West One. One of Pixar’s largest and most important conference rooms, used by the animation studio’s top creative minds. And perhaps one of Pixar’s greatest follies.  

A long, elegant table once dominated the room. During meetings, up to 30 people would gather around, forming two long lines on either side of it. A production’s top commanders—the director, producers, and key writers—sat at the middle of the table and dominated the meeting. Everyone else was relegated to sit along the table or stand against the wall.

This went on for a decade… until one day a scheduling accident put the meeting in another, smaller room with a square table.

Unfettered from the West One’s divisive table, the entire production team came alive. Ideas were tossed out with ease. Everyone was now on equal footing. It was so electric that Pixar’s President Ed Catmull had a revelation—get rid of the problematic table.  

And that’s exactly what was done. These days you’ll find a square table in West One.   

This story illustrates how the way we stand, sit or hold ourselves influences people’s perception of us and our ideas. Even our seat choice means the difference between getting our point across and getting lost in the shuffle.

Before your next important meeting, keep in mind these nonverbal power dynamics.

1. The Power Seat

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The lone seat at the head of the table (facing the door) is reserved for the boss. You can see and hear everyone, allowing you to steer the discussion.  From this vantage point, you’ll catch latecomers easily and won’t be caught off-guard. And no one can sneak out without you seeing it. Regardless of whether you’re the boss or not, taking this seat tells everyone you are in control.

2. The Opposer

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Directly across the power seat is where “the opposer” sits. This seat is often reserved for guests, as it provides a similar vantage point as the power seat—a view of the entire table.  A caveat: sitting here conveys that you have your own agenda. So leave this seat open if you don’t plan to butt heads with the power seat.

  • Removing the Opposer
    To mitigate or remove the influence of the Opposer entirely, those running the meeting may remove this seat entirely and add a screen/monitor in its place.

3. The Allies

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Flanking the seats at each end are the allies. These seats are usually people close to the opposer or boss. The second-in-command typically sits at the boss’ or opposers’ right (thus the expression “right-hand man”). Allies have the ear of the person they support and can thus influence the discussion.

4. The Middle Seats

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Most participants find themselves in these neutral seats. If you sit here, you might find that you aren’t contributing much. That’s because it’s not possible to see everyone at the table clearly. These seats are a safe bet if you want to go unnoticed. But if you’re looking to stand out, then these seats are a bad idea.

5. Non-Participants

People who sit or stand against the wall are usually seen as “non-participants”— i.e. wallflowers who observe. Only those with a literal “seat at the table” are generally expected to participate in the discussion. The exceptions are assistants or admins to the power seat or the opposer.

6. Special Cases

  • You’re new: Sitting at the power seat or opposer’s chair are definite no-nos for the newbie, as are the allies’ seats. This doesn’t mean you should post up on the wall, though. Grab a seat at the table and make your presence known. Just because you’re new doesn’t mean you shouldn’t contribute to the discussion. In the words of Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, “No one gets the corner office by sitting on the side rather than at the table.”
  • You need to leave early: Try sitting near the door so you can make a quick exit. Doing so will minimize any disruption on your way out even if you’ll be contributing to the meeting, being by the door.
  • All seats are taken: It’s always best to give up your seat for anyone more senior than you. Nothing is more embarrassing than being ousted in front of everyone.
  • The table is circular: These tables are best for collaboration, giving everyone an equal voice. To make sure your voice is heard, sit next to the most influential person at the table and you’ll be more of a presence in the room.
  • There are no end chairs: In this scenario, the two middle seats become the centers of power. Allies take flanking positions on the same side as the center position.

Sitting With Purpose

While you can’t always control the logistics of the formal conference room, one-on-one meetings are an opportunity to alter the dynamics in your favor.  

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  • To Have a Relaxed Conversation:
    Sit corner-to-corner l for more informal conversations. This position is less aggressive than sitting opposite of one another, while still allowing for eye contact. The corner of the table gives the illusion of a barrier so things don’t feel awkward. It’s a trust-building position that makes the other person feel open but not vulnerable.
  • To Inspire Collaboration: Sitting side-by-side provides enough workspace for two and fosters a sense of cooperation. These spots are the perfect way for you to improve collaboration with your teammates.
  • For Serious Talk:
    When you sit directly across a table from someone, you can’t really look away. The focus is purely on each other. It can feel like an interrogation, especially if one of you holds a higher position or title. When discussing a serious matter, this arrangement conveys you mean business.
  • Do Not Disturb:
    Sometimes you need to work alongside someone yet stay highly focused. There’s hardly any time for chit-chat. In this scenario, take up seats across the table and diagonally, which adds an element of distance. Eye contact is difficult, so small talk is minimized. When you want people to know you’re heads down in work, this is the best position to choose.

Studies have shown that 60-90% of a message’s effect comes from non-verbal clues. Before your next big meeting, consider how others might interpret your actions and act accordingly.  By following this guide, you’ll avoid stepping on anyone’s toes and put yourself in the best position to be heard.

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