Furniture has important symbolic as well as utilitarian functions. In a courtroom, for example, the elevated position of the judge, and the adversarial positions of the parties, both facing and subservient to the judge, are perfectly symbolized and reinforced by the arrangement of the furniture. In a conference room, the person who sits at the head of the table sometimes assumes a similar position of authority. Parties attending a mediation usually expect the mediator to sit at the head of the table, and arrange themselves on each side, facing but often not talking to each other, and often directing their attention to the mediator at the head. To shake up these expectations, I sometimes like to sit to one side of the conference room table, and arrange the parties in a more haphazard structure.
The ideal form, however, is a round table, where every participant starts from a position of absolute equality. A round table symbolizes many of the values of mediation, and is also a popular shape for international diplomacy. For example, here is a picture of the conference room table at NATO headquarters (from the official State Department blog):
I have often wished I had a round table to use for mediations. But they are not practical for joint sessions, for two reasons. One is that the shape of most conference rooms, including mine, does not accommodate a round table. The other is that the need to fit in a lot of participants would require a large round table, which puts people too far away from each other to have meaningful personal communication. When you talk to someone at a distance, you tend to make a speech, instead of simply talking to the other person. So we settle for the standard oval table.
But I am finally putting some theory into practice by getting a small round table, only 42″ wide, around which only four or five people can sit comfortably, but which fits perfectly in the small inside office I use as a work and storage room, and where I stash one side or the other for caucus sessions. This room used to have a big desk in it, and was always a bit awkward for caucuses. I can’t wait to try it out for mediations, either for caucuses, or other types of sessions with a small number of participants.