It has been said one cannot ask a fish what water is. When something so surrounds us, it is often invisible to us. The same thing can be said of our environment. It exists in the background and often by-passes our conscious attention. Yet, it affects us in subtle ways which can affect our feeling of power (or powerlessness) and desire to cooperate or compete. The category of Environment comprises of, inter alia, the room, lighting, sounds, scent, colour, decoration, temperature, shape of table and seating positions.

I’ve been recently thinking about how the table and seating positions around it can affect a mediation. In the contexts that I mediate in, I do not have the luxury of choosing the size and shape of the table I use. I have some flexibility in choosing where the parties, their representatives and I sit. The table that is used is usually a rectangular one and I usually sit at one end of the table with the parties on either side. Occasionally, I would sit on one side of the long table and have parties sit next to one another facing me.

I began wondering what would happen if I had the luxury of choosing the table I used. As such, I would like to table (ouch, sorry) my thoughts for this entry.

There seem to be fundamentally 4 shapes of tables one will encounter. Square, Rectangular, Oval or Round (while a Triangular table is possible, it is less common). The idea, of course, is that depending on the shape of the table and how one arranges the seating positions, one can create different effects.

For example, in the business context, where one has a square or rectangular table, seating positions directly opposite one another is said to create a sense of competition whereas sitting next to one another on one side of the table is said to foster cooperation. These same considerations apply to an oval-shaped table. A round table is considered to be ideal for fostering a sense of equality and cooperation.

Do all tables have a “place of authority”? Obviously, a rectangular and oval table has the position of power at the head of the table. Conventional wisdom would suggest that in the case of a square or round table, there is no discernible position of power. This is the basis behind the idea that King Arthur and his knights were considered equals since they sat around a round table.

In the writer’s experience, this may not be entirely accurate. While the square or round table may in and of itself not have a “place of authority”, the power dynamics can be affected by the presence of someone with a high status. For example, in cultures where hierarchy matters, where the mediator (assuming that she or he is perceived to be of sufficiently high status) sits determines the position of authority. Of course in cultures where the hierarchies are more flat, this effect is either lessened or negated.

The power dynamics of square and round tables can also be affected by the nature of the seat. Should one chair be different (for example being bigger, grander or more classy), then that chair would denote the “place of authority”.

Even where the chairs are identical, the location of the seat can make a difference. Drawing from the chinese culture where meals are commonly held around a round table, it is normal for the most senior or respected person in the room to sit in the chair that is in the most secure position in the room. This is usually the position where one’s back is to the wall and where one can clearly see the entrances to the room. This is of course not unique to the chinese culture and anecdotal wisdom from the frontier days of the wild west parallels this.

The practical applications of this discussion are clear. If one has the luxury of selecting the shape of the table, it is recommended that the table be round. The mediator should be seated in the most secure position in the room usually with his/her back to the wall and in a position where they can view the entrance. The mediator should also be equidistant between the parties.

If one does not have the luxury of choice and has to work with a long table (either oval or rectangle), it is suggested that parties be seated next to one another on one long side of the table in order to foster a cooperative mindset. While this means that the mediator will sit opposite on the other long side and not at the traditionally accepted “head of the table” position, this can have the benefit of promoting informality and signaling that the mediator is not there to judge but to facilitate. If it is necessary for the mediator to have more of the trappings of authority, this can be done by “power-dressing” or having a chair that is larger or higher than the parties. Needless to say, parties should be seated in chairs that are the same in all respects.

It is important to acknowledge these suggestions are not writ in stone. Circumstances may dictate the need for a different configuration. For example, if there are issues of personal safety involved, seating parties side by side would be contra-indicated. With a long table, where each party has more than one representative, it may make practical sense for the mediator to be at the head of the table with the parties on either long side of the table.

Are these table top ruminations accurate? I have not had a chance to test this in mediations with different types of tables. Perhaps those who have would be willing to share their thoughts?


________________________

To make sure you do not miss out on regular updates from the Kluwer Mediation Blog, please subscribe here.


Kluwer Arbitration

3 comments

  1. Interesting observations. Where one sits certainly has certain “power meaning”. To complete his observations about shapes of tables, in meetings of the Priory of the Knights of Malta, they have a pentagonal table and an octagonal table, so there are tables of such shapes. The Eminent Prior and his 4 most senior officers would sit at the pentagonal table, with the E Prior’s seat facing the entrance to the Priory, the other 8 officers would sit at the other, ie octagonal table, which is nearer the entrance.

    The Japanese, when they are eating in a tatami room, with a long table, in general, the host is at the seat nearest the entrance. Whereas in Chinese custom, the host sits at the head of the long table, most further away from the entrance, with his back towards the wall. I made the mistake once when hosting a Japanese dinner by sitting myself at the head of that long table. A close Japanese friend quietly told me that was wrong..

    Yes, there are certain unconscious power signal given by the seating arrangements around the table

  2. Lovely article on hidden power dynamics. I recently hosted a dinner at home where an uncouth guest plonked himself at the head of my rectangular dining table right in front of me as I was about to take the seat. My wife had to growl at him before he scurried away.

    From my observations, seating the most “powerful” person furthest away from the entrance is not merely for security, but also to ensure that the said person’s speech/meal is not disrupted by service staff. That is of course subject to cultural differences, as Ronald’s comment illustrates.

    As a related point, the inflow and outflow of service personnel into the room (and the order which they serve the occupants) is affected by the seating. I have yet to crystallise my thoughts on how they affect the setting/ mood, whether to foster collaboration or competition.

    Seating parties next to one another with the mediator on the opposite long edge may or may not achieve the informality hoped for. After all, legal practitioners appearing in court against each other are also seated side by side, facing the judge together. In other words, the guy sitting next to us is usually “not our friend”.

    In my experience as a practitioner, it is usually more helpful for the mediator to sit at the “head” of the table (rectangular or oval), and then have parties immediately on both sides of him. This physical proximity creates a sense of trust(left hand man? right hand man?) and closeness and allows the mediator to speak softly/gently (as opposed to needing to project across the breadth of a table). He could even offer physical comfort to one party or the other by patting them or handing them a box of tissues.

    At the same time, if the mediator wishes to summon some authority, all he has to do is to sit up and lean back a little and his position at the “head” of the table becomes clear again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *