Space – In this case NOT the “Final Frontier” 

In my last post I explained my belief that tactics should not be looked on as barriers but instead as information.  Tactics let us know that another or others involved don’t share our objective – at least as it is currently defined or as they currently understand it.  Sometimes we expect tactics and presume that our interests are not in alignment with the other. A common example of this would be when we seek to purchase any big-ticket item for which the price is negotiable, such as when we buy a car.  In that situation, we know that it is safe to presume that our interest in buying a particular car for the cheapest possible price is at odds with the dealership’s interest to sell the same vehicle for the highest reasonable profit. But even this case do we not share the same overarching goal, to buy/sell the car?

In our routine workplace interactions, when we encounter a person using a tactic, it provides us with valuable information and lets us know that someone – often a person with whom we will have a continuing work relationship – does not support our objective, or is pursuing an objective of their own that they believe is at odds with ours.  But how do we even spot a “tactic” when someone attempts to use it “against” us?  Let’s continue our discussion of tactics and explore some of the common tactics, their use, and ways to neutralize or work around them.

Person in Question Mark

Image courtesy of Master isolated images /

Today’s topic is the use of space as a tactic.  The study of space as a tactic and subconscious use of space and its impact is called “proxemics.”  Using space as a tactic comes in many forms. Those of a certain age will remember the protracted negotiations about the shape of the negotiation table before the negotiators would even agree to meet in Paris to discuss ending the Vietnam Conflict. Using space as a tactic can be incredibly powerful!  Next time you do visit a car dealership, for example, study the showroom layout.  You may observe one of two models that dealers deploy in an effort to influence your willingness to linger and haggle over the price of the car. Either you will be placed at an overly small table in the middle of the showroom with absolutely no privacy, or you will be placed in a tiny cubby that is overcrowded and into which several additional sales people will cram – especially when they are trying to sell you an extended warranty or other high-profit margin add-ons.  The idea is to make you uncomfortable enough that it is more comfortable to agree to things that you really don’t need or want than it is to remain longer than necessary in the space.


Invading personal space can be a clear sign of anger or aggression.

Another very powerful use of space is invading a person’s typical “personal space.”  The amount of personal space that is generally recognized as appropriate varies from culture to culture, but in most western cultures, people engaging in routine business discussions typically allow themselves about 3 feet from one another.  Watch this sometime when you ride an elevator.  Typically, if two people ride an elevator, they will stand on opposite sides and position themselves so that there is at least three feet between them. As the elevator fills up, what do people do?  They compensate, right?  How?  Watch people.  Observe their body posture.  Shoulders rise to narrow the person’s space demands. People will often align themselves to all face the same direction so that, even though they are forced to violate the three-foot rule, they minimize the impact by standing side by side.  Face to face encounters that violate the three-foot rule occur, basically under three circumstances.  Men who approach one another closely are typically in competitive conflict, such as the baseball umpire and team manager caught in an aggressive disagreement about a call. A woman who communicates with another in a close face-to-face encounter is typically sharing an intimate detail or secret with someone they know and trust.  Absent an argument situation, a man who approaches a woman in a close face-to-face encounter is either a “creep” or is a very trusted or intimate friend of the woman.

Although not always this overt, infringing on another's space without a clear invitation, is universally creepy or aggressive.

Although not always this overt, infringing on another’s space without a clear invitation, is universally creepy or aggressive.

So how is this a tactic? We know that when our space is invaded it makes us uncomfortable.  This can lead to compromises that do not reflect our best interest as we try to relieve the stress the space issue creates.  We also know that when we are already in a stressful or threatening or conflictual situation, our personal space requirements increase significantly.  So, if we are hosting a meeting where we want thoughtful dialogue and comfortable communication – especially on where there has already been conflict or disagreement – we may want to choose a cooler and larger space for the discussion. Even the color of the room can matter.

Which Seat will the boss take?

Which Seat will the boss take?
Image courtesy of adamr /

Even though this is an older workplace paradigm, you will sometimes still see space used in an effort to project power and authority.  In this day and age, where computers rule and, for the most part, paper is in declining use, who needs the big desk? The big desk is there to claim space. Space is power.  Now add backlighting and … snap!   …  You have more power! Now add chairs that position others at a lower level and … pow! … you have even more power?

Ultimately, we approach the question: “If I see these things being used in an effort to subvert my goal, what do I do?”  There are many answers and we will discuss many of these as we work through other tactics.  For now, let’s look at perhaps the most powerful tool available to you when you encounter this, or many other tactics. Remember this mantra: A tactic that is identified and confronted with the person deploying the tactic, is no longer a tactic. When the person knows you are on to them, the effectiveness of the tactic declines. So when space issues arise, think carefully about your choice of a meeting place or how you will manage personal space.  Sometimes a meeting in the boss’s office across his or her big desk is unavoidable.  However, as an alternative, when you can, how about a lunch meeting in neutral space where the power imbalances created by space are removed?  If you are uncomfortable in a room that is too small, say so!  At least then the other person knows that you know that there was an effort to use space as a tactic or they can claim their own innocence, too. If the communication is important, insist on parity or at least an appropriate environment.

BJM  January 10, 2014

© Bruce MacAllister, 2014, all rights reserved.

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