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How Proximity Leads To Collaborative Results

Updated: May 17, 2023

My mentor used to say ‘Facilitation is about helping unequal human beings to be equally human.’

In different contexts we are unequal in many ways; by position, by age, by experience, by knowledge…however we are all equally human.

The best dialogue comes when people stop hiding behind their roles and start talking on the same level. This is where high order outcomes and decisions can be realised. 

To create this level playing field, people need to be physically close enough to effectively interact with each other.

The Proximity Test:

If people are not sitting close enough to ‘high five’ each other they will probably not act like constructive adults.  A good test is when you reach your arms out, if you can touch the fingertips of all the other people at your table, you are at a distance that you can now have a constructive conversation.This is our observation based on facilitating over 3000 people per year.

It is an interesting little experiment to try. Without this proximity, effective human dialogue breaks down. This means most large meeting room tables are a disaster for human to human interaction.

This demystifies the reason why it is so hard to get people to have a constructive dialogue and more importantly, dialogue that leads to good quality decisions.

‘Without this proximity, effective and constructive human dialogue breaks down.”

We firmly believe the “Smartest person in the room is the room” and by creating a level playing field you build a collaborative environment where each individual feels engaged and as a group you are able to gain consensus quickly.

Engaging Large Groups:

So how do you achieve a constructive dialogue with large groups and more importantly, dialogue that leads to high-quality decisions?

Start with the simple art of room configuration. Surprising the standard room set ups that hinder collaborative outcomes include board rooms, U-shaped discussion panels, large round tables, large square tables and the list goes on. This means most large meeting room tables are a detractor for human to human interaction.

The way we overcome this is to break larger groups into small clusters of typically 5 to 7 people seated facing each other at smaller tables.

With 25 years of research and experience, the table of choice is a standard Trestle table. Nothing fancy just a simple, narrow rectangle, under 2 metres.  

For a group of 20 people attending a workshop, this would be 4 tables of 5 people per table fanned down the long side of the room. The largest group of people we have successfully facilitated in this style is 250.

Questions are posed to the whole room and each table discusses the same question. A facilitator at the front of the room then records the consensus position.

Kevin Nuttall

Director, Waterfield

*Proximity is one of the 7 principles for Waterfield's RapidConsensus.


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