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power points

You walk into the meeting room before anyone else and stare at the rectangular table. There are chairs at either end, and in the middle, five chairs on each side, facing each other. Where should you sit?

“Not all seats are created equal,” warns Vanessa Van Edwards, who operates the Science of People website.

She has found in meetings we tend to balance two approaches:

  • Attention mode: Wanting to talk a lot, be heard and noticed.
  • Stealth mode: You may not want to be noticed; indeed, you may want to hide.

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Both approaches are fine, she feels, but you should know your intention when entering the room.

“Stealth mode can be great for listening in a meeting where you don’t have much to contribute to the agenda. Attention mode can be great if you want to be noticed by the boss and take a leadership role,” she says.

Usually, the seats at either end are the power positions, according to Richard Winters, a physician and medical director for professional leadership development at the Mayo Clinic. The person who convened the meeting – or the group leader – will sit at one end.

The seat immediately opposite, which he suggests is a good place for a guest popping in for part of the meeting, is visible to all and can be a powerful spot to voice disagreement with the chair, if that is your intent. If you’re chairing the meeting and want to minimize divisiveness, he suggests removing that opposite chair, perhaps even putting up a screen for slides or a whiteboard at that end of the table.

The two seats beside the chair are flanking positions and give those people the ear of the chair. “When you sit in this position you can influence the flow of the meeting by assisting the chair. You can draw attention towards or away from topics. You can prompt a speeding up or slowing down of the agenda,” he writes on his blog.

Dr. Winters calls the other chairs on either side of the table “the middle few.” Sit there and you can’t see everyone easily and will be talked over. But if there are people you know you will be disagreeing with, he suggests sitting next to them might make it harder for them to express their opposition, mitigating or softening it.

“The middle of the table is also a good place to sit if you don’t want to be heard. Sit here if you are unfamiliar with the group and you’d like to quietly size up the situation. This is the seat if you want to be forgotten or overlooked,” he says.

Ms. Edwards add this advice:

  • Arrive early: Better to pick your spot than be put in a disadvantageous one.
  • Remember the past: Since people typically take the same seats over and over again, pay attention to where the biggest talker usually sits and decide if you’d rather see and hear them more easily or be far away.
  • Proximity signals agreement: If you sit next to someone you can be subconsciously tied to their ideas. “Do you have someone who talks too much? Don’t sit near them. Do you have someone who you often agree with? Sit near them,” she advises.
  • Be the greeter: She always tries to get a chair facing the door so she can smile and greet people when they enter. It makes a good first impression.

To some extent, you are where you sit.

Quick hits

  • After losing three straight road games against conference opponents, the Texas Tech men’s basketball team decided to ban smartphones before bed and rebounded to win 15 of their next 16 games and reach the NCAA Final Four for the first time, before losing the championship game in overtime. Is that merely an interesting anecdote, or a lesson for our own lives?
  • Consultant Anthony Iannarino asks: If someone were to watch a video of how you spent your time over the last week, would they immediately recognize your goals?
  • When starting a new job, take time to figure out whose support is critical to your success, says consultant Michael Watkins.
  • Picture your career as a painting, not a ladder, says Zainab Ghadiyali, product lead at Airbnb. It’s a work of art, with every experience adding a brushstroke to the larger, cohesive canvas.
  • Put a whiteboard in the lunchroom divided into two categories: Things that make work less fun and things that make work more fun. Consultant Mike Kerr says it creates a visual reminder of the things everyone needs to either stop or start doing to create a more positive work culture.

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