Earlier this year, I was speaking at an event and walked into a small auditorium which held no more than 250 seats. I gathered my notes and carefully got situated on one of the high-top chairs trying to remember what Kate Middleton would do. To cross or not cross the ankles, that was the question.
I quickly surveyed the room. And the first thing I immediately noticed was that the front row was entirely empty. Each and every chair. Alone and just waiting to be occupied.
People trickled in and climbed over each other to get seats in the very back. Others asked colleagues to move down the row to make other seats available. Two individuals even came in just as we were about to start and sat in the aisle. And by the aisle, I mean the floor, right on the steps.
And the front row? Still entirely empty.
"Plenty of seats up front everyone. I don't bite, come on down," I joked. Attempting to make eye contact with those on the floor of the aisle. And they would rather sit on the dirty floor than sit comfortably in a chair.
Because anything but the front row. I'll sit on the floor, I'll stand in the back, or I'll even stand in the hallway listening in through the door. But please, no, not the front row. I can't. I won't. I don't.
Why don't we want to sit in the front row?
"I don't sit in the front row" or "I don't do front rows" was my mantra for much of my life. I always sat in the back row in college and then in graduate school (except for when they assigned seats which was just terrible.)
Early on in my career, I would enter the empty room before the meeting or workshop started, and there I would be, marking my spot in the back corner. I would even get there early so I could sit in the back. And if I had to leave to use the bathroom, I would be sure to mark the chair with my black cardigan. Just in case someone tried to sneak into my back-row seat.
The back was safe. I didn't always have to pay attention. And let's be honest, I didn't want to have the attention drawn to me.
I was introverted, and I was shy (which are two different things) and afraid of having to contribute. Afraid to use my voice. Afraid I would say or do the wrong thing. And for someone who saw herself leading and making impact in corporations, I had to start to tackle this fear head on.
"I don't sit in the front row" or "I don't do front rows" was my mantra for much of my life.
As I found mentors who helped me with my fear of speaking up – and I mean speaking up in meetings, speaking in front of leadership, and speaking in front of a large audience - one mentor encouraged me to think about where I chose to sit and why. She advised me to always sit at the table, and to pull up a chair to the table if necessary. And to always sit in the front row.
"Pull up the chair for others to sit at the table," she coached me. "And bring a colleague along to sit in the front row with you."
Because when you sit in the front row, we all make a physical commitment. To be present, to be seen, to be noticed, to be engaged, to be supportive of whoever is speaking. To make eye contact, to smile, to nod our heads in agreement as the speaker shares their knowledge. To build our confidence. And to maybe, just maybe, work our nerves up to ask a question or even make a comment.
Why don't we want to sit in the front row?
We don't want to be called on, questioned, or asked to contribute. We don't want to have to use our voice. Because some of us are still working on finding our voices. Some of us are afraid if we use our voice, and say the wrong thing because others will judge us. Some of us are disconnected and disengaged. We are just trying to get through the day. It's just another meeting/event/workshop on the calendar to attend.
Some of us are scared. Because if we sit in the front row, we might actually be seen. And whether we want to admit it or not, we are trying hard not to be noticed and get by.
Because when you sit in the front row, we all make a physical commitment to build our confidence.
Next time you attend a meeting, sit at the front of the table. Sit in the front row. Be seen. Be noticed. Let people know you were in the room, in that meeting. Let your voice be heard. And bring someone along with you. Don't let that front row continue to be unoccupied.
Please don't sit in the back row. And for that matter, when an actual chair/seat/spot is available, please don't sit in the aisle either. And certainly don't sit on the floor.
This article was originally published September 30, 2019.
WRITTEN BYMita Mallick