As a consultant, reading the room is really important. If I am at a team retreat and notice that everyone is walking in and sitting far away from each other with their arms crossed, I know I’m going to earn my paycheck that day. But if everyone is walking in joking around with a cup of coffee and a smile? My job is going to be much easier!
One of the most important skills for being a leader is to be able to understand what’s happening beneath the surface and help it rise to the top in a productive way.
Read Between the Lines
Reading the room is really about understanding what energy is there.
How do you do that? Harvard Business Review says the first thing to do is observe. You’ll need to do more than listen to what people are actually saying, and expand your scope to notice body language, spacing, expressions, and how people are relating to each other.
The same article tells us to keep an eye out for micro-expressions. You know what these are; a fleeting eye roll, a quick glance between participants, an almost imperceptible shake of the head. If you can pick up these little clues, you’ll have a much better sense of how people are really feeling.
Curious how you do it?
It’s hard to tune into other people and read the energy in the room if you spend the whole time talking. Encourage others to get involved, offering big open-ended questions and allowing time for people to chime in.
This has the added effect that it gives the space for people to say what they’re thinking, which isn’t always possible if you spend the whole time ramming through your own agenda.
The key is to be fully present and listen to both to what is being said as well as to what is not being said (through all the other non-verbal messages).
Use Your Knowledge
Now that you’ve picked up on what’s really happening, what do you do next? Well, there are a lot of options which can help change the direction of a meeting, if necessary.
Don’t be afraid to use a little humor to lighten the mood if things have gotten too tense. Ask questions if you need to bring other people’s voices out. If you spot a positive reaction, get curious and invite that person to share.
And most important, name what you’re sensing and ask people how they are feeling! It can be misguided to rely only on your own perceptions, and a quick ‘Feels a little weird in here….’ can go a long way towards figuring out what’s up.
Don’t Get Sucked In
It’s important that as you work to understand the energy you don’t get sucked in. See if you can stay a somewhat neutral observer, gathering information but not letting it color your own view.
Use what you’re observing to build understanding, respond with empathy, and get things back on track. And whether your next meeting is a comedy, a thriller, or a MAD Magazine, be sure to read it closely all the way through.