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The Five Chairs – In Which Do You Sit?

In every moment of the day, we are making choices about which behaviours we are bringing into the world, about what attitudes we hold towards everything we do and everyone we meet. These choices impact upon everything, from the conversations we have to the relationships we form. But our choices go beyond this too: every behaviour that we birth affects the people around us and their attitudes to us.

This is the argument of the behavioural coach, Louise Evans, whose TED Talk provides a novel way to make us more conscious of our behaviours, to make us become a bit more intentional and aware of the ways in which we behave, and to allow us to choose to contribute more to the happiness, success, and well-being of everyone around us. If you are thinking about workplace culture, these ideas are crucial.

The Five Chairs provide what Evans calls a ‘behaviour compass’, with each chair representing a different reaction to an event, problem, or person. The aim is to sharpen your perception of your behaviours at each moment, to cultivate the ability to change chairs, to move from a negative reaction or behaviour to a more fruitful or productive one.

Let’s take a look at the Five Chairs and see how you can apply them.

The Red Chair. The Jackal: Attack

The red chair is associated with judgement. Now, judgement is okay, it is natural. However, out of all of the chairs, this is the one most associated with unpleasant behaviour.

Evans associates it with a jackal, a clever animal, one that is always on the look-out for opportunities to attack, for weaknesses to exploit. In humans, this position manifests in the worst bits of judgement: you want to blame, complain, and punish. You are keen to notice what is wrong with others, and you may well be happy to point that out.

The problem here is obvious, and Evans quotes Mother Teresa to make that clear: ‘The more we judge people, the less time we have to love them’. This is not a productive place from which to interact effectively with others.

The Yellow Chair. The Hedgehog: Self-doubt

The next chair is associated with the hedgehog, and it represents feelings of vulnerability, the desire to protect ourselves, but also to judge ourselves mercilessly. Here, we may like to play the victim, and mobilise the feelings of failure and rejection.
In this chair, we become aware of our self-doubt, and the constructive stance here is to reflect upon this and what we might do with this.

Evans quotes Jiddu Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher: ‘the highest form of intelligence is the ability to observe ourselves without judging’.

The Green Chair. The Meerkat: Wait

In the green chair sits the meerkat. Here, you are observant, curious, mindful, vigilant. You are continually reflecting upon what you yourself are thinking and upon what others are thinking. You question and question and question, and, as you have moved beyond the destructive, judgemental phases, you have opened your mind a little to more positive behaviour.

As the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, said: ‘You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the only way… it does not exist.’ This openness to difference is precisely the mindset of the meerkat.

The Blue Chair. The Dolphin: Detect

If the meerkat endlessly questions, deferring action to another time, the dolphin in the blue chair has the answers. Here, we look at ourselves and are self-aware: we know who we are and what we want, and we are not afraid to say it. As Aristotle said, ‘knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom’, and, for Evans, this knowledge makes you assertive – but not, as with the jackal, aggressive.

The Purple Chair. The Giraffe: Connect

The giraffe has the longest neck of all land animals and, because of this, it has the biggest heart too. These traits make it the perfect symbol of brilliant vision and empathy and compassion. Here, you drop the ego and listen to people, you place yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Abraham Lincoln apparently once said, ‘I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better’. Compare this attitude to the jackal. In the purple chair, you will ditch the judgemental, you will become tolerant and appreciate diversity. Your question will be what can I do for that person? or what is it that they want?


Herein lies the key to a more conscious approach to leadership. This simple illustration highlights the range of psychological reactions we can have in any interaction. Do you recognise these behaviours in your team? Even in yourself?

If you are finding many of the interactions are coming in the form of the ‘jackal’, then this is something you need to address in your business… And it starts with you.

Culture, one of the vital structural elements of your business, will be shaped by your leadership. Self-reflection and self-awareness are key to being a better, and more conscious, daring leader, and they are crucial to effective team dynamics. So, next time you interact with your team, be observant, be self-aware, and aim to facilitate connection. You might discover what a menagerie you have in your office!

The Five Chairs – Action Points.

  • Consider how you react in tricky situations. Are you more of a jackal or a giraffe – and why?