Thursday, April 28, 2011

Where is the Front of the Room

I try to keep up with the discussions on the Internet related to groups, facilitation, and collaboration. One of them is the Professional Facilitators Network on LinkedIn. Of the various topics in that group, I was surprised that the one generating the most responses is When a meeting room has no windows ...

Should I be surprised? In this technological age, should the presence or lack of windows in a meeting room draw so much interest?

At other times, amidst discussions of the best meeting-support software and the best computer projector, I have typically argued that the most important technology for the group is the meeting room. And it is often the least flexible and the most overlooked.

Recently I conducted one of my two-day group facilitation workshops. In preparation, the facility staff asked how I would like the room set up. I said, “Leave it however it was used by the previous group; we’ll set up the room ourselves.”

At the start of the workshop, the participants arrived to find the room a mess. I said, “As group facilitators, we have to take responsibility for the meeting room arrangements. So let’s figure out how we want to set up the room for ourselves.” After some discussion about how many tables we needed the group started to create a “U” shape with the open end towards the projection screen.

“Wait, ” I said. “Where is the front of the room? ”

After some puzzled looks, I explained that I found this a useful way to think about where to show the information that is presented and collected during the meeting and how to position the participants so they can see that information and see and hear each other. Ideally, we would
  • minimize the physical distance between each person and every other person,
  • enable each person to make eye contact with every other person without having to reposition themselves (which means sitting in curved lines is better than straight lines and round tables are better than rectangular ones), and
  • do the same for each person and the information that is displayed.
For this workshop we would be using both the computer projector, which was mounted in the ceiling facing a screen at the narrow end of the room, and a large number of flip chart pages that would be best displayed on the only large section of unobstructed wall on the long side of the room. We prepared the wall with several blank sheets of flip-chart paper and positioned the tables in an L-shape so the participants could see both the wall and the projection screen. In a sense we set up the room with two “fronts,” and would alternate between them, making the best of the meeting space at hand.

As Patricia Tuecke concluded in her chapter, “The Architecture of Participation, ” in The IAF Handbook of Group Facilitation , “Space arrangements … can bring a vibrant energy, wholeness, and balance into group deliberations and dialogue by honoring all participants, making it easy for them to hear and see everything, and not letting one position adversely dominate the discussion.”

Selecting and adapting the meeting space is fundamental to effective communication and building interpersonal relationships. What is your approach?