The hot seat – where to sit at a meeting

by | Feb 13, 2020



If you ever had a peculiar feeling that conference seating has more to it than meets the eye, you were spot on. Read this month’s business blog to see who is the “teacher’s pet”, and who is ready to pick a fight, by learning about power positions around a conference table.

Venues offer varying conference seating configurations, and so much of this has to do with seating capacity or presentation style. But did you now certain seating configurations are more conducive to certain meeting styles than others?

Bell Palm conference venue at Umthunzi Hotel

 Seating positions reveal a lot, according to Brian Lee From Lifehack:

“Observing a person’s seating choice, like observing their body language, can tell us how close that individual is to the other members of a group. A person’s motives may also be revealed where they elect to sit. When we understand these key principles, we can actively use this knowledge to achieve our own goals.”

So let’s start with the most obvious seating  – cinema style.



A huge favourite for packing in a maximum number of people in a venue, it is an organized method but has several disadvantages.

Remember school when the clever kids who always had answers sat in front, and the ADD kids who would rather play pea-shooter and pull girls’ pigtails were in the back? It’s pretty much the same in adult life.

Cinema seating is not a very effective way of building connections or encouraging participation. People towards the back and at the end of rows often get distracted. If you ever attended one of those whoop-whoop sales or pyramid scheme talks with a thousand people in attendance, it makes sense that you are encouraged to get up, clap hands and hug people that you would not touch with a stick otherwise – it’s all to keep you engaged.

So armed with this knowledge, what are the other options?





With a larger number of conference delegates in attendance, horseshoe shapes or round tables in small groups are great for engagement and participation.

Lee from Lifehack advises that if you want everyone to participate, divide them into small groups at round tables. “With this arrangement, the focus is on the other group members instead of the one person at the front of the room. In small groups, everyone has more opportunities to connect, and they can’t hide in the back.”

For those interested in Interior Design and Feng Shui (pronounced fung-shway), the ancient Chinese art and science of placement, it is interesting to note that Feng Shui has long since seen round shapes more auspicious as rectangular “sharp” shapes.




But let’s face it. Everyone has a Boss. And no matter the size of the meeting or at what step in the corporate ladder a meeting takes place, there is always this one guy or girl that calls the shots.

And when the Boss wants people to sit up and listen, and yes, also contribute, the rectangular meeting table is the weapon of choice.





If you are the Boss or want to sit in the power seat, your place is at the head of the rectangular board room table. It’s important to note that this leadership position requires having a wall behind you (or the presentation screen), and not to be near an entrance, as this negates the power position. It also makes a lot of common sense as far as distractions go.

But as the Boss, you do have another choice.


Sitting in the middle position suggest that you call the shots, but are more of a collaborator and mediator.

“Your body language from the middle seat can show people that you are prepared to connect ideas and draw people together,” according to Lee from Lifehack.

“People seated in the middle tend to ask questions and keep the discussion moving forward. Being surrounded by others is a safe position, which can give people who need a confidence boost some added support.”





People sitting to the left and right of the boss are seen as supporters and confidantes. Speaking from experience, this is an easy position to focus the Boss’s attention to supporting’ documentation or provide subtle verbal support.

Dustan York from Quartz at Work remarks in a recent article: “The seats to the left and right of the power seat represent those who are next in line in the hierarchy of office politics or those who wish to be.”

So if you feel comfortable sharing your Boss’s personal space or perhaps have designs on moving up in the company, these are both good seats. But, according to York’s article, there is a difference between the left and right seats:

“Research conducted by the University of Oregon has indicated that sitting to the left of a person in the power seat yields far more favor from them, whereas the seat to their right is often viewed as more powerful (you’ve heard the term “right-hand man”…). Whether you want to ingratiate yourself with the person in charge or claim your own authority is up to you.”





Seated directly opposite of the Boss, is the Contender. While this sounds a bit like Game of Thrones, this is a less than subtle position saying – I have something to say. I may even challenge your ideas. Often, when two groups meet, there will be a Boss figure at the head and the opposition Boss at the foot of the table. Whoever is placed next to a door, will be perceived to have less power.





So you haven’t really prepped for this meeting and you actually just want to be a fly on the wall. Where to then? A neutral or sideline seat is your answer. Neutral seats in the middle allow you to be part of the conversation without taking sides. You are still visible enough to either of the power seats, should you want to contribute.




In 2016, Donald Trump was newly elected President of the USA, and he knew he had some fences to mend amongst the Tech industry. He promptly invited the important players in the industry (some who bluntly declined), for a chat. There has been much speculation about the hidden symbolism of who was seated where.

Interestingly, Trump sat in the middle of the table. This suggests that it was his intention to build partnerships and encourage participation – a seating arrangement often used in cabinet meetings. Sitting on the leader’s side of the table creates the perception (take note perception) that sitting on the same side means support for what the leader stands for.

This clever arrangement at the Trump meeting may well have been part of a carefully executed PR plan.  The most important players in the room would definitely be in the same publicity shots as the President – recognizable leaders, like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. further speculates that the inclusion of Sandberg and Oracle co-CEO Safra Catz on that side of the table may be especially significant because it “might have been designed to ensure that a female would appear in the photos.”


Divide and Conquer



People from the same company were seated separately. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, was represented at this meeting by Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, while CEO Satya Nadella and chief legal officer Brad Smith were there on behalf of Microsoft.

Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School and co-author of “Friend & Foe,” a book on collaboration and competition in the workplace expands on his theory:

“Smith and Nadella, notably, are seated at opposite corners of the table. Galinsky explains that there are a few reasons to seat people across the table from each other like this. “Seating arrangements can also be strategic in helping create connections or reduce communication,” he said. “Think wedding seating arrangements!”

There’s another possibility, too, Galinsky said: “Here it could be entirely symbolic as a way for Trump to assert his authority.” “Where people sit has both physical and symbolic effects,” Galinsky told Business Insider.


Trumps flanking men


Venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who sits on Trump’s transition team and also has financial interests in Facebook and Palantir, sat on Trump’s left hand.

Michael Richard Pence, 48th vice president of the United States, was seated on Trump’s right side.


Contender position


In 2019 Reince Priebus, President Trump’s former chief of staff, officially joined the Navy. He was seated opposite Mr. Trump in the Contender seat at the 2016 meeting.

Looking at the seating arrangements, one has to wonder where the door was placed during the 2016 Trump Tech meeting. And who the Tech delegate was who was seated for the easy get-away.


Still unsure where to sit if you want to be the next CEO of the company?

Then have a look at Vanessa Van Edward’s video below. As the “Lead Investigator” of Science of People, and the author of the national bestselling book “Captivate”, she will remove all doubt of the Psychology of Conference seating.



She knows her Merlot from her Mojito, her hotel from her motel. From craft food to caviar, her innate curiosity about life and wanderlust provide inspiration for her blogs, articles and press releases about the travel, wedding and Spa industry. Over twenty years in the hotel marketing & PR arena with impressive hotel groups, from Dubai to Durbanville, has evolved into the pure enjoyment of freelance projects under the banner of About Branding.


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