I’ve had a lot of positive experiences with meetings where participants sit in a circle without a table. This is also the seating arrangement in Open Space meetings, and on the Open Space mailing list, there’s been a discussion recently about what circles do for a meeting, sparked by a question from Chris. And here’s my thinking on it.

I’ve noticed that sitting in a circle puts you in there 100%. There is no place to hide in a circle, which can be quite disconcerting to somebody who comes to a meeting expecting to just sit back and zone out. You can read an account by a participant in an Open Space meeting I facilitated here to get an idea of how this can feel (the story also happens to be really funny).

Geometrically, circles minimize the surface to area ratio. If you want to fence in as large an area as possible and you only have a set amount of fencing materials make your fence a circle, this will give you the largest possible area inside the fence. What this means in a group process is not totally clear to me, but maybe it minimizes the “exposure” to the world outside the circle, keeping most of the attention inside. The reason that igloos are round (or spherical, rather) is that the round shape gives you the smallest possible surface, and thus the smallest heat loss.

Circles can also create a lot of resistance. A lot of people react adversely when asked to sit in a circle. Some people think kindergarten, others think 12-step meeting. Usually this resistance evaporates after about 5 minutes, though.

In my opinion, many of the benefits we see from circles are largely due to the fact that there is no table between participants. I’m pretty sure that sitting at a round table is only marginally better than sitting at a square one. I’m sure this is not news to anybody on this list, but to me, having no tables means:
* a smaller distance between participants
* you can see the whole body-language
* you can’t slump over the table and zone out

Here’s a funny thought: If you had Open Space meetings in space (in zero-g) participants could sit in a sphere, rather than a circle. That would fit even more people in :o)

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