We Shape Our Hearing Rooms and Afterwards They Shape Us

When the discussion turned to rebuilding the British House of Commons in 1943 (after its destruction on May 10, 1941) Winston Churchill in a simple but profound way stated, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” He had fixed ideas about what the rebuilt House of Commons should look like – exactly like it was before. He was opposed to the semi-circular chamber which was popular in continental Europe and the U.S. (and Toronto City Hall) and in his view was poorly suited to party politics. His theory, based on his own experience, was that changing political parties should require a member of parliament to “cross the floor”.

Churchill also noted the importance of the design of physical space for debate. In advocating a space too small for all of its members, Churchill said,

The essence of good House of Commons speaking is the conversational style, the facility for quick, informal interruptions and interchanges. Harangues from a rostrum would be a bad substitute for the conversational style in which so much of our business is done. But the conversational style requires a fairly small space, and there should be on great occasions a sense of crowd and urgency. There should be a sense of the importance of much that is said and a sense that great matters are being decided, there and then, by the House.

Physical space and distance are important symbols of human interaction and also contribute to the quality of those interactions. Physical proximity has a subconscious effect on people. One study shows that the closer an individual is to another person (while respecting personal space), the more positive the attitude towards the other person. Another study, indicates that people in close proximity are rated more sincere, natural, likeable and loving than others. In addition, those individuals are also perceived to be less dominant by their peers. Distance is also associated with safety. This means that a greater distance is preferred in tense situations.

Eric Kornhauser and Shawn Whelan have noted:

The need for congruence between the content of our communication and the environment in which it occurs should be obvious to lawyers, especially courtroom advocates. Traditional courtrooms provide a classic illustration of the explicit messages about process being supported and promoted by the attendant physical surroundings. Everything about the court environment is intended to send a clear message to participants – from the way judges and barristers are dressed, to the configuration of seating arrangements. All of the vivid courtroom images support the important messages which the adversary system seeks to convey – messages about independence, authority, distance, sobriety, respect, neutrality – a place where decisions affecting people’s lives can be made impartially and fairly.

Tribunals have generally adopted and adapted a court-like setting for hearings. The location of hearings is usually a neutral location, not associated with any of the parties that appear before the tribunal. The adjudicator or panel of adjudicators sit at the front of the room, sometimes on a raised platform, but always in a good position to command the room. The parties generally sit at separate tables, facing the adjudicator. Witnesses sit apart from the parties, generally either to the right or left of the adjudicator’s table. One variation used by some tribunals is the u-shaped table, where the parties sit across from each other, with the adjudicator at the bottom of the “U”.

With the parties facing the adjudicator, rather than each other, the role of the adjudicator as the decision-maker is reinforced – all eyes are on him or her. The parties are not able to look at each other when making submissions. With the u-shaped setting, it is more likely that the parties will have to look at each other. Studies have shown that people generally prefer face-to-face seating for communication. It is a common sense observation that looking at someone when talking to them can lower tension and discourage disrespectful talk. It is also easier to pick up non-verbal cues when facing someone.

In that same British House of Commons debate on the new House of Commons, Viscountess Astor was the only one to speak forcefully for a circular setting:

I believe that we shall emerge out of this fight into a more reasonable age. It may be better to have a circular House. I have often felt that it might be better if Ministers and ex-Ministers did not have to sit and look at each other, almost like dogs on a leash, and that controversy would not be so violent. I do not think there is any merit in violent controversies, and I do not believe that the fights in the House of Commons helped democracy.

Canada’s Specific Claims Tribunal has designed a hearing room that respects aboriginal culture. The centre of the hearing room is a table made up of eight sections that form a circle. All parties, including the judge, sit at the same level and at equal distance from each other. The hearing room also incorporates First Nations’ perspectives, including natural wood and stone materials. The circle and medicine wheel are included in the design of the walls, the ceiling, the doors, the flooring, and the furniture. A summary of other design features is available here.

The hearing room is designed to be less hierarchical and more congruent with aboriginal culture. The chair of the Tribunal, Justice Harry Slade (quoted in a recent article) said,

Anything that tends to remind one of sources of power that have tended in history to impose an external will upon people would not be ideal. There’s no obvious emblem of power, where people are seated around the circle.

Change is hard. Apparently the judges appointed to the tribunal are not comfortable with the arrangement for hearings. Justice Slade says the round table may be suitable for pre-hearing sessions and mediation, but there are practical problems for hearings. He notes that there are good, practical reasons for the judge to be “distant from the parties and elevated”, in part because the judge can then see everybody. In addition, the Tribunal has a clerk who will hand documents to the judge and the judges have expressed a concern that they will then have to “look around the side of the clerk” to see the parties. Justice Slade also points out that if everyone is sitting in a circle, everyone can look at what the adjacent person is doing, including seeing the notes of the judge/adjudicator.

I have conducted hearings in rooms with an elevated desk and in rooms without an elevated desk. I have never had any challenges seeing everybody when at a non-elevated table. Tribunals that have multiple parties (such as the National Energy Board, see diagrams at pages 19 and 20 of their hearing guide) may benefit from an elevated platform to see parties in the back rows of counsel tables. However, what might be more important in those circumstances is that the public be able to see the panel (the better to see justice being done).

At the Specific Claims Tribunal, the suggested solution to these perceived problems is to separate the eight sections of the table and set them up as separate desks. And with this, we have come full circle. It remains to be seen if there is room for innovative hearing room design in the future.


  1. Excellent article, Ian. Thank you for sharing this — I would love to see Canada’s House of Commons reconfigured!