for any given activity—from full-class discussions to small-group work, from film critiques to workshops with a visiting poet or musician. Whether I was conferring with a student in danger of failing, meeting with prospective parents about our alternative education program, or hosting a summit for diverse stakeholders, I tried to devise the optimal seating arrangement (form) for a given purpose (function).

Maybe I’m just a mama’s boy, but I do believe that as a rule, people don’t give the physical configuration of meeting spaces enough thought. Here are some aspects I have found helpful to consider, organized as observations about a highly designed meeting space—the U.S. Supreme Court (pictured above):

Unpacking the Supreme Court      

1. High position = high status. Justices preside from an elevated bench, and there is no question about who is in charge. Similarly, theater stages raise actors and church pulpits lift preachers above the assembled congregation.

  • Teachers in traditional classrooms draw power by standing at the board while students sit in rows facing forward. To shift from a “sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side,” teachers seeking a more egalitarian dynamic for class discussions can move about the room or seat themselves at eye level.
  • Regardless of the kind of meeting you’re leading, think carefully about whether you need to stand. Your choice sends a message that other participants process, consciously or subconsciously. 

2. A big desk is a psychological (and physical) barrier. The Justices’ desk is so huge that it takes a moment to realize what it is. And of course, it means more than that. The desk symbolizes their appointed office, the seat of their power. It’s no accident that teacher desks tend to be larger than student desks, and that the principal probably has the biggest desk in the building.

  • When you call someone into your office, it might be quite helpful to subtly reinforce your position by remaining behind your desk. Or you may decide this particular conversation will go better in chairs positioned in front of your desk, with no physical barrier except two or three feet of floor space between you.
  • If desk-free would be too uncomfortable, a nice middle ground is corner-positioning, with you and the other party on adjacent sides of a table or desk. The corner establishes a partial barrier, a boundary that can put people at ease. This is a strong option for friendly interviews. I have often used it for checking in with students informally. 
  • If you’re called into someone’s office and (for whatever reason) you’d like to make that person feel powerful, the easiest shortcut is to take a chair directly across from them, letting them remain behind the desk. 
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3. Lateral positioning works best for maximizing attention on a problem (or spectacle). The Justices face out, perfectly arrayed to attend to the case before them without being distracted by each other.

  • Side-by-side is not a good set-up if you want to chat with eight friends at a local bar. However, if you’re brainstorming with colleagues, a row (maybe slightly curved) is ideal for working on a problem or challenge projected on a screen or chalked on a board. Lateral positioning physically reminds participants to focus on whatever’s written up there—just like movie-goers look at the screen.
  • If you know there is tension between people in a working group, seat them on the same side of a rectangular table (not right next to each other, obviously!). This way they concentrate on the purpose of the meeting without being constantly reminded of each other’s presence. (For a longer-term solution, consider a different Supreme Court practice: Since the late 19th century, Justices have ritually reinforced their common purpose through the “Conference handshake.” Before going on the Bench or beginning private Conferences, each Justice shakes hands with each of the other eight.)

4. Physical opposition reinforces psychological opposition. Facing another is the literal meaning of confrontation, so it makes sense that this positioning often feels confrontational. The Justices are not competing against the litigants, strictly speaking, but the different roles of judge and lawyer are reinforced by the set-up of their desks. 

  • If a classroom or meeting space has an oppositional arrangement, rebellious participants will tend to gravitate to the rear of their section, i.e. farthest away from their (perceived) opponent’s position. Kids in the back of the class (or faculty in the back of the after-school meeting, or reluctant churchgoers) may desire to show some measure of resistance to what’s going on up front.  
  • Sometimes opposition is the perfect position. For instance, when I ran meetings involving a high school student and some combination of teachers, parents, counselors, and administrators to discuss a particular concern, I would often sit directly facing the student in order to block anyone else from the spot. In this way, the student would not be physically squaring off against her teachers, or her parents, etc. 
  • In two-person meetings, opposite positioning reinforces the gravity of the situation. If you want the other party feel more powerful (or comfortable), seat him facing the door. Having their back to the door tends to make people feel vulnerable. 

5.  Seating often communicates rank. When they are seated, you can tell the seniority of the Associate Justices by looking at the Bench. The senior Associate Justice sits on the right-hand side of the Chief Justice (positioned directly in the center); the second senior sits on the left-hand side, and so on, alternating right and left by seniority. When they’re meeting privately, tradition holds that if there is a knock at the conference room door, the justice with the least seniority (who sits closest to the door) must answer it. 

  • Sitting in the center of the end of a rectangular table (facing the door) is usually the CEO’s spot. This is where the Chief Justice sits in  Conference. 
  • King Arthur famously believed round tables are more egalitarian, with the circle symbolizing continuity and community. For livelier exchanges and conversations in which you want everyone to feel included, round configurations are well worth trying. Just avoid having so large a space in the middle that participants feel distant.
  • When the stakes are high, consider place cards. (My mom would be thrilled.) A less obvious move is to usher people to spots you’ve already determined. 

REFERENCE

Supreme Court website: http://www.supremecourt.gov/about/traditions.aspx

[Article copyright 2016 by Peter Horn, Ed.D. Images: SCOTUS from scfellowsalumni.squarespace; image of meeting layouts from creativeclassrooms.org.]

Peter Horn