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The shape of space

Skyscape XV

First the students sit in traditional straight lines, behind desks.
Then they sit in a circle around a table.
Finally they sit in an open circle, with nothing in the center.
…then we reflect together on the experiences.

Doing this activity over several years in the organization development classroom does not constitute scientific research data. But here are frequent student observations about the different room setups:

The traditional straight line allows everyone to easily see a presentation and gives the facilitator to have greater control over the group. The disadvantages include individuals having a sense of being detached from the group – leading to a more passive group that is less likely to participate in discussion or interact.

The circle table setup, either round or “U” shape, allows everyone to see everyone else, including making eye contact and observing posture and body language. In a smaller group (6 to 8), more people are comfortable contributing to the discussion and interacting. The table at the center allows for ease in note taking. It seems to create a sense of safety by providing a partial barrier between the individual and the group.

The circle setup without tables , either round or “U” shape, has the same benefits as the first circle with the additional benefit that it is easy to engage in activities that use movement. The openness can create a space for more personal connection. On the other hand, without a table, individuals may have different levels of discomfort without the table as partial barrier – conflict is perceived with increased threat. From a practical standpoint, people do not have places to put notebooks or drinks.

An alternative that I’ve used is creating a “chevron” shape where the tables face the front, but at a 40 degree angle. Participants can see each other as well as the presentation. This combines some of the advantages and disadvantages of the arrangements described above.

The shape of the space has implications for the participants and the facilitator or instructor. In my experience, it is important to consider how the space invites interaction and participation, creates psychological safety, and meets the needs for the gathering goals. How have you experienced the shape of space in your meeting and class rooms?

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