Where to Sit in a Business Meeting . . . and Why It Matters
They say that in business dealings you should choose your words carefully. The same goes for your seat. Where you select to sit in a business meeting can signal your perceived hierarchy on your team, your interest in its actions, as well as (for the uninitiated) a lack of knowledge about proper business etiquette.
“Attending meetings is a lot like going to class,” writes Lydia Ramsey, a Savannah, GA-based business etiquette expert and author of Manners That Sell. “Where you sit in class can affect your grade, and where you sit in a meeting can affect your career.”
Indeed, positioning yourself at a business meeting is as important a consideration as what ideas and questions you bring to the table. Following are some rules of the road.
Where to Park It
No surprise here: The person leading the meeting sits at the head of the table, usually opposite the entry door so he or she can see people coming in. If a key customer is attending the meeting, that power seat would be reserved for him or her.
But where do other meeting participants tend to plunk down, and what do their seating choices tend to say about them?
Those who are highly supportive of the boss (I dislike the terms brown-noser or sycophant, but you know the type of person I mean here) tend to sit to the right of the manager. This person may be, or may want to be, the second in command within the group.
A more complex position is the one to the left of the manager, says Sharon Livingston, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Livingston Group, a Windham, N.H.-based marketing consultancy. Left-hand sitters like the proximity to the power base in the room, and they are apparent supporters of the boss. They also tend to be yes, but people, from time to time taking opposing views from the boss’s.
People who prefer to sit in the middle may still be decoding the group’s dynamics, says Livingston. Or they may be type of people who listen to all sides before expressing their own views, she adds.
End-of-the-table folks can maintain eye contact with all members of the group, and often qualify as extroverts. Also, they generally are the most active participants, notes Livingston. They may want to sit close to colleagues in order to help build better relationships with them.
Be especially cautious about sitting at either of the following two places: the outside or the opponent’s seat. The outside seats are those that are not at the table; perhaps they are along the wall of the room. If they’re overflow seats, and you got to the meeting late, you may have no choice but to take one of these “out of the mainstream” seats. You will have to speak up assertively to be heard from these seats. That’s because of the other type of people who tend to sit there: the aloof. These are people who don’t really want to participate. You remember these folks from your school days: the ones who head straight to the back of the classroom so they can text message their friends, snooze, doodle and otherwise not take an active interest in the lesson. If you’re ambitious and want to make a mark at your company, don’t get inadvertently lumped in with this crowd by sitting in their favorite seats.
The other seat to be wary of is the opponent’s chair, the seat directly across from the boss (aka: the alter-leader’s chair).The person who prefers this position is the persistent devil’s advocate in the group, or the person who likes to challenge authority, gripe and complain about one thing or another. Livingston notes that there is something powerful about the position. “Whoever sits there seems to be affected by the position,” she writes in her article “Controlling the Alter Leader in Focus Group Research: Where They Sit Can Tell You Where They Stand!” (www.tlgonline.com/art/2.shtml). “The chair almost seems powerful in and of itself. A respondent moved into the alter-leader space at the table often becomes more assertive and talkative. He may even become the alter leader, although he would normally defer to a stronger group member.”
All of this applies, of course, to traditional board-room-type seating, such as long rectangular tables. But positioning also applies to meetings at round tables, note business etiquette experts. The only difference is where the boss sits, and then everyone else tends to sit in the above-noted places in relation to the meeting leader.
Don’t Get Too Comfortable
Now that you know the fundamentals of meeting seating, you may have decided which chair is best for you to take to get ahead in your company or to gain respect among team members. But don’t get too comfortable, because there are exceptions to the rules here most notably, a particular meeting’s agenda.
For gatherings in which your participation is not crucial (e.g., a colleague is presenting information she learned at a conference, or your boss has called a five-minute meeting to dispense routine data), where you sit doesn’t make that much of a difference. But the situation changes markedly in the following scenarios.
If brainstorming new ideas is the task at hand and you have a lot of thoughts you’d like to share, sit at the appropriate place at the table — most especially not in the outsider’s position. Also, lean into the conversation, maintain eye contact with others, and speak up, being careful not to interrupt others or inadvertently dismiss their ideas.
If the task is team-building, don’t be surprised if the boss sidesteps the power chair at the head of the table and instead plunks down in a middle seat. This signals that she is temporarily forgoing her normal meeting role and wants to spread the leadership tasks among the group. Those who are merely moderating group discussions also may sit in the middle so as not to overtly direct the discussion.
If yours is a technical job in which participants often sketch diagrams and charts in order to parlay information, by all means, sit near a whiteboard or easel so that you, too, can draw as needed.
Lastly, if your pre-assigned task at a meeting is to present information, take one of the power seats either at the head of the table (if the boss has sat elsewhere) or near the front of the room. Do not sit in the back of the room and wait to be called forward to give your presentation, as this inadvertently may signal your reluctance to take a leadership role.
Tips for Meeting Participants
If you’re new to a job or a group, it’s customary and courteous to ask where you should sit upon entering your first meeting. This is especially important if you’re at a meeting in another country, as etiquette rules may be different from those in the United States.
And remember that body language matters a lot in interpersonal communications. Don’t slouch, as that may denote you’re disinterested in the meeting’s discussion. Try not to fidget, as that can reveal your nervousness. Maintain eye contact with whomever is speaking, just as you’d like others to do when you’ve taken hold of the conversation. Lastly, avoid tilting back in your chair — if the chair back fails, you’ll look awfully foolish with your shoulders on the ground and your feet in the air.
Tips for Meeting Leaders
If you regularly lead meetings and you notice that employee cohesion is not what you’d like, try changing your seat to see how others line up in the new arrangement. Perhaps one of your more supportive employees always wanted to sit on the right side rather than at the corner, but he never got to the meeting in time to snag that chair. Give him the chance to shine in a power seat.
Also try asking specific employees to sit in different seats from those they normally select. For example, ask the cantankerous one to sit next to you (instead of across from you as she usually does) at the next meeting. People who sit closer to the meeting leader, notes Livingston, “tend to be more supportive of that person, while those sitting closer to the alter leader tend to lend their support in the other direction.” If you have a situation in which your authority is being continually questioned by one employee, and that employee seems to be building a cadre around him, one way to thwart this is to change where he sits at your meetings.
See what I mean when I say this stuff really does matter? By carefully selecting your seat at the table you can boost not just your status and visibility on your team, but your career as well.
Donna Loyle, M.S., is a medical editor based in Philadelphia. For the past 12 years, she has been a magazine and newspaper editorial team leader.