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Psychology of Space

I remember when first learning about psychology of space (often called psychogeography or proxemics) in an NLP training, I was amazed to discover that the space around my body is not symmetrical. Ok, the differences between standing far away versus close by are common sense. At one extreme, the further you stand from people, the less connection you have. At the other extreme, standing very close penetrates the intimate space we keep around ourselves. You can often see that clearly when you approach someone who immediately leans or steps back. That's your cue - too close! If the space does not permit moving away, e.g. the person is sitting in the chair, then he might instead close off his personal space by folding hands and feet.

Preferred spatial distance for communication is highly dependent on the culture - Italians stand an elbow length away, while Japanese make sure that they can't even accidentally touch each other. There are many such nuances in every culture. If you are traveling to a foreign part of the World, read a book on proper spatial distances and gestures (and don't be surprised when a friendly Arab takes your hand while walking down the stairs).

Much more fascinating and surprising to me was the discovery that the space around my body is asymmetrical, and my left space is vastly different from my right space. I started noticing which side I presented to people and how they reacted. I noticed I had a strong preference to stand sideways during the conversation, as if we were pressing our backs against the two walls near the corner, with the other person on my right. Of course, that was my personal preference. The person I was communicating with had her own preference. It's great when these spatial preferences are complementary (e.g. if mine is on the right side, then hers is on the left side). But what if they are not? Then the two people talking will feel subtly uncomfortable and might start to unconsciously outmaneuver each other in circles.

Here is a simple test: imagine you are sitting directly facing a stranger of the same gender. Do you feel such psychogeography comfortable, or do you feel the urge to turn sideways? Are you turning to the left or to the right?

If you do boarding - ride a snowboard, a surfboard, a skateboard, then recall which turn is harder for you to make - left or right? (If you believe this depends only on which foot is in the front, try putting the other foot in the front and turning; you are likely to find that turns are harder to the same side). If you ride a motorcycle or ski downhill, do you make smoother turns to one side?

These side asymmetries show up in many other subtle ways. For example, when you pick a seat in an empty classroom, which side of the room do you tend to seat on - left or right? By the way, I highly recommend you frequently change your seat in any class, because doing so will grant you fresh perspectives on the material.

How we develop strong side preferences we can only guess. One good guess is the positioning of the baby cradle. If your cradle stood next to the wall, then parents always approached you from one side only, and communicating from that side became most comfortable. Another good guess is that your less comfortable side might be the one your parents approached you from when criticizing.

Of course, all of us can override these subconscious side and distance preferences when necessary. But doing so requires energy investment and often creates subtle stress, because you feel uncomfortable. No one doubts that you can talk to your friends while suspended head down from the ceiling, but it just doesn't seem to be the most comfortable position to be in.

Groups have significantly more complicated psychology of space formed by the unions and the intersections of individual spaces. There are weak spots in the group space - if you stand there you will tend to be ignored. There are power spots in the group space - if you stand there you will control the flow of the conversation. More than just space, body orientation and movement also become integral to the group dynamics. Being aware of and able to shift the group dynamics is a highly useful skill for teachers, trainers, managers, public speakers, leaders. Some do it naturally, others can learn.

So how is this all useful? Well, by matching the most comfortable spatial orientation for the people that you speak with, you can immediately create a strong sense of rapport, and that is highly useful in all sorts of personal and professional settings. A quick professional tip for you is make sure you rearrange the meeting space in boardrooms, so that where you sit is not governed by where the chairs are, but by the best spatial positioning for the group, i.e. "get on the good side of your boss" (as usual, the language gives away the underlying subconscious mechanisms).

To match other people's preferred side and distance you need two skills: 1. You must be comfortable yourself with using any part of your space, and 2. You must be able to see what side and distance people prefer you to be on. One simple way to learn the latter is to enjoy a latte in a cafe or a martini in a bar while watching people meet and interact. You will observe all the nuances of the psychology of space play out right in front of you. See how quickly you can read spatial preferences, - we are down to a few seconds.

You've just read TIP #83 FOR CREATING AN EXTRAORDINARY AND MEANINGFUL LIFE brought to you by Holographic University. To get the next Tip visit us at:

May You Be Happy!
- Arman Darini, Ph.D.

About the Author: Arman Darini, Ph.D. is the director of Holographic University, the author of weekly Tips for Creating an Extraordinary and Meaningful Life, and a certified international NLP Trainer. As the leader of a dynamic team of Life Trainers and Coaches, Arman's motto is "I don't believe in your limitations". To learn more about Arman, visit

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