The 4 Power Positions And How To Use Them In A Meeting
27 October 2023
Where you choose to sit in a meeting can reveal much about your status.
This might be intentional on your part, or it could be completely sub-conscious. Either way, it’s an important part of communications coaching, presentation coaching and conversational skills training to understand the roles and status each position around a meeting table holds, whether done unwittingly or not.
Usually, we enter a room, sitting in a preferred position, but not only does this impact on how you’re viewed by others but studies have shown that this can alter your behaviour.
In fact, a study by Zhu and Argo in 2013, revealed that even the shape of a meeting table will affect behaviour and outcomes.
There are some players who know this at some level so will consciously decide what impact they want to have in a meeting, choosing where to sit accordingly. When a preferred position isn’t available, it can make us uneasy and impact on our confidence.
Alternatively, you might want to work with colleagues to ensure your point is heard and taken into account. There are times where you may want to facilitate, or take a back seat and watch for the dynamics to play out. Whatever your intention, you’re more likely to gain an advantage by understanding the importance of power positions.
So if you want to have more choice on how you play on this type of stage, let’s decode the four standard Power Positions that impact on a person’s involvement in a meeting.
Power Position One
The first Power Position, indicated by the red circle, is occupied by the person who’s (supposed to be be) steering the meeting. It provides a clear view of everyone around the table, including whoever is entering the room. Think back to 100,000 years ago when you lived in a cave. You would never have your back to the opening in case a cave bear wanted to nudge you out the way. Consequently, seats facing the door in modern offices are always a prime position, give you complete visibility and control so you can see what’s happening outside your territory and towards it.
Power can be a quiet characteristic, however, so it doesn’t mean you have to be the most vocal. In Power Position 1 you may be:
- raising issues
- bringing speakers in
- setting procedures
- summing up
Power Position Two
This position is usually reserved for a second-in-command, or someone who might want to challenge the chairperson or whoever’s occupying Power Position One.
Because this position is directly opposite the chairperson, this seating position could be used to launch combat, especially in tricky negotiations or internal meetings where there’s a power struggle. If the chairperson wanted to avoid such a situation, in instances where it was felt this was likely, they could adopt Power Positions Three or Four, or delegate more responsibility to those seated there, as indicated in the following pictures.
To soften your stance, if you find yourself sitting in that seat but don’t want to look and feel like you’re locking horns with the person opposite, using active listening, verbal reinforcement and open body language will show support and not a contrary position.
Use Power Position Two you may be:
- co-chairing or co-hosting
- the second decision maker
The Middle Positions (Power Position Three)
These seats are ideal for chairing when there are no seats at the head of the meeting. It’s also a handy position for rounding up, mediating and summarising. This is because you can see everyone’s bright, shiny faces. And when they look glum, bored or combative, you can use your radar vision and central placing to politely ask: “Do we have enough time for the other 15 items that are on the agenda in our 30 minute meeting.” (The answer will hopefully be ‘afraid not’).
Because you’re in the middle, you need to be more purposeful to be heard. You can do this by leaning forward and ensuring you use gestures above the table to ensure your words don’t fall on deaf ears.
If you have no desire to lead or be combative, this seating position is useful for taking a low profile. Don’t want to voice your opinion? Sit here. Don’t want to be the centre of attention? Choose this seat. Want to size up the situation and observe others? Park your bum in this place. It’s a central position, but from here, it’s also much easier to blend in if you want to.
Flanking Positions (Power Position Four)
On the chairperson’s right, as indicated here by the grey disc, you are the person to whom they may look for guidance, and hence you automatically have a position of seniority and authority; ‘the right-hand man/woman’ if you like; someone who is respected and perhaps more approachable than the senior leader.
On the left, as indicated by the yellow disc, sits ‘the leader’s assistant’. This is a person who is perhaps responsible for the general admin of the meeting, and hence this is more a functional role than an influential one. So this is a good position from which to:
- gently remind the chairperson where you’re up to on the agenda
- speed up the meeting or slow it down
- take notes for minutes and actions
Got to sneak out early?
In that case, take the seat marked by the black disc, allowing for a discreet exit.
Here’s a small test to see if you know where to sit yourself, a colleague and client in a meeting where your aim is to resolve a client issue.
Partners of a Finance company who were undertaking Influence Skills Training with me, told me they were having a meeting with disgruntled client. The partners were sitting in seats 2 and 3, placing the client in position 8, as follows:
You’ll see the partners are facing the door and the client has her back to it. The partners, you’ll notice, are also on the same side, giving a metaphorical message of ‘us and them’. Given this seating arrangement, can you guess how the meeting went?
OK. I’ll tell you. They lost the client.
She became much more difficult to assuage and after understanding Power Positions, the Partners realised where they’d gone wrong.
Where would you put the client, yourself and the partner, if the client was visiting your office? Bear in mind that there may be more than one answer.
Tell me in the comments!
Depending on the nature of the role you want to play, or the role you want someone else to play, using the Power Positions allows you to alter the roles that people play in meetings, affecting how vocal or dominant they may be.
When people sit at a table can have more influence than they think. In fact, their application also stretches to social gatherings with those that dominate sitting in Position 1, 2 or 4 (the flanking position indicated by the grey disc above). If you want to give quieter or less confident people a greater sense of comfort, without thrusting them into the limelight, perhaps place them in the centre, but facing the door.
This and other key skills to achieve efficient meetings are covered in my communications skills training, conversational skills training and public speaking training, so contact me, Frankie Kemp, to be less vanilla more thriller!
Photo by RDNE Stock project: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-sitting-on-a-black-chair-holding-a-board-in-a-conference-room-with-a-group-of-people-6172545/
This article was originally published in November 2017 and was completely rewritten in October 2023.