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January 05, 2023

How To Read the Room

Ever hear someone talk about “reading the room”? 

No, this isn’t first-grade story time – that would be reading to the room (I’m suddenly picturing my elementary school teacher Mrs. Poinsett cracking open the latest Berenstain Bears book! 😆).

Learning how to read the room is an essential skill of leadership, so today we’re diving into what it really means and what you can do to get better at it.

So what the heck is “reading the room”? 

Well, it means that you’re able to pick up on information that’s not explicitly stated – emotional states or mindsets, like whether people are hesitant, confused, tense, resistant, stressed, excited, connected, or supportive.

When it comes to “reading the room,” people start at different levels of ability. For some, it may feel really natural, while others might struggle to pick up on social and emotional information. Regardless, it’s a skill that anyone can practice and improve over time.

Can you break it down further? 

A lot of information is communicated through a combination of signals including hand gestures, posture, facial expressions, eye contact, tone, inflection, pauses, and someone’s energetic “vibe.” 

Lots about reading these cues is subtle and sometimes intuitive – which makes this a challenging subject to understand. For an expert’s take, check out this interesting video on non-verbal communication from a former FBI agent (Even though we don’t expect you to reach this super-spy level of interpretation!).

For example, if you’re speaking with someone who is physically shifting around in their seat, this can indicate the other person is uncomfortable. Or, if someone speaks slowly and with a lot of intention, this signals they’re probably trying to communicate carefully about a sensitive subject.

Reading the room isn’t about jumping to conclusions or making conclusive judgments. After all, you can’t truly tell what someone is thinking or feeling with 100% accuracy. However, picking up on social and emotional cues gives you important additional insight into how to best communicate and build relationships with others. 

Why should I care about how to read the room? 

Great leaders know how to influence others’ attitudes and behaviors. To be most successful at this, you need to understand how other people are thinking and feeling in real-time. This is especially important given that situations are always changing, which can cause people’s thoughts and feelings to shift in turn. 

Sure, there’s always something to be said for being direct with questions — “What do you think about this?” “How are you feeling about this?” However, a lot of factors may obscure someone’s verbal response, including fear of offending someone, feeling insecure in their response, or feigned excitement to support the idea. Reading the below-the-surface factors helps give you a fuller picture.

Additionally, when your team members feel that you understand them at a deeper level, this bolsters trust and confidence. 

What should I pay attention to? 

Reading the room is tied directly to emotional intelligence, which is the ability to perceive, understand, and manage how emotions impact our behavior and relationships.

Emotions are always present, whether or not you want them to be – they affect how we filter information, verbalize our opinions, and shape our perspectives.

READ MORE: Expressing Emotions at Work Can Help You Lead Better

“So we like to say that emotions are data, and emotions communicate meaning and intent.” – David Caruso, EI Skills Group Co-Founder

Can I get better at reading the room? 

Yes! The good news is that using emotional intelligence to read the room is a skill that can be learned. 

Here are some tips for how to read the room: 

Get out of your head – You won’t be able to pick up on non-verbal information from others if your attention and energy are focused on your internal thoughts. Practice catching your own head chatter and mental gymnastics so you can stop it in its tracks. Then you can be more connected to others in the room.

Practice being present – Once you can catch and pause your internal chatter, you can turn your attention to being present. This means being fully attuned to whatever is emerging in the current moment, which enables you to focus on the people around you with genuine curiosity and deep listening.

Connect on a human level – Small talk can go a long way. Before jumping right into business, take the time to chat about current events, holidays, or hobbies. Asking curious questions about someone’s weekend or family can reinforce the connection, which then helps you read the room more easily.

Expand your emotional palette – Expanding your emotional vocabulary beyond a handful of core emotions can help you better recognize the nuance of various emotional states in others. Check out the emotion vocab wheel here.

Pay more attention to body language – Practice becoming more aware of others’ hand gestures, posture, eye contact, and facial expressions. What might changes in these behaviors tell you? Does someone’s body language match what they’re saying? Remember that body language can be a useful indicator, but it’s not the whole story. Don’t fall into the trap of making conclusive judgments based simply on one piece of information. Mix these observations with other cues and “data” to get a full picture.

Pay attention to pauses – Like body language, silence can be a powerful signal of what someone’s thinking or feeling. It could indicate thoughtfulness, importance, hesitation, tension, or that someone is leaving you space to speak.

Listen to your intuition – So much of what we’re talking about here is intuitive. Practice getting more tuned in to your gut feeling about what’s happening around you. What are you naturally picking up on in social situations? Just don’t assume you’re always right. Ask questions that help you verify whether your intuition is on track or off base.

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