We cannot not communicate. Even our silence communicates something. This article is the first in a series which explores some of the nonverbal ways we communicate.
In this opening article, the concept of controlling an office environment will be reviewed. Merely arranging the furniture in a room can communicate authority, openness, stodginess and a number of other messages whether or not intended.
The legendary King Arthur communicated to his knights that, when seated at counsel, all enjoyed an equal voice. He accomplished this gesture nonverbally by seating his knights at a round table. The symbolic significance of a roundtable is that there is no head. It conveys a sense of equality among those present.
Taking the concept a bit further, if a pastor wanted to encourage a free and frank discussion among his staff, he could arrange the room with chairs in a circle. King Arthur’s roundtable promoted equality among the participants, but the table itself served as a symbolic barrier to free and open discussion.
Even the type of chair selected makes a difference in developing a setting that will encourage the best participation in a group meeting. Soft, comfortable chairs in which a person sinks into the chair or “easy chairs” that allow the participants to lay back into the chair are generally not suitable for meetings. Instead, high and straight-backed chairs promote a more alert and focused environment for the free exchange of ideas.
The same concept applicable to group meetings applies to one-on-one discussions. If a pastor wanted to create a relaxed atmosphere for the discussion, he could select a setting in which two chairs faced each other at an angle so that he and the participant would not be directly facing one another. There should also be no desk or other furniture between them.
The types of room setting described above are not always available. If the desired ambiance is congeniality, yet the only private and practical place to conduct the conversation is the pastor’s office, the pastor could pull his chair from behind his desk to one side of the desk. The other person would be seated on the visitor side of the desk so that they would face each other at a 90-degree angle. This seating arrangement not only lessens the formality of the meeting, but is accommodating for referring to written materials during the discussion.
Not all meetings are meant to be open and congenial. Sometimes, for example, a pastor may need to correct the actions of an employee. This is when a pastor will call the employee “on the carpet,” a term tracing back to the 19th century when the only room that was carpeted in a factory was the boss’s office. When an employee was called on the carpet, he prepared himself for a dressing down.
In this scenario, the pastor should position himself behind his desk and remove as much clutter off the desk as possible, giving the desk a more expansive appearance. This setting conveys authority and control by the person behind the desk. In very serious situations, the pastor may opt to not ask the employee to be seated, but rather to remain standing as the pastor speaks. This augments the perceived authority of the pastor.
The main point is that in situations in which there are to be discussions between a priest and others, in addition to what the priest says at the meeting, the room setting, furniture and placement of the individuals all add unspoken words to the discussion. The priest will want those unspoken words to convey the correct message.
MR. LENELL, C.P.A., Ph.D., is the director for financial and administrative services for the Diocese of Rockford, Ill. Dr. Lenell’s book Income Taxes for Priests Only is published by “Fathers Guide.” He lectures and conducts workshops and does consulting to several dioceses on priests’ taxes, compensation, and retirement planning. Write to Dr. Lenell, c/o The Priest magazine with questions, or e-mail him at WayneLenell@fathersguide.org