In this second article about sitting positions I want to discuss tables – the shapely things we sit around.
There is much hidden psychological subtext in different seating arrangements around tables, so we'll explore that from 2 perspectives:
First, we'll talk about the shape of the table and how it sets the atmosphere for our interaction: be it a cooperative, confrontational, relaxed, casual or short and to-the-point theme.
Next, I will focus on the relation between sitters according to their choice of seat. So even though you usually can’t do much about the shape of the available table - you can always aim to sit in a specific position to suit your goals or mood.
Different shapes of tables affect the mood and attitude of the participants sitting around it. This means that given the option - you can set the right 'stage' for your needs if you choose the right table. Additionally, every table 'shapes' the distribution of power among the sitters differently.
What do I mean by 'distribution of power'?
Let me explain through an example:
In the medieval times, when kings sat on their throne with their retinue around them – everyone knew their status by their position. It was reflected in their relative proximity to the king, and on which side did they sit. Actually, one of the explanations for the term "right hand man" is based on the fact that the advisor of the king\emperor\tsar\ was always close at hand to help the king rule, just like his right hand (unless he was a left hander, I guess :P).
We don't use thrones anymore (not as we used to, anyway), but we still regard some seats to be more prestigious, and automatically reserve them for influential people. These seats are traditionally central and dominant positions - they often allow the sitter to have a vantage point over the other participants\environment or just being close to the action.
I said that usually a high status or influential people will occupy these central sits, but even a low status person in a central position can feel (and be regarded) more confident and involved in the conversation.
Remember, body language shape is not only a manifestation of your personality and mood, but also a tool you can use to shape yourself. So if you want to be more influential – try to positions yourself in a central position, even if it's not your norm. By changing your habits you eventually change the image you project for others, and perhaps more importantly - the way you perceive yourself.
Now let's dive in for sepcifics - the shapes themselves:
The most famous example for this table is the Round Table of King Arthur. Every knight who sat around the round table was considered equal to his peers in honor and title, and there was no central powerful position.
It's a great table for peaceful and cooperative discussions – everyone feels equally involved. It's also a great seating arrangement for brainstorming, because it encourages a free flow of ideas by everyone.
There is one tiny problem yet: while this table is the symbol of equality, if there is a higher status personality in the table (like King Arthur himself) he'll still be considered the source of influence in that scenario. It doesn't really matter where you sit if you wear a crown. His 'lieutenants', his most trusted and loyal, will sit right next to him - and therefore the next ones in line by "chain of command". On the opposite side of the table you'll find the opposition, naturally.
This is the traditional table – 2 short and 2 long ends. On the short ends of the table you'll find the most influential people. If it's a meeting between 2 rival camps –you will most likely find the leaders of each camp in opposite sides, with their supporters near them.
There is a general mood of competition and confrontation present in this type of table since most people will sit opposite to each other with the table as a barrier between them.
It's often very hard to achieve cooperation and team spirit in such setting, but it functions well in the business cooperative world, where one dominant individual (aka the boss) controls the flow of the meeting and everyone is looking up to him to make the final decisions.
The more powerful of the short ends is the one opposite to the entrance – it gets a vantage point over the access point and on whomever enters\exits it.
These tables usually reserved for relaxed, comfortable and informal conversations, you will often see this kind of tables in dining rooms, cafeterias, coffee shops and restaurants.
These tables can be used for serious to-the-point meetings in the business world. There isn't a significant one power position in this table, but pay attention to who sits in front of whom, because they will find the least common ground.
Now I want to explain the sitting positions themselves. How is it best to sit with someone for casual\competitive\romantic\collaborative\serious\"don't disturb" purposes?
Before we actually begin, I want to clarify some points:
1) What's I'm going to discuss here is mainly relevant to standard rectangular or square tables. It's not a manual by table shapes, so derive your own conclusions on special shapes and sizes.
2) Your sitting position reflects your status and association with the rest of the group and in the same time affects it. It means that you have a 'natural' spot that is most suited for your status, but you can always choose another seat to manipulate the interaction your way.
3) No matter how hard you try, you have no true power over the feelings and thoughts of others. So while you can try to position yourself in a way that you think serves you best – sometimes people won't cooperate with you –this will be reflected by their body language and their choice of seat in relation to you. Don't sweat it, you cannot control everything… just do your best.
Now that this is out of the way, let's begin:
This position is most comfortable for relaxed and informal conversations.
It allows each person to have a free room in front of him to roam with his eyes which relieves a lot of pressure from the interaction. It gives you the option to alternate your gaze from the other party (when you're listening intently) to gaze forward (to gather your thoughts).
Plus the corner of the table serves as a subtle barrier between the sitters, to maintain some comfort zone and still allow plenty of room for gesturing.
I like this seating arrangement because it's very comfy – especially when meeting new people. It has an advantage over having a confrontational 'face to face' setting, which can be perceived as too direct and aggressive – not the best qualities you wish to establish when meeting someone new.
Sitting side by side in the table adds a cooperative spirit to the conversation. Both sides are working together, from the same position.
This is an ideal sitting position for collaboration. For example, when a team is working on the same project from the same side of the table- It automatically creates a feeling of mutual interest and effort. In a sense, you look at things from the same perspective as your partner, and it helps establish a more intimate bond.
If it's so great, what's the catch?
Well, first – it needs to suit your needs. Your goal may not be to cooperate with, but rather to confront or to question the other party. In that case, this is not the best position to do so, because it's much less formal than a confrontational setting - it's not 'talking serious business'.
Another thing is the fact that it requires some trust and intimacy to exist before it can be effectively used. It's not a magic trick, it's not as if you sit next to somebody you suddenly become his BFF, it only means that it can help smooth things out if you work on the same issue together.
Maybe you remember a time when you were in school and you were placed right next to someone you didn't really like… What did you do to avoid him? You told him to keep on "his side" and maybe even draw a line to mark the border. While adults probably won't revert to such measures, don't try to force your presence on people who don't like you.
This is also right when talking about complete strangers. They will not feel very secure if you suddenly sit right next to them without any warning. So if the goal is to get cooperation from stranger, I recommend starting from a rather neutral position (sitting by the corner, or side by side but not very close) and shift yourself right next to them when the 'ice breaks' and they are ready to work together.
In this sitting position the table serves as a barrier and shield for each person on each side. It's like 2 rivalry bases with the middle of the table as the border between them. Great for playing chess and an absolute must in "Battleships".
In business context we use this position for 'serious talk'. If a boss wants to reprimand his worker he will invite him to his office and seat him in front of him to square things away. The table serves here to create 'emotional distance'.
This is also the sitting position you will assume at a job interview or when dealing with service providers or shopkeepers. This sitting position tends to make meetings short and efficient - it's all about business, not the place or time to discuss philosophical questions.
In social settings the subtext is different – it's very common for people to sit that way on casual settings, especially in restaurants. It allows each side to have its own private space for his meal and still converse face to face.
I do, however, encourage you to try sitting in a side by side or corner position next time you're in a restaurant if that's possible. See if that improves the mood and flow of the interaction.
Sitting diagonally sends one clear message – "I'll just keep to myself, don't bother me."
This sitting position doesn't allow a very comfortable way for communication: there is a lot of distance, and an uneasy angle to maintain eye contact. That's why this position projects (and interpreted as) indifference, lack of interest or hostility towards others around.
It's common in libraries, where socialization isn't the most welcome thing. People came to read and to keep to themselves, so they will assume diagonal positions in relation to others to signal they don't wish to be disturbed.
Finding the right spot can be a tricky thing, but being aware of the different effects each sitting positions has sets you ahead of anybody else who's oblivious to it.
I know that choosing the right seat doesn't seem like a big issue in the big picture of nonverbal communication – it's only a seat after all… but getting this step right means setting the right conditions to your purpose from the start. Plus, remember that good body language is about the small details: the subtle little cues distinguish the expert from the amateurs.
Another thing I recommend you to do is to be more aware about how different sitting positions influence your daily interactions, even with people you know for a long time. For example, I found out that when I sit with my friends around a rectangular table, I find more common ground with friends who sit by my side than with the ones who sit on the opposite.