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When we do events, we use a lot of tools. Some of them are things “everyone knows”, and nobody has any idea where they came from. Some of them we can trace quite clearly to a point of origin. Some of them we’re pretty sure we’ve invented ourselves.

The one I’m most proud to have invented* is the “Open Chair Rule”.

Mind you, this isn’t the same as Jeff Bezos’ “Empty Chair” phenomenon, though that’s cool as well!

In its essence, the Open Chair Rule is extremely simple, and is meant for events where you want people to join in.

Whenever you have a conversation, leave an open chair (with no one in it!). That way it makes it easier for people who walk past to think “Oh, there’s an empty chair. I’d like to join that group, and since it’s not a closed group, but has an empty spot, it’s not awkward to do so. Great.” instead of “That looks interesting, but they’re sitting in a closed circle. It’s probably not for me.”

This means that when people join the conversation, they bring an extra chair, which then becomes the open chair. Simple. Reasonably elegant. Very useful if you want to make the barrier for joining low.

If you want closed conversation groups, this is not good for that! ;-)

Where did it come from?

At the Nordic larp conference Knutepunkt, I started doing this on my own in 2009 and 2010. It was surprisingly effective, and required very little explanation when put into use. A lot of people remarked positively on it, and when we did Knudepunkt 2011 in Denmark (where I was one of the organisers), I suggested that we make it into a conference-wide social rule. Along with the other social rule (“Speak English”), it was accepted.

Some people didn’t use it, of course — culture takes time to breed — and some found it weird, but many liked it. Some took it from KP2011 to their own conferences and meetings, spreading the idea further.

Since then, I’ve used it for conferences, teaching professionals about inclusivity in spatial design (you can also do it without chairs, though that’s a bit harder), and it’s by now an ingrained habit of mine to pull up an extra chair when sitting with a group of people.

Of course, being just a simple social mechanic, this travels easily and doesn’t exactly have a watermark. Still, whenever I come across an event that uses it, I can’t help but smile, even if it’s introduced as “this Swedish thing”, “that Prolog chair thing” or “I think it’s a Knutepunkt thing. Those Nordics are weird, but it’s pretty cool.”

Sometimes, ESPECIALLY if it’s introduced that way. ;-)

Why is it interesting?

Honestly, it’s not super interesting to most people, but when it comes to creating a feeling of inclusivity by using spatial design and simple social mechanics, it’s a pretty nice example. I’ve had high-powered business people go “Wow. That’s so simple, and still extremely effective.” and I’ve had people tell me how it made them join conversations they’d normally stay out of, even though they wanted to be part of them.

To me, it’s interesting partly because it’s a personal creation that I am very happy about — it doesn’t cost money, it’s easy to duplicate and it makes a (small) change in the way people experience events — partly because it shows me that there are tons of other similar mechanics out there, and that we have much to gain by designing social spaces.

Many of these small “social hacks” really make a difference in how we interact with people, and I love discovering that sort of stuff and putting it into use. The “Raise your hand to establish silence” is another of these great tools (mentioned here along with some other ideas)

And whether we call this sort of thing process tools, life hacks, social engineering or something else, there’s no doubt that there’s powerful stuff out there, that can make actual differences in people’s lives very simply.

As my friend Paul would say. “We just need to keep on pushing and pivoting, and use a lot of different thinking hats.”

* I’m not blind to the fact that while I can clearly trace the origin of the Open Chair Rule and see how it’s spread, there’s a good chance that someone else (or more than one someone!) already started doing this before. So if meet someone who says “Ah, the Kursi Terburka” (in Indonesian, according to Google Translate), then I’ll gladly start calling it that!

Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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