Or, ‘how to set up the training room’.
If you wanted people to shut up and just listen to you, then a ‘theatre style’ arrangement with the chairs in flat rows would be the setup of choice. Everyone is looking forward, so their attention is naturally on you. As the focal point of the room, you will have more status than everyone else, and people will look to you for cues as to how to behave.
If, on the other hand, you wanted everyone to contribute, you would have the chairs in a circle. That way, everyone is equal, and everyone can see each other’s eyes so that it’s easy for them to read the mood of the group. People in this setup are much more likely to speak up, participate in discussions, and answer questions. I’ve noticed that this layout is favoured by trainers of Clean Language-based approaches.
For most NLP or personal development training you want people to listen to you when you are delivering content, and contribute in the “What if?” segments and post-exercise clear ups. The best arrangement to encourage this with a small group is a shallow horseshoe shape, in which people can see each other’s eyes to an extent but are still facing forward and looking at you most of the time. This is the shape I use to set up my courses. Tables in front of each chair would act as an “energetic barrier” between me and the participants, so I don’t use them on personal development or NLP type courses.
With a larger group you can have multiple rows of shallow horseshoes, but inevitably those towards the back will feel more cut off from you. The best setup for a larger group is probably ‘cabaret style’ with around 6 people per table. This makes group collaboration easier, but do allow for extra space for all those tables.
Some venues I’ve encountered don’t seem to know what ‘cabaret style’ is (in some places it’s known as ‘cluster style’), so draw them a picture like this to make absolutely sure:
Front of room
Culture also has a bearing on the ideal room layout. In the Middle East, for example, participants may find it hard to bring their attention back to the trainer at the end of an exercise (I think this may be because they don’t want to seem impolite by abruptly terminating their conversations with the other people round their table, but I would welcome comments from anyone in that culture who wants to enlighten me). Instead, I’d go for the “U” shape with desks which seems to be standard in corporate settings, even though it means that most of the participants have to crank their heads round 90º to see the front of the room.
Finally, beware of the traditional ‘classroom’ arrangement, with rows of tables and chairs (or those chairs that have a little ‘desk’ built into one arm). This layout may put participants in a less than optimal learning state, as it reminds them of school, which for many people was a bad experience.