Step Away from the Conference Table

In a recent blog, we made a suggestion that’s practically blasphemous to a well-organized meeting host: toss out the agenda and presentation deck for your next meeting. Instead, start the session with open-ended questions that will invite participants to fill the content of your meeting.  You’re then more likely to get meaningful outcomes from the meeting, not just a list of agenda items crossed off or deferred to the next meeting.

Here’s another prop to walk away from in your next meeting: the conference table.

If you were lucky enough to book a room for your meeting, it probably contains a large rectangular conference table, complete with coffee cup rings and some dents. It serves as a big immovable object and obstacle at the center of the meeting experience.

Conference tables block active curiosity and engagement with others. They anchor us in kinesthetic lockdown, preventing the pacers, gesticulators, and parallel processors among us from engaging more of our mental activity.

Conference tables invite the use of laptops that divert individuals’ attention away from the group. Even worse is the “table as battlefield” on which we arrange laptops in defensive shields-up postures against each other.

Tables subtly dictate the sequence and direction of who speaks next, as if an invisible talking stick were being passed around the room, and they limit your potential for connection to those sitting circumstantially nearby. And tables can reinforce subtle rank and conflict cues, as people choose seats near, opposite, or far from the authority in the room.

Stepping away from the conference table will encourage engagement in a meeting kicked off with an open-ended question such as “How might we best use this time together?”

In a future meeting, bypass the random conference room cramped with chairs, videoconferencing equipment, and the detritus of past meetings. Instead, meet in an empty space, an open area with no tables, perhaps outside sitting on the ground if space and weather is inviting.

Then pose a question like, “How might we explore the issue of…” and see where the discussion takes the group.

We’d love to hear about your own experiments turning meetings into engaging group experiences. Feel free to tell us what happened next.

This is a synopsis of our article “Design + Organization Development: Three Steps on the Bridge to the Other Side” published by the Design Management Institute in their Fall 2015 “dmi:Review” To receive a copy of the full article, with more guidance on using inquiry for effective meetings, visit DMI’s publisher Wiley-Blackwell or contact us.