As a business leader, you probably understand the importance of being able to react on the fly. Adaptability, quick thinking and the ability to be quick on your feet can allow you to capitalize on a good situation or navigate your way out of a bad one.
But perfecting this skill requires the ability to read the room. While this can go for any scenario – internal meetings, new business pitches or sales calls, or even networking situations – it’s paramount to be able to pick up on not only the explicit discussions happening, but the underlying conversations and reactions of those in the room as well.
These subtle cues aren’t always easy to pick up on, but you can train yourself to not only be aware of them, but to influence those dynamics, with these 4 tips.
1. Observe the Room
The first and most important step in accurately reading a room sounds simple is theory, but often isn’t in practice: pay close attention to people. But this doesn’t just apply to listening to them – if you’re relying only on their verbal communication, you’re only getting half the picture.
Do a scan of the everyone in the room and consider who’s sitting next to whom, who’s smiling and who’s standing as well as who isn’t.
Then do your best to read how they’re feeling through their facial expressions, their posture and body language. Even quick smiles, raised eyebrows or small frowns can be telling.
Careful and consistent observation will give you the information needed to accurately read the room, interpret group dynamics and improve your social awareness in order to optimally navigate the situation.
2. Control How Much You Talk
You may have heard the old adage “you’ve got two ears and one mouth so you can listen twice as much as you speak.” And while it might sound cliché, it didn’t become an old adage without warrant.
You can’t accurately read the room if you’re spending most of your time talking. Whether you’re in a large group, a small group or speaking with a colleague one-on-one, take frequent pauses. Watch for nonverbal cues, body language and facial expressions.
Give mindful consideration to what others are saying. There’s a difference between listening and hearing. This seems simple enough, but most of the time we’re really just waiting for our turn to talk. Be present, be engaged, make eye contact and make everyone feel like you’re all in the conversation together.
You can show people that you’re listening by paraphrasing what they’ve said. On the flip side of that coin, if you feel as though you’re talking at somebody rather than to them, ask them a question. By asking them an open-ended question, you offer them the opportunity to tell you how they really feel rather than influencing their response with a guiding question.
3. Contextualize Your Observations and React Accordingly
Once you’ve assessed the room, try to look at people with a broader scope in relation to their individual or collective emotional states. Consider what’s happening in the company, in the lives and jobs of individuals and what might be motivating them. It’s important to understand that external factors beyond the current situation might be affecting them individually, and in turn their contribution to the dynamic in the room.
It’s also important to keep your own emotions in check and ensure you’re not projecting your feelings onto the group. For example, if the room is tense, don’t let yourself fall victim to negative energy, and do your best to avoid getting nervous or angry.
To be adaptable, quick-thinking and to navigate any situation, it’s important to keep a cool head and understand that, oftentimes in a business setting, somebody’s mood likely stems from an external situation and has nothing to do with you.
You can also connect directly with individuals later on to discuss their subtle reactions – for instance, if you noticed somebody furrow their brow at a particular topic, you can let them know you took note and ask how they felt about it. They’ll be glad you noticed.
4. Feel Empowered to Guide the Room
You can also go a step beyond managing your own emotions and work to guide the tone of the room as well.
If you notice things getting tense, you can use humour or empathy with the group to lighten the tone. Try to determine who in the room has the most social or hierarchical capital, keep an eye out for any positive signals and concentrate on them – an executive who smiles or somebody making light-hearted comments. Do your best to engage with them to shift the tone for everybody else in the room.
It’s a challenging art to master, but the ability to read the room and react accordingly can help you navigate any business scenario. Paying attention to both the explicit and underlying conversations allows you can adapt on the fly and act quickly to capitalize on great situations or rectify bad ones.