When you meet in a circle, the shape of your meeting carries an important message. Something like, “We’re all equal participants here.”
Of course there will in fact be hierarchies amongst the attendees: setting up hierarchies is just something humans do. But some spaces, such as a theatre with a stage, or a hall with a podium, carry an implication of inequality.
With a circle the space says, “we’re all equal”.
In creative, collaborative meetings, that sense of starting off equal has a powerful impact. It helps people to build trust; to feel safe to share ideas; to experiment and to fail. It’s so important that many professional facilitators won’t go ahead with an event if the space “doesn’t work”.
When you take your meeting online, what happens to your “circle”? It very easily goes out of true.
- If only some participants can be seen or heard clearly, people will treat them as more important to the meeting than those who can.
- If the “speaker” or “host” appears significantly larger on screen than other participants, it’s as if they’re “on stage”. Others will defer to them.
- If some people are in the room, while others are connecting remotely, the in-the-room participants will be treated as more important than remote ones, unless technology is used to make a remote participant bigger, “centre stage”.
This is one of the reasons professional facilitators prefer Zoom to other video conference tools: it has a “gallery view” in which you can see everyone, with everyone’s video the same size. This mode is switched off by default (“speaker view”), but once switched on by the participants it at least suggests equality.
There are other things you can do to give your meetings a “circle” flavour. For example:
- Use a “check in” or “warm up” activity to start the meeting in which everyone takes a turn to speak.
- Rather than the “leader” deciding who speaks next, ask one speaker to nominate the next when they’ve finished what they have to say.
- Share the job of facilitation around the group, with a different person “leading” each agenda item, or each edition of a daily/weekly meeting.