Change the room, change the culture

“Physical space is more decisive in creating community than we realize…Community is built when we sit in circles…Every room we occupy serves as a metaphor for the larger community that we want to create…If the future we desire does not exist in this room, today, then it will never occur tomorrow…’change the room, change the culture’” (Block, P. Community: The Structure of Belonging, 151-152).

The Circle: Why Use It?
I am a big fan of the circle as a layout for meetings. This is mainly because I see this structure as a way of not necessarily meeting, but instead promoting conversation, collaboration and engagement. The circle provides a sense of belonging and community in the setting in which it is used.

The Circle: When to use it?
To be honest, I have rarely encountered a meeting situation where the circle has not been justifiable. However, circles work best when the group is small or has already had an opportunity to get to know one another. This is particularly true if some people in the room are familiar with each other, while others are meeting for the first time. Robert Chambers argues that this situation may lead some people to feel intimidated, although this can often be resolved by ensuring that some time is allowed for smaller circles and groups to mix before and after the larger meeting. An approach such as the “world café” can be very useful in this context.

Also, circles are not the only key to a healthy community. While the circle contributes to an engaged, participatory and inclusive culture, don’t forget that other factors such as facilitation and meeting organization, communication practice, organizational structure and attitudes towards change, competition and goals are also part of the picture. See my earlier posts, “Sustainable communities are dynamic communities” for more about this.

The How of the Circle: Addressing Common Pitfalls
I have been to many meetings that have attempted a circular formation, but unfortunately end up looking more like the outline of an octopus. While the imperfection of a squiggly, squished, uneven circle may seem trivial, it is in fact crucial to the success of a community. How we behave in formal or semi-formal settings often reflects, and inversely sets to the tone for, how we interact on a broader basis. Circles promote meetings and community cultures that are inclusive, engaged and productive.

With this in mind, I’ve created a list of six things to watch out for when meeting in a circle.

1. Evenness
This is where perfectionist design-freaks really help us out. A circle should be just that – circular, with no lumps, no bumps, or protrusions. An oval is not a circle. A rectangular board room table is not a circle. A circle has smooth, even sides. This means that everyone is brought into the group in the same way.

2. Height
Similarly, the height of the furniture (and if you are getting really picky, the type of furniture) should be the same.  I have been in many meetings where the narrow, ‘taller’ chairs are occupied by people who sit upright and seem more engaged in the meeting process. On the other hand, those sitting on a low couch are able to spread out their belongings (iPod, lunch, laptop, notes), slouch down and settle in. The ‘camp-like’ feeling of the couch seems to give these people license to tune out of the meeting. Alternatively, they may get so comfortable that they are unaware of how much or little they are participating.

3. Sight lines
Circles are particularly wonderful in that they provide us with an opportunity to look every one of our fellow community members in the eye, to speak directly to one another, and to feel like we are part of a group. However, there are times when a visual aid is needed. The flip chart or screen is brought out. Inevitably, the people sitting beside the screen are either cranking their necks around to see what is going on or are quietly hiding behind the screen, catching up on their email. If this is the case, try what Chambers calls a ‘clam shell’ formation (p. 92). This provides sight lines for everyone to see each other and the flip chart or screen. It also has the advantage of providing freedom of movement – people can come and go from the circle more easily than if it were completely closed. When people feel free, they are often  more ready to participate because the terms of engagement are in their control. On a related note, be mindful of how long people’s attention is being focused on the visual aid – is the purpose of the meeting to build collaboration and human contact or to have everyone focus on the screen?

4. Lack of space
This is a common issue when attempting to create a circular meeting environment. In attempting to fit lots of people into a limited space, one ends up with an oval or a squiggle, with some people sitting outside of the circle, some cross legged on the floor, and some people leaving the meeting altogether because there is clearly no room for them to be included. There are a few approaches to dealing with this. One is to try what Chambers calls a ‘double circle’ (p. 93). If a double circle won’t work, try for a triple circle. You might want to couple the double or triple circle with break-out sessions that allow for smaller groups of circles to meet. Another solution is to find another room – or if circumstances permit, go outside.

5. Hidden corners
Sometimes, there are people in meetings who hope to go unnoticed. Either they feel self-conscious, intimidated, worried about arriving late for the meeting, or are trying to multitask on an electronic device while everyone else is engaged in conversation. Often these people can be found in ‘hidden corners’. Of course, circles by definition have no corners. So what is a hidden corner? Here are some to watch out for: a circle that is a squiggle and hence, includes parts that look like ‘corners’; visual aids that are blocking the view of some participants; not making the circle big enough and late comers end up standing or sitting on the side lines; tasks that seemingly need to be constantly attended to and allow someone to slip away from the circle (fetching sticky notes, making coffee, etc.); and, finally, uneven seats that allow people to literally slouch into their own worlds. Of course, beyond the physical space, it is the role of the facilitator(s) to ensure that there is space for everyone, both physically and in terms of participation. It is the responsibility of everyone to create an environment where no one feels like they want to be in a hidden corner.

So, what are your thoughts on circles? Anyone have a photo or drawing of their meeting room that they are willing to share? Thoughts on the physical structure of meetings? Perhaps your image would inspire us to reorganize our spaces, or perhaps we could offer some feedback on how you might go about re-arranging your physical space so that it is more in line with the social space that you hope to create.

7 responses to “Change the room, change the culture

  1. I like what you’ve said here and think that we should give a lot more consideration to physical space. I did a planning meeting yesterday and thoughtfully chose the room and the layout. It was a square but with 8 individuals around the table.

  2. Great post, Laura… chockful of insights, and how-to’s… I wonder if swivel chairs are appropriate in a circle setting? They make it easier to face the other, yet, maybe too easy… and a bit distracting?

    There’s other environmental considerations, too… Do the walls have life? Is there lots of lights & windows?… all stuff that makes one feel welcome and in the right place. (and which applies to any meeting space, with circles arrangement or other) Wonder if there are things about walls and lighting… that are unique to circles?

  3. Nice post on using the shape of circle in a meeting. I work with Restorative Justice Circles and often encourage people to sit so if the center was a fire, we would all equally be warmed. Sometimes I mention, lets sit as if we are a tire, and need to be balanced to work best. Restorative Justice and Circles just moved to http://www.circle-space.org.

    Thanks!

    Kris

  4. It’s great to discover you and your work!

    Thanks for drawing attention to physical space and the power of Circles! This is often overlooked.

    I also use Circles in my own work: http://www.peaceofthecircle.com

    Look forward to all of us further connecting and sharing.

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