Lo♥︎ing legal life: make place for space

This week systemic coach Zita Tulyahikayo and barrister and NLP Master Practitioner James Pereira QC discuss the role of space and place in professional performance. 

Humans, like all animals, live in a dynamic relationship with the space around them. All of us remember visiting places that have made us feel at ease, have given us inspiration or imbued us with excitement and vitality. Conversely, we have all had negative experiences upon entering a room and finding the space uneasy or uncomfortable, sometimes to the extent that we cannot stay there for long. Often the reasons for our feelings seem obvious to us – open green spaces are normally energising, gloomy rooms are not – but at other times we just have a feeling about a place, and we are not sure why.

What is certain: after tens of thousands of years on the planet, our senses are attuned to, and influenced by, our interaction with the spaces we pass through in our daily lives. These can have a profound effect on our mood, our creativity, our sense of self and our understanding of the world around us. Small changes can make big differences: for example, moving the furniture around a room, or changing the light, can transform the quality of its space.

Given the powerful relationship between space and our understanding of our world, it would be good if that power could then be harnessed as a resource to support our professional lives. The truth is it can be done. Here are some examples of how you can achieve it for yourself.

Change place, change perspective

Change your physical place, and you change your perspective. Change your place to the place of another, and you will share and better understand their perspective. Not only will this assist in building empathy and rapport with the other, it may also give powerful insights into their standpoint, and hence a better understanding of how to support them or influence them.

James Pereira QC

For example, if your firm is due to host an important negotiation meeting, it can be productive to spend time before the meeting sitting in the place of your opposite number, notice the feeling of the space and the influencing factors around that are present, palpable. This will provide useful insights in advance of the meeting.

Similarly, sitting alongside someone when discussing issues with them, rather than placing yourself across the table from them (and therefore in potential opposition to them), can support better rapport and understanding of each other’s point of view (it can also have benefits when dining with your loved one).

Energising space for a purpose

Spatial anchoring is a process in which physical space becomes associated with a particular characteristic or quality, so that when a person refers to that space, or steps into it, the observer associates this action with that same characteristic or quality. Spatial anchoring is used frequently by successful public speakers or in sales presentations to build a desired audience response around a particular part of the stage. This approach is also used by stand-up comedians and mime artists to create associations around parts of the stage to enhance comedic effect.

This very same technique can be used as a resource to support your professional performance. Now, take the situation of a meeting of a multi-disciplinary team working together on a project. Normally the team leader will sit at the head of the table, chair the meeting, and be responsible for eliciting information and views from the rest of the team. This anchors the head of the table as a place of power, control and inquisition.

But, now notice, what happens if the leader, having anchored the space – for example, s/he introduces the meeting by dealing with strategic cross-cutting issues first – then allows the consultant responsible for a particular issue to occupy the head of the table while the issue is under discussion?

Experience shows that allowing others to occupy the seat of power in this way can have highly beneficial results. Principally, because it allows the other person to step into the position of power, and thus draw upon the space as a resource to support them in fulfilling their role.

Often this will result in the person concerned performing and contributing with greater confidence and self-assurance than before. They will start to feel more empowered in asking questions and gathering information from the rest of the team; and their greater sense of confidence will assist in adding objectivity and maturity to their thoughts.

Similarly, the presence of the leader seated among the rest of the team will give the rest of the team the added confidence to participate more fully and constructively in the discussion, boosting the dynamic energy of the meeting. This has been our experience when training teams to enhance their performance.

Using space for problem solving

Spatial interactions can be used as powerful tools to engage when problem solving – particularly in situations where problems seem intractable. This is because, when we add a spatial dimension to a problem we are able to draw upon our innate sensitivity towards space and the way that space resonates within each of us. This is a powerful resource to resolve the problem in hand. We give two examples here.

Zita Tulyahikayo

First, we can physically “map” problems using moveable markers or objects to represent particular features of a problem. Then, by moving the objects so as to create new and different relationships between them, we can see more clearly how different features of a problem inter-relate, and how changing the dynamic of these inter-relationships may lead to solutions which had not previously presented themselves.

For example, to map out concerns we have over the outcome of a situation, we simply choose a different object to represent the various possibilities, and an object to represent the issue itself.

Then, using basic mindfulness techniques, we sense and see how each object relates to the other. Techniques such as these are frequently employed to good effect in systemic coaching.

A second example arises in the use of time-lines for providing insights into future decisions. Nearly everyone constructs some form of time line in their imagination when they consider a future decision, or when they ponder some outcome that they desire for the future. But people vary in their ability to see clearly the future steps that they need to take in order to make that decision or reach their desired state, and importantly, the resources that they will need to complete each step successfully are often obscure to them. This is where the physical mapping of time-lines can be very helpful.

By physically mapping out their timeline in space (for example, by using a line on the floor), and then walking mindfully over it from the present into the future, many people are able to experience a sense of moving through time as they move through their time-line space.

This is a simple yet effective method to help people to identify and associate with the steps needed to reach the decision or desired outcome. Techniques such as these are well established in solutions focussed coaching and NLP.

Make place for space

So, next time you or a colleague need to gain a fresh insight or different perspective, know that the use of spatially based techniques will provide the answer that has been alluding you. After all, a resource that is based on our innate spatial sensitivity and understanding is inevitably the most powerful. Make place for space in your professional toolkit.


The authors welcome feedback from anyone concerned with the issues raised in their writing, and are also interested in hearing from anyone with suggestions for future articles. You can reach them at @LifeTherapyZita and @JamesPereiraQC.