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, however, 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.
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