Court Room Drama – how environment influences behavior, so use it.

Last week I was in Court, don’t get excited, it was as a witness for the prosecution. A couple of things made an impression upon me:

Fantastic support from the Witness Support Team (I’ll say more about this again) and; the really high ceiling in the Court Room (it must have been 25ft / 8m tall).

This got me wondering. The Court was built during the 1980’s so it wasn’t some historic accident, the design must have been deliberate. Why?

The room was certainly impressive. Thankfully the Witness Support Team gave me a guided tour before I was called to give evidence so I knew what to expect. However, if I had just walked in I think I would have been pretty intimidated by the surroundings. Perhaps that’s the point?

The built environment does influence the way you behave. If you watch Kevin McCloud on Grand Designs it’s certainly the case. In the courtroom this was reflected in what I did:

  • standing up straight;
  • wishing I’d worn a tie;
  • being very serious and measured with my answers; and
  • speaking in a deeper voice (all a bit Richard Burton I’d like to think).

Conveniently, this has given me an opportunity to talk about how I think the environment is an important consideration for planning meetings and facilitation. It’s probably easiest to explain this in the context of a few environments I’ve encountered while facilitating.

Comfy Sofas – The Best.  My finest ever facilitating hour happened by accident when a room was unavailable and we had to use a space where some sofas were being stored. The impact was incredible. Everyone was very relaxed, ideas were free-flowing, nobody misbehaved and we got the job finished before time. Unfortunately I don’t find sofas too often in the world I work in.

Horseshoe of Chairs – Bog Standard.  The sort of thing you’ll get from anyone who’s been on a facilitation training course (or group therapy / rehab meeting).  This layout usually encourages everyone to participate as there is nowhere to hide and you are all equal. Nice.

Sat Behind Tables / Desks – Not So Good. Frequently unavoidable. I’m not averse to moving furniture to achieve the ‘perfect facilitation environment’, but dragging a 12ft x 4ft oak board table around an 18ft x 12ft room defeats me.  I try to avoid these situations as being ‘protected’ by a table allows some people to ‘hide’ and not participate. I addition some people can behave badly, again using the table as ‘protection’.

The Council Chamber – Nightmare. Just say no. Council Chambers have been the scene of my most epic failures. It’s like some individuals become a completely different person when you sit them in an Elected Members chair. It’s even worse somehow if the room has dark wood paneling. Previously mild-mannered individuals start referring to people they know as ‘Madame Chairwoman’ in a rather pompous tone. They also tend to behave in a much more serious and often confrontational manner.  Avoid at all costs if you are trying to facilitate a workshop.

High ceilings, a witness-box  and formal seating certainly altered my behavior in Court. It’s great if you want serious and very well-behaved, but not so good when you are trying to brainstorm or develop a creative solution.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Environment does affect people’s behavior.
  2. Don’t be afraid to change the environment to encourage or prevent certain behaviors.
  3. If you can’t change the environment and it’s not looking good, just say no.

Just say no!

Picture Source:

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s