Last month’s column explored the nonverbal ways in which we communicate simply by the manner in which we arrange the environment where we conduct a meeting. This month’s column will address the nonverbal communication expressed by the way individuals seat themselves during a meeting.
Let’s use this scenario: a pastor decides to have a staff meeting and, to encourage the free flow of ideas, arranges the chairs in the room in a circle. When his staff is seated, he looks across to the opposite side of the circle and sees that Sam, the parish business manager, has seated himself and immediately crossed his legs in a “figure 4” style, that is, with one ankle resting on the top of the other knee. Generally, taking this posture is an indication of independence or stubbornness. As the meeting begins to progress, Sam places his hand on top of the ankle (referred to as “clamping”) to form a locked position. This posture reinforces that Sam has come to the meeting with an attitude of resistance.
The pastor looks across to another staff member and notices that Helen, his secretary, is seated with her legs together and parallel with her knees pointing toward the pastor. The positioning of the legs, in this situation, is usually indicative of properness and respect for the pastor. The direction of the knees indicates that person’s point of interest. The fact that the knees are pointing in the direction of the pastor indicates that she is attentive and anxious to hear what the pastor is about to say. As the meeting begins to progress, the pastor notices that Helen interlocks her ankles. Her legs remain parallel to each other, but she slips one foot behind the other leg. This signals that the progression of the discussion has begun to make Helen feel defensive.
The pastor pans the remainder of the circle and, at the beginning of the meeting, all the other staff members have their legs crossed in the “European style,” that is, when the legs are crossed at both knees. Some of them have their knees pointed toward the pastor which indicates that, while they have focused their attention on the pastor, they have some degree of caution or disinterest in the meeting (legs crossed). The other staff members’ knees are not pointing toward the pastor. This usually indicates that their interest is not focused on the pastor. It could mean that they are disinterested in the meeting, or it could mean that they are interested in someone else in the circle perhaps, for example, looking to another staff member for emotional support.
About halfway through the meeting, the pastor notices that Sam uncrosses his legs and places both feet on the floor. At first, this would indicate that Sam is softening his resistance to the discussion until the pastor sees that after uncrossing his legs, Sam sits with his legs apart. This “open leg” position usually indicates a confident and domineering posture even to the point of being arrogant and combative. By opening his legs, Sam requires more physical space contributing to his dominant posture.
In general, the way in which an individual sits during a meeting reveals his or her attitude toward the discussion. This is a not a completely infallible technique, however. Sometimes individuals sit in a particular manner from force of habit or change their positions not because of a change in attitude, but for comfort. Once a pastor has experienced several encounters with an individual, he may perceive that person’s patterns and, once known, the pastor may gain insight into that person’s attitudes by his or her posturing during a meeting.
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