Circles

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(This was originally published in April 2017)

I attended two meetings on the same day last week – one in the morning and another in the early evening.  There were some common participants – though most were not.  I was struck by how the space and configuration of both gatherings differed and affected how things went.  The key issue was how the space was used.

The first meeting is a regular gathering that assembles around a round table.  There are now so many attendees that we have to move back from the table in order to let everyone in and the circular table functions only as a place to hold coffee cups and refreshments. The meeting has a chair and a common discussion agenda known in advance. Participants can see one another well. The leader starts informally with a question and invites responses.  These are varied and certainly not unanimous, but what marks them is intelligent  speaking and deep listening.  We retain our own points of view but grow by learning from others.  There is high trust developed over years of regular meeting – but it is also possible to invite new members without appearing to be a closed shop.  In fact a newcomer joined us this week, participated, and remarked at the end, “I’ve been looking for a group like this for some time.”

The second meeting was in an a room resembling a rectangular parlor – filled with random furnishings – some sofas and wing chairs and a few dining chairs.  The meeting chair was at one end of the room. There was a small topic list on a display board.  Participants could not see each other well though hearing was not a problem. The dynamic was quite different, partly because it was a newer group, but also because the shape didn’t support the common purpose of moving forward and collaborating.  The shape of the room also didn’t allow participants to see others’ faces.

Others who attend  might have different observations than mine.  But circles go way back in how people gather.  First nations people meet in sacred circles and use symbols like a talking stick to signify respect for and attention to the speaker.  I’ve sat at many rectangular meeting tables through the years as well as being in many classrooms.  What these room shapes share is a different dynamic in the relationship between the leader and the participants. One year on the first day of teaching, I asked the back row of the high school class (all boys, naturally) to come up and take the front row while everyone else was to move one place back.  I then said – “Just, kidding, – but I’ve got your number”.  Similarly even on a small board, the not-so-loyal opposition sat as far away from the chair as possible and made her life difficult in every meeting by opposing pretty much everything  even when the all had a common purpose.

Space and setting matter.  Both are worth consideration before you convene your next meeting.  As a colleague observed recently,  when people say that meetings are a waste of time, they really mean Bad Meetings.