We don’t talk much about where to sit. But as we return to in-person gatherings again, we should. Because where we sit matters.
Partnerships are built on relationships. And, more often than not, relationships are forged while sitting around a table.
In 1968 negotiators from three countries came together to try and draft a peace treaty to end the Vietnam War. But they spent four months negotiating the shape of the table they would sit at for the negotiation. Seriously.
These lengthy seating negotiations became known as The Battle of the Tables. They would be laughable if not for the hundreds dying daily in the fields of Vietnam while these discussions dragged on. Here’s a slice of the back and forth from Defence in Depth:
“From the start, it was recognized that a triangular table would be a non-starter as it would imply that the Communist side was outnumbered two-to-one. North Vietnam wanted a square table in order to provide further legitimacy to the NLF, and also suggested four tables arranged in either a circular or a diamond pattern. The American preference was for a two-sided table or two rectangular tables. The North Vietnamese countered by suggesting a round table.”
These negotiators understood that where they sat could impact the outcome of their negotiations.
In her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg shares the story of a breakfast she hosted at Facebook’s headquarters for then Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and representatives from other technology companies.
“After the usual milling around, I encouraged everyone to take a seat. Our invited guests, mostly men, sat down at the large conference table. Secretary Geithner's team, all women, took their food last and sat in chairs off to the side of the room. I motioned for the women to come sit at the table, waving them over publicly so they would feel welcomed. They demurred and remained in their seats.The four women had every right to be at this meeting, but because of their seating choice, they seemed like spectators rather than participants.”
After the meeting Sandberg pulled aside the junior, female Treasury staffers to emphasize that they should have sat at the table. Sandberg writes that this experience was "a watershed moment” in her realization that women need to lean in.
Sheryl Sandberg understood that where you sit at the table defines how others at the table view you.
Years ago I landed a meeting with one of Walmart’s most powerful buyers. At the time I was leading Google’s partnership with Walmart and trying to convince her to buy more online advertising from Google. I entered the windowless Walmart conference room early, before this Walmart executive arrived. I took a seat with my manager at the bottom/center section of the U-shaped conference room table. My hope was to build a long-term partnership with this executive, so I picked a seat that would require her to sit close to us when she arrived. But she had different plans.
Moments later she entered the room and saw that she had no choice but to sit near us. She smiled at us and gestured to the seats across the room. “Please, have a seat” she said. We looked at her puzzled. After all, we had already found seats. “Please, right over there, have a seat,” she said again. This time we realized she was warmly but firmly insisting that we move to the seats across from her. As I stood up to comply with her request I imagined the Walmart training she must have attended. “Always have your vendor sit across from you. Do not fall for their attempts to sit next to you,” I imagined a trainer telling a room full of Walmart executives.
Walmart understands that physical closeness can foster psychological closeness.
Wartime negotiators, Sheryl Sandberg and Walmart executives all understand that where we sit matters. But why?
Why Where You Sit Matters
To understand why it matters where you sit, it is helpful to think about our origins. As a species, we evolved from monkeys. And our brains are still wired to think like monkeys - with a few exceptions. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens (60M copies sold) shared this in a recent interview:
"As individuals we are not particularly powerful animals. In a match with a chimpanzee, the chimpanzee will easily win. The main advantage of humans is that we can cooperate basically in unlimited numbers. Thousands. Millions. Today, even billions. Chimpanzees can’t cooperate more than about 50 or 100. That’s about the limit. What enables us to cooperate in very large numbers? This is our ability to invent and believe in fictional stories … nations, gods, money, corporations, states. The only place they exist is in the stories that we invent and tell. They are not physical or biological realities.”
Thousands of years ago we told these stories in caves and around fire pits. Today we tell these stories in conference rooms and in restaurants over tapas and margaritas. But our monkey brains are still asking the same questions they were thousands of years ago. Does the person sitting across from me want to help me get more food and shelter? Or do they want to hurt me? How you sit sends a powerful message about whether you are a threat or an ally.
So if you’re trying to build trust, how should you sit? How should you position yourself to signal collaboration?
Tips on where to sit:
The first task is to define your objective. Are you sitting down with your partner to build a joint vision of a mutually beneficial agreement together? Or are you trying to confront your partner and extract a concession of some kind? Your objective will define where and how you should sit. The suggestions below each assume that your aim is to pursue a collaborative partnership (not a shakedown).
Scope out the scene - Every partnership is a negotiation. And every negotiation requires thorough preparation. So go visit the room where your meeting will be held before your partners arrive. Checkout the restaurant and discuss with the manager which table is best for your group dinner.
Prepare with your team - before your partners arrive, discuss who on your team is mapped to the attendees on their side. That relationship mapping should inform who on your team sits where. If you’re visiting a partner you cannot always anticipate the attendees or the room layout but you can still discuss who should be sitting closest to the decision-maker.
Let them sit first - allowing your partner to choose their own seat gives them a sense of control. It can also help them to feel more at ease. Just don’t then succumb to viewing seating as a real signal of power if, for example, your partner chooses to sit at the head of the table.
For dinner, opt for circles over long rectangles - a long rectangular restaurant table can leave you feeling like the partner you aim to build a relationship with is actually seated in another city. Circular tables are preferable, so long as your group isn’t too large. Circular tables create a more shared experience.
At longer meals, consider seat swaps - Mixing up the seating arrangement in the first half of a meal can be disruptive to conversations that are just getting started. But for a large group sitting for a long meal, swapping seats can be to everyone’s benefit. If you’ve prepared with your team, initiating a seat swap can be seamless and even welcomed way to enhance the meal.
Don’t sit, take a walk - the first rule of sitting 1:1 is to consider not sitting. A walk and talk gives both of you a chance to focus on the conversation as you walk side by side. And if you pick a good location, the walk can enrich or lighten the conversation.
To build a shared vision, sit with a shared view - one benefit of going on a walk is that it creates a shared view of the world and a shared experience together. Even if you decide to sit down, consider how you can create a shared experience. This could be a table with a view over the city or into an open kitchen. A shared view can bring two people together.
What did you say? Mind the acoustics and privacy - if you’re meeting a partner outside of the office, ensure the setting you choose is conducive to building a relationship. A bar may provide energy but be too loud to have a meaningful dialogue. If the tables at the restaurant are too close to other groups then you shouldn’t expect your partner to divulge much of real importance.
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