Most business meetings take place around rectangular tables. It drives me nuts. What’s wrong with rectangular tables? you may ask. Well, here’s a clue: I’ve written before about the power of eye contact. The minute you have more than three people either side of that table, it becomes almost impossible to engage eye contact with everyone on your own side – especially when (as is usual) the main focus is on the screen at the front.
It’s even worse if the presenter also stands directly in line with one side of the table – but often, there’s no other option. Why? Because most business meeting spaces are designed to ensure that the most dominant thing in the room… is the screen. So the presenter has little choice but to stand crammed into a tiny corner alongside it.
I mean, how daft is that? How can that presenter possibly engage with everyone in the audience without standing centrally? But that’s precisely where the projector light is blinding and the contents of some dreadful slide is going to ripple unattractively over his or her body.
It’s hardly conducive to free-flowing discussion and feedback.
However, I have yet to observe a business meeting at which it occurs to the presenter – or anyone else – to ask those in the centre of the table to push their chairs back slightly. Cue a loud ‘Duuuhhhh’ from me, truculent-teenager-stylee. The meeting attendees I’ve witnessed are mostly intelligent people, yet it doesn’t cross anyone’s mind that creating a curve – or even (heavens forfend!) a circle – would enable everyone to engage eye contact with everyone else throughout the meeting. Noooo. Everyone clearly prefers to indulge in a spot of arrhythmic rowing: forward and back, forward and back, as people try (usually in vain) to keep up with what’s going on at the far end of the table.
Consider this: if people can’t see their colleagues properly, they probably can’t hear them either. And that’s meant to be a meeting?
So what’s the answer? A radical one. Take away the tables! Sit in a circle! Cue squeals of protest:
“But I need to write notes!”
“So where do I put my cappuccino, then?”
“I absolutely have to have somewhere for my laptop so that I can check my emails in the boring bits – oops…”
All I ask is: do you want your meetings to be productive, efficient, and as brief as possible?
Then try it. As I’ve said before, eye contact is one of the main non-verbal ways in which those of us in a western culture send and receive messages face to face. So it’s a huge facilitator of energy. And lack of energy is the problem with most business meetings. That’s what makes them boring. (This can be true of one-to-one meetings too, though it’s larger gatherings I mainly have in mind here.) People slump in their chairs, speak on a monotone, and don’t pay any heed to noisy air conditioning which is drowning out their voices, especially for those at the far end of the table. They pick their nails, their faces, sometimes even their noses. (Truly. I’ve seen it. I wish I hadn’t.) Their eyes are on the table or the floor, or on their phones or laptops because they are looking at their texts or emails.
If you are one of those people who zones out and stop paying proper attention to what’s going on, you are partly to blame for draining the meeting of energy. Energy in the room is everyone’s responsibility. That includes you. Whether or not you speak. If you sit there with a mindset that says “I’m just a passenger”, you can’t expect that meeting to work well, for you or anyone else.
Yet it seems there are plenty of people who attend group meetings all the time, with no idea why they’re in the room and no intention of displaying anything but boredom and negativity.
I’m not suggesting you should chip in for the sake of it – not at all. My point is: you need to be aware of what a huge difference you make, merely through the attitude you exude.
Actors call this ‘front-foot energy’. It means being in a constant state of openness and curiosity.
So rather than folding inwards – concerned only with your own stuff – stay, so to speak, on your front foot, so that your energy radiates out towards the people and things around you.
Then you are present. Even if you are not about to give a present... ation, as such. Your ‘front-foot energy’ facilitates everyone else’s energy too.
If there is a free flow of energy in the room, real communication can take place. And who knows? You might even find that meetings become enjoyable…