Image from Derek Bruff on Flickr, Creative Commons

Image from Derek Bruff on Flickr, Creative Commons

Have you ever heard the expression, “change the room, change the culture”? The quote comes from Peter Block in his book The Structure of Belonging,  and I like this post on the CommunitiesKnow blog which used it as a jumping off point in 2011 to talk about how important room setup is when convening groups. Specifically they were talking about the use of circle, and how arranging chairs in a circle promotes conversation, collaboration and engagement in the room.

As a facilitator I am very “pro circle” myself, and continue to study the effective use of it. But thinking about room set up is not just something that is useful for people who call themselves “facilitators”. Anyone can practice the effective use of circle, no matter the size of the group that you’re bringing together.

For example, a year or so we were asked to attend a private meeting at our daughter’s former daycare. When my husband arrived he was confronted by three daycare staff sitting on one side of a long table, with a single chair on the other side for him. The meeting did not go well and we ended up immediately taking our daughter out of the daycare.

We ended up putting our daughter into another local preschool and, a few months later, we again were called in for a private meeting. This time I was the one to attend. I walked into the room where we were to meet, and I saw four chairs set up in a circle in the middle of a room. There were no tables, just four chairs of equal height and size in circle. One for me, three for the preschool staff. I almost physically breathed a sigh of relief when I saw them for I knew that these were people who wanted to listen as well as create an environment which would help me hear what they had to say and ask. It worked. The meeting was collaborative, warm, and solution-oriented. Great change happened because of that meeting. And our daughter happily “graduated” that preschool when it was time to move on.

It’s a simple thing, arranging chairs in a room. In the example above one was a very adversarial set up and the other collaborative. The first was a disaster; the second produced a very positive and constructive outcome.

How can you next use circle to your advantage to promote conversation, collaboration and engagement? Where have you used it in the past? I’d love to hear in the comments.


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