More than words

deskYesterday I got to meet in person with a colleague from the other side of the world, a co-worker from Europe with whom I normally communicate via phone and email. He’s an affable guy, and I enjoy his company and the stories he tells from his travels. I started looking forward to seeing him as soon as we scheduled the meeting.

The meeting didn’t go as planned. Although we both clearly appreciated the face time, the reality of it was a bit stilted and awkward. The words didn’t flow as easily as I expected and we struggled to find easy conversation. Although our mother tongues differ, it wasn’t linguistics that got in the way.

It was my desk.

Always before, our in-person interactions had been in more collaborative settings: at small conference tables, in facing chairs, in cars, across restaurant tables, walking shoulder-to-shoulder on office tours. The way my office is set up, however, allows only for a couple of chairs on the side opposite my command center.

And that’s how it must seem to the person on the other side–a command center. Nestled safely inside my u-shaped work surface, everything I need is within arms’ reach: my computer, my phone, my printer, my files, you name it. The person on the other side is forced to sit meekly in the side chairs (or so it must seem) and lob conversations volleys across 36 inches of divisive work surface.

A vast, laminate barrier.

I don’t think it was my particular desk that caused the problem. It wouldn’t have mattered if it were blue instead of brown, 24 inches instead of 36 inches, or had rounded corners instead of squared. The fact is that my desk got in the way of our conversation. It put one of us in a power position, however unintended, and hampered the exchange of ideas. I didn’t like it.

Interestingly, I’ve always been aware that physical position matters. I can learn a lot about people by simply observing where they choose to sit around a conference (or dinner) table. I’ve even chosen to hold sensitive meetings in another room to take away the stigma of “the boss’s office.” I find it odd that I didn’t take the desk effect into account in this case.

I will next time. It’s not just words that matter.

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