Sitting side by side

In client services, most people working one-on-one tend to sit right across from each other. The theory is that when meeting with someone important, confidence comes from looking someone in the eye, which can only happen when two people face each other.  That, combined with the common television image of a manager speaking to an underling from behind an intimidating desk, make most people forget that there are other–and better–options for building rapport. 

Imagine you are a lawyer walking into a room to meet with your client for the first time. First impressions mean everything, and building rapport and trust is key to creating a productive working relationship. You have four options:

  1. Elevated: You can stand when your client is sitting. This creates a sense of authority, which can be useful for maintaining control but can distance you from your client and weaken your connection.
  2. Diminished: You can sit while your client stands. This creates a sense of deference or humility, which is helpful if you are trying to make an apologetic gesture but otherwise suggests a lack of confidence.
  3. Square: You can sit or stand eye-to-eye. This can demonstrate confidence and respect, which is best for introductions, but it can backfire by being intimidating. Worse yet, if the situation becomes tense or adversarial, sitting squared-off makes it easier to escalate the tension into a conflict.
  4. Collaborative: You can sit side-by-side to establish a sense of equality and cooperation. When reviewing complex ideas or documents, sitting side-by-side also lets you focus attention on the materials to better make your points.

The collaborative (side-by-side) style is the most underused and can be extremely effective in building rapport. For a lawyer with a difficult client, it demonstrates that you consider the client a true partner in your endeavor, rather than a mere passenger. For business meetings, this cooperative gesture strengthens the partnership and collegiality.

Although it seems like a small difference, it is amazing how often people default back to sitting across the table from one another when sitting in a more collaborative position would elevate the conversation. Try it with a difficult client, a tough boss, or anyone with whom you work closely and see the difference it can make in your next encounter.