“WE SHAPE OUR BUILDINGS and our buildings shape us.” Winston Churchill said this to the House of Commons just after World War II. He was referring to a proposal to change the shape of the legislators' meeting room, concerned that altering the physical environment would, in turn, bring about change in the legislative process.

Not convinced that environment affects behavior? Consider the chair you're sitting in. You might be able to easily peruse this issue of ICP cover-to-cover because the design of the chair is conducive to reading. Perhaps you're in a soft, comfy recliner that lulls you into a nap. On the other hand, you could be fidgeting around because the angle and hardness of the chair feels uncomfortable, so you're ready for a break.

Why is an understanding of environment and behavior important to meeting professionals? In a time when the educational content of insurance and financial services meetings has become increasingly important, putting design psychology to work in the conference room can help motivate, train, and capture the attention of attendees with content they'll remember. One unusual meeting room design that sticks in my mind, for example, is a setup I experienced about 18 months ago at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Las Vegas, where an informal arrangement of plush armchairs, sofas, and highboy tables and chairs resembled a stylish restaurant lounge. The upscale feel of the design was perfectly appropriate to the topic being discussed: luxury meetings. The inviting environment was such a nice change that I wondered why planners don't vary typical meeting room setups more often.

Design for Idea Exchange

Fast-forward to March 2005 and the 2nd Annual Insurance Educational Forum and Strategic Leadership Institute at La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif. Here, facilitator Tom McDonald, PhD, created phenomenal interaction with a series of unconventional room setups. In the first, a resource panel of four planners and two moderators (McDonald and me) sat in a small circle surrounded by bigger circles of participants. It was disconcerting to speak to people's backs, but the discomfort quickly vanished as an open, impassioned discussion ensued. The second setup built on the atmosphere of trust by seating us in one big circle. And a third paired up teams of two for brief chats in a “speed dating” format that brought out tons of best-practices ideas in a short period of time. By the end of the two-day program — described by one planner as “therapeutic” — every one of the roughly 30 attendees had spoken up candidly to the group.

Whether a posh furniture arrangement appropriate to a discussion of luxury meetings, or a circular layout that encourages interaction, environment — as Churchill said so long ago — shapes behavior. It's worth your attention.