Body Language – Desks, Tables and Seating Arrangements


Strategic positioning in relation to other people is an effective way to obtain co- operation from them. Aspects of their attitude toward you can be revealed in the position they take in relation to you.

Mark Knapp, in his book Non-Verbal Communication in Human Interaction, noted that, although there is a general formula for interpretation of seating positions, the environment may have an effect on the position chosen. Research conducted with white middle-class Americans showed that seating positions in the public bar of an hotel can vary from the seating positions taken in a high-class restaurant and that the direction in which the seats are facing and the distance between tables can have a distorting influence on seating behaviour. For example, intimate couples prefer to sit side by side wherever possible, but in a crowded restaurant where the tables are close together this is not possible and the couples are forced to sit opposite each other in what is normally a defensive position.

Because of a wide range of moderating circumstances, the following examples relate primarily to seating arrangements in an office environment with a standard rectangular desk.

Person B can take four basic seating positions in relation to person A. B1: The corner position
B2: The co-operative position
B3: The competitive-defensive position

B4: The independent position

The Corner Position (B1)

This position is normally used by people who are engaged in friendly, casual conversation. The position allows for unlimited eye contact and the opportunity to use numerous gestures and to observe the gestures of the other person. The corner of the desk provides a partial barrier should one person begin to feel threatened, and this position avoids territorial division on the top of the table. The most successful strategic position from which a sales person can deliver a presentation to a new customer is by position B1 assuming A is the buyer. By simply moving the chair to position B1 you can relieve a tense atmosphere and increase the chances of a favourable negotiation.

The Co-operative Position (B2)

When two people are mutually oriented, that is, both thinking alike or working on a task together, this position usually occurs. It is one of the most strategic positions for presenting a case and having it accepted. The trick is, however, for B to be able to take this position without A feeling as though his territory has been invaded. This is also a highly successful position to take when a third party is introduced into the negotiation by B, the sales person. Say, for example, that a sales person was having a second interview with a client and the sales person introduced a technical expert. The following strategy would be most suitable.

The technical expert is seated at position C opposite customer A. The sales person can sit either at position B2 (co-operative) or B1 (corner). This allows the sales person to be ‘on the client’s side’ and to question the technician on behalf of the client. This position is often known as ‘siding with the opposition’.

The Competitive-Defensive Position (B3)

Sitting across the table from a person can create a defensive, competitive atmosphere and can lead to each party taking a firm stand on his point of view because the table becomes a solid barrier between both parties. This position is taken by people who are either competing with each other or if one is reprimanding the other. It can also establish that a superior/subordinate role exists when it is used in A’s office.

Argyle noted that an experiment conducted in a doctor’s office showed that the presence or absence of a desk had a significant effect on whether a patient was at ease or not. Only 10 per cent of the patients were perceived to be at ease when the doctor’s desk was present and the doctor sat behind it. This figure increased to 55 per cent when the desk was absent.

If B is seeking to persuade A, the competitive-defensive position reduces the chance of a successful negotiation unless B is deliberately sitting opposite as part of a pre-planned strategy. For example, it may be that A is a manager who must severely reprimand employee B, and the competitive position can strengthen the reprimand. On the other hand, it may be necessary for B to make A feel superior and so B deliberately sits directly opposite A.

Whatever line of business you are in, if it involves dealing with people, you are in the influencing business and your objective should always be to see the other person’s point of view, to put him or her at ease and make him or her feel right about dealing with you; the competitive position does not lead towards this end. More co-operation will be gained from the corner and co-operative positions than will ever be achieved from the competitive position. Conversations are shorter and more specific in this position than from any other.

Whenever people sit directly opposite each other across a table, they unconsciously divide it into two equal territories. Each claims half as his own territory and will reject the other’s encroaching upon it. Two people seated competitively at a restaurant table will mark their territorial boundaries with the salt, pepper, sugar bowl and napkins.

Here is a simple test that you can conduct at a restaurant which demonstrates how a person will react to invasion of his territory. I recently took a salesman to lunch to offer him a contract with our company. We sat at a small rectangular restaurant table which was too small to allow me to take the comer position so I was forced to sit in the competitive position.

The usual dining items were on the table: ashtray, salt and pepper shakers, napkins and a menu. I picked up the menu, read it, and then pushed it across into the other man’s territory. He picked it up, read it, and then placed it back in the centre of the table to his right. I then picked it up again, read it, and placed it back in his territory. He had been leaning forward at this point and this subtle invasion made him sit back. The ashtray was in the middle of the table and, as I ashed my cigarette, I pushed it into his territory. He then ashed his own cigarette and pushed the ashtray back to the centre of the table once again. Again, quite casually, I ashed my cigarette and pushed the ashtray back to his side. I then slowly pushed the sugar bowl from the middle to his side and he began to show discomfort. Then I pushed the salt and pepper shakers across the centre line. By this time, he was squirming around in his seat as though he was sitting on an ant’s nest and a light film of sweat began to form on his brow. When I pushed the napkins across to his side it was all too much and he excused himself and went to the toilet. On his return, I also excused myself. When I returned to the table I found that all the table items had been pushed back to the centre line!

This simple, effective game demonstrates the tremendous resistance that a person has to the invasion of his territory. It should now be obvious why the competitive seating arrangement should be avoided in any negotiation or discussion.

There will be occasions on which it may be difficult or inappropriate to take the corner position to present your case. Let us assume that you have a visual presentation; a book, quotation or sample to present to another person who is sitting behind a rectangular desk. First, place the article on the table (Figure 155). The other person will lean forward and look at it, take it into his territory or push it back into your territory.

If he leans forward to look at it, you must deliver your presentation from where you sit as this action non-verbally tells you that he does not want you on his side of the desk. If he takes it into his territory this gives you the opportunity to ask permission to enter his territory and take either the corner or cooperative positions (Figure 157). If, how- ever, he pushes it back, you’re in trouble! The golden rule is never to encroach on the other person’s territory unless you have been given verbal or non-verbal permission to do so or you will put them offside.

The Independent Position (B4)

This is the position taken by people when they do not wish to interact with each other; it occurs in such places as a library, park bench or restaurant. It signifies lack of interest and can even be interpreted as hostile by the other person if the territorial boundaries are invaded. This ‘position should be avoided where open discussion between A and B is required.


Square Table (Formal)

As previously mentioned, square tables create a competitive or defensive relationship between people of equal status. Square tables are ideal for having short, to-the-point conversations or to create a superior/subordinate relationship. The most co-operation usually comes from the person seated beside you and the one on the right tends to be more co-operative than the one on the left. The most resistance usually comes from the person seated directly opposite.

Round Table (Informal)

King Arthur used the Round Table as an attempt to give each of his knights an equal amount of authority and status. A round table creates an atmosphere of relaxed in- formality and is ideal for promoting discussion among people who are of equal status as each person can claim the same amount of table territory. Removing the table and sitting in a circle also promotes the same result. Unfortunately, King Arthur was un- aware that if the status of one person is higher than the others in the group it alters the power and authority of each other individual. The king held the most power at the Round Table and this meant that the knights seated on either side of him were non-verbally granted the next highest amount of power, the one on his right having a little more than the one on the left, and the amount of power diminished relative to the distance that each knight was seated away from the king.

Consequently, the knight seated directly across the table from King Arthur was, in effect, in the competitive-defensive position and was likely to be the one who gave the most trouble. Many of today’s business executives use both square and round tables. The square desk, which is usually the work desk, is used for business activity, brief conversations, reprimands and the like. The round table, often a coffee table with wrap- around seating, is used to create an informal relaxed atmosphere or to persuade.

Rectangular Tables

On a rectangular table, position A has always commanded the most influence. In a meeting of people of equal status the person sitting at position A will have the most influence, assuming that he does not have his back to the door. If A’s back were facing the door, the person seated at B would be the most influential and would be strong competition for A. Assuming that A was in the best power position, person B has the next most authority, then C, then D. This information makes it possible to structure power plays at meetings by placing name badges on the seats where you want each person to sit so that you may have the maximum influence over them.

The Dining Table at Home

The choice of the shape of a family dining room table can give a clue to the power distribution in that family, assuming that the dining-room could have accommodated a table of any shape and that the table shape was selected after considerable thought. ‘Open’ families go for round tables, ‘closed’ families select square tables and ‘authoritative’ types select rectangular tables.


Bearing in mind what has already been said about human territories and the use of square, rectangular and round tables, let us now look at the dynamics of taking a person to dinner where the objective is to obtain a favourable response to a proposition. Let us examine the factors that can build a positive atmosphere, discuss their origin and potential and examine the background of man’s feeding behaviour.

Anthropologists tell us that man’s origin was that of a tree-dweller who was strictly vegetarian, his diet consisting of roots, leaves, berries, fruit and the like. About a million years ago, he came out of the trees onto the plains to become a hunter of prey. Prior to his becoming a land dweller, man’s eating habits were those of the monkeys – involving continual nibbling throughout the day. Each individual was entirely responsible for his own survival and for obtaining his own food. As a hunter, however, he needed the co-operation of other individuals to capture large prey, so large co-operative hunting groups were formed. Each group would leave at sunrise to hunt throughout the day and return at dusk with the day’s spoils. These were then divided equally among the hunters, who would eat inside a communal cave.

At the entrance to the cave a fire was lit to ward off dangerous animals and to provide warmth. Each caveman sat with his back against the wall of the cave to avoid the possibility of being attacked from behind while he was engrossed in eating his meal. The only sounds that were heard were the gnashing and gnawing of teeth and the crackle of the fire. This ancient process of food sharing at dusk around an open fire was the beginning of a social event that modern man re-enacts in the form of barbecues, cookouts and dinner parties. Modern man also reacts and behaves at these events in much the same way as he did over a million years ago.

Now to our restaurant or dinner party. A positive decision in your favour is easier to obtain when your prospect is relaxed, free of tension and his or her defensive barriers have been lowered. To achieve this end, and keeping in mind what has already been said about our ancestors, a few simple rules need to be followed.

First, whether you are dining at your home or at a restaurant, have your prospect seated with his back to a solid wall or screen. Research shows that respiration, heart rate, brain wave frequencies and blood pressure rapidly increase when a person sits with his back to an open space, particularly where others are moving about. Tension is further increased if the person’s back is towards an open door or a window at ground level. Next, the lights should be dimmed and muffled background music played. Many top restaurants have an open fireplace or facsimile near the entrance of the restaurant to recreate the fire that burned at the ancient cave feasts. It would be best to use a round table and to have your prospect’s view of other people obscured by a screen or large green plant if you are to have a captive audience.

It is far easier to obtain a favourable decision under these circumstances than it will ever be in restaurants that have bright lighting, tables and chairs placed in open areas and the banging of plates, knives and forks. Top restaurants use these types of relaxation techniques to extract large amounts of money from their customer’s wallets for ordinary food, and men have been using them for thousands of years to create a romantic atmosphere for the benefit of their women.

Previous post Body Language – Pointers
Next post Body Language – Power Plays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *