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Where should I sit?

If your board is now contemplating the transition from virtual meetings back to in-person ones, you may once again be confronted with the dreaded decision, “Where should I sit?”

Okay, I get that this is not the most urgent and compelling matter in front of a board director, but it may actually cause you a small amount of anxiety when you're confronted with all those empty chairs. I know that, personally, I've been grateful for tent cards in such a situation.

Is there a right place and a wrong place to sit?

Well, as it turns out, this topic is the subject of scientific research! Who knew?

 

Picking the Right Seat

I found out everything I need to know about this topic from a website called Science of People. The information presented in this blog is drawn from an article entitled How to Pick the Right Seat in a Meeting EVERY Time by Vanessa Van Edwards.

It seems that where you sit in a meeting greatly affects people’s perceptions of you, your feelings toward them and towards what is being said, and the status of your relationships. If you sit next to someone, you are often subconsciously tied to their ideas in the minds of other people.

What are your goals for the meeting? Do you have a lot to say? Do you want to be heard? Do you want to be noticed? Or do you have little to contribute and would prefer to sit quietly listening? Maybe you are new to the board and just want to get the lay of the land before speaking up.

Whatever your goals, think them through before the meeting to help you make the right seating decision.

 

The Geography of the Board Table

Picture a typical board table. It’s rectangular, usually long and narrow. A number of seating positions are available to you.

  • The board chair usually sits at one end, providing them with a view of all participants and making it clear that they are leading the meeting. If there is a projector screen behind that seat, it clearly denotes the head of the table. It should go without saying, don’t take that seat unless you are the board chair.
  • The people sitting right next to the board chair are usually seen as the most supportive (whether or not this is actually the case.) This position is useful if you want to whisper to the board chair or be heard if the group is talking all at once. Often, one of these seats is occupied by the person taking the minutes, so be cautious about grabbing one of these seats before you are sure.
  • Occupants in the middle seats on either side of the table receive less eye contact from the board chair, and therefore less floor time. This can be a good place to sit if you actually want to go unnoticed, for instance if you want to observe a couple of meetings before speaking up. If that's the case, choose a seat to the right of the board chair. Research clearly shows that people on the right are more likely to go unnoticed.
  • On the other hand, if you do want to be heard and you are in a middle seat, choose a seat on the left of the board chair and lean forward in your seat to make sure your raised hand is visible so you are invited to speak up.
  • If you are sitting at the opposite end of the table from the board chair, be prepared to have a lot to say. It seems that, when we are directly opposite someone, we feel more contrarian toward them. So, if you want to be a contrarian, this can be a good seat selection. But if you don’t, make sure to demonstrate your support more than usual through words, expression, and body language such as smiling and nodding.
  • By the way, I’ve seen it work out quite well when the board chair sits at one end and the CEO at the other. This is a great way to physically show a balanced viewpoint, with information coming from both sides.

If there is no chair at the head of the table, the room was likely deliberately set up to minimize the impact of hierarchy. In this case, the board chair will probably sit in the middle of one of the sides, with the other seats being relative to that position.

And what if the board table is round? The same geography holds true, with all the positions being relative to the board chair’s seat.

 

On a Practical Note

Arrive early so you can choose a seat rather than get stuck with a less than optimal position. And if possible, get a chair facing the door so you can greet people as they arrive.

If there will be a presentation, this may change your choice of seating. Your comfort and ability to see the presentation might be more important than your position around the table.

Finally, if there is a chance you’ll have to get up in the middle of the meeting, you might have to re-think your choice. Perhaps you'll need to leave early, or use the restroom, or get a coffee refill. Or maybe you're expecting an urgent call from a client. If you think you might have to leave, choose a position near the door where you will disturb fewer people. As Vanessa Van Edwards points out in her article,

“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. Don’t be that person.”

 

Your takeaways:

  • Your choice of seat matters more than you think. It subconsciously influences others’ perceptions of you and your ideas.
  • Be clear about your goals for the meeting before you choose a seat.
  • Remember that proximity denotes agreement. Sit close to someone whom you often agree with.

 

Resource:

Leave a comment below to get in on the conversation.

Thank you.

Scott

Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.


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