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From the Road: The Importance of Propinquity

Steve Willis is a master trainer and vice president of professional services at VitalSmarts.Steve Willis is a master trainer and vice president of professional services at VitalSmarts.

From the Road

I recently led an out-of-state training session. As usual, I arrived early to make my last-minute preparations and found that this fifteen-person session was to be held in a five-hundred person auditorium! Good thing I arrived early and—despite the room coordinator’s eloquent Manifest Destiny-esque argument that people need their space—was able to change rooms.

So this month I’ve been thinking about propinquity, the property of being close together, and how it affects the learning experience. And if you’re wondering if it’s really that big a deal, the answer is “yes.” How you set up the classroom determines the amount and types of interactions and learning experiences your participants have.

For example, it’s really difficult to facilitate a class discussion that involves everyone when the room is set up classroom style—with participants seated in rows. It’s also really difficult to teach a class of twenty to twenty-five participants and involve everyone when the room is shaped more like the narrow hallway that leads up to the room than a room itself.

So yes, propinquity matters. Changing or adjusting the seating space in the class (for example, seating participants in small groups) can have a dramatic impact on the type and quality of the group’s interactions.

5 thoughts on “From the Road: The Importance of Propinquity”

  1. Art Nolting

    My wife and I do consulting work of various sorts with a variety of churches. This is an excellent article about physical setting and space. However, I would like to add that establishing audio/visual needs, i.e., computers, projectors, WiFi, etc. is also very important. No two churches are the same in that regard so you need to establish what will be available and, consequently, what you need to bring. Early setup is also very important to work out the “bugs”, which are inevitably there.

  2. Trudy

    I agree with all your comments about space! I am often amazed at how seldom we trainers / facilitators discuss this together.
    I would add that sheer numbers are a factor as well. If the topic is sensitive (as many important topics are), discussion is difficult to achieve in any configuration. Often, I mention my insights about spatial relationships and their effect on comfort zones, risk, etc., and clients seem resistant or disinterested, or (at worst) very attached to their current room configuration(s). Even among colleagues, I notice a default mode of classroom style or U-shaped set ups, or meetings with people seated at one narrow table, so that the only person easily visible to all is the person at the head of the table. This set-up reinforces authority and hierarchy. A circle reinforces equal sharing, often quiet and intimate, of a more emotional nature. A U-shape (set up more as an oval with an opening at one end, so that people can see one another easily) reinforces a common focus on analytic problem solving. A 3-person practice group, with one observer to provide feedback, combines new learning and creativity with the comfort of an intimate group.

  3. Anne

    Hi Steve: I have to admit I was drawn to read this due to the word! I knew I had seen it before but forgot what it meant. As a nurse, I have been involved in many continuing education courses, nursing classes, talked at the head of a class as a guest speaker and worked in small groups. I had never thought about this before today! You are absolutely right. We waste a lot of time breaking into discussion or practice groups when people “count off”. The value of that cannot be dismissed; as those who want to be together are likely to sit at the same group table. Not only do small groupings allow the speaker to roam and listen easier, ergonomically it makes more sense. Seems it would encourage more conversation and learning among individuals, even strangers. What a concept!

  4. Pat Mc

    I frequently have opportunities at work to use the information in Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations. I work with all women in a hospital and they have made great progress in mastering communication skills with the help of the information contained in both books. Now, I am reading Influencer and I plan to share that information with my managers.

  5. Roy Dust

    I agree that making the space available as interactive friendly as possible can make the difference between a great presentation and a poor one.
    While in the service I gave many presentations the “Army way”, which was always an auditorium setting and with few exceptions I always left feeling my time was wasted and later follow up, to often proved me right.
    It was a requirement for me to present a certain way and the attendees had to be their but, getting them to take part was normally discouraged. Another example of “Army Intelligence.

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