On a recent business trip, a male colleague and I were on a multi-city tour to meet with customers, partners, and our company’s salespeople in the field. My colleague, Scott, is in sales, while I represent cybersecurity engineering. We attended a meeting in Prague with customers to discuss security issues. I was to be the speaker on cybersecurity and the primary source of technical information. The meeting was held in a beautiful conference room that had a table for eight positioned by a wall of windows. As was typical, I was the only woman at the meeting.
After greeting one another and shaking hands, I led the way to the conference table and sat in the first seat on the far left side of the table, facing the windows. Scott sat across the table at the opposite corner from me.
Why did we pick these particular chairs? Why did we choose to sit opposite each other?
I didn’t give it much thought at the time, which I now realize was an oversight. It didn’t occur to me that a small decision about seating would end up having a significant impact on the meeting dynamics – until it played out in real life.
The customers – a group of men – gravitated to Scott and sat across from him on my side of the table to establish eye contact with him. I was left on the periphery.
Once the meeting started, Scott and I immediately recognized the problem. We acknowledged the awkward seating arrangement through eye contact but chose to get started with this less than ideal set-up. Again, why? Probably, it was because we were guests in the country and wanted to be respectful, courteous, and not cause a fuss.
However, the dynamic in the room was immediately awkward. As the conversation progressed, the customers engaged directly with Scott and largely ignored me. I could have been a statue in the corner.
Why didn’t I do something? Good question. As the only woman in the room, I let it go because I didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that I wasn’t being included in the discussion. (McKinsey & Company has published some terrific research on what tends to happen when you’re the “Only” in a room.)
However, Scott surprised me by saying something once he realized the meeting couldn’t continue with the current arrangement. He said, “Guys, Hayden is the one you should be speaking with. She’s from engineering and is here to talk in depth about IoT security. I’m just the sales guy.” He then asked our account manager seated beside him to move, which opened the chair for me. I moved to sit across from the customers – now well-positioned for an hour-long, deeply technical conversation.
At that meeting, I learned that seating arrangements are crucial – as important to proper communication as the seating chart at a state dinner. You need a plan to help facilitate inclusive discussions and give yourself a chance to lead – especially if you’re the “Only” in a room.
Here are three simple steps anyone can use to create the right energy and conversational flow to lead more productive meetings.
- Choose the right chairThe best chair to facilitate good communication will depend on the kind of table used in the meeting. It might sound silly, but anyone who’s sat at a large, round table knows how awkward talking across one can be. If you find yourself at a round table and need to develop a relationship with a particular person, sit directly beside that person. With a rectangular table, seating needs to be planned. In Western culture, we tend to equate authority with the head of the table. However, if you’ve ever seen photos of a president meeting with the cabinet, you’ll notice he sits in the middle of a long, rectangular table – not on the end. Being in the middle ensures he can be seen and heard by all. Supporting team members can be seated on the periphery. A small, square table makes things easy because everyone can make eye contact and be heard, and one seat isn’t much better than another. Both round and square tables tend to feel more democratic by eliminating any conscious or unconscious power bias in the seating.
- Create a seating planFor important meetings, ask about the room layout ahead of time. Discuss the best seating arrangements with the key players. Use a quick email to suggest seating that optimizes communication objectives over hierarchy or tradition. Because you won’t always know what kind of room you’re walking into, make contingency plans with your teammates that considers different table configurations. Ask your colleagues to help implement the plan by standing behind their pre-arranged seats. This way, even if it’s rude to sit before your guests or hosts, it will be easy for your team to take their predetermined chairs.
- If you see something, say somethingA meeting is a micro-culture. Establish a team norm that empowers every member to alert the group to subtle communication issues or biases. What Scott did can be considered a best practice. He helped create a better meeting dynamic by suggesting a change – even though it meant interrupting the discussion for a moment. He was inclusive and proactive. Next time, instead of waiting to be recognized, I would speak up for myself or others. If you find yourself in a similar situation, consider saying something like: “Pardon me, I know our time is limited today, and I want to ensure we get the most value from it. My suggestion is that we change seats to make it easier for our primary speakers to communicate.”
As I learned first-hand, the chair you pick can matter a great deal. It can be especially challenging for women and other minorities to speak up at a meeting. Although your power doesn’t come from a chair, choosing the right one will help ensure that your voice is heard. I also learned that leading starts before the meeting. With a little forethought and effort, we all have the chance to create a space in which everyone can be heard.