Failure to read the room is a rampant problem in many if not most workplaces -- whether we're too distracted or hurried, or too "busy," we are simply not listening to and reading each other carefully. Those who do it well find it's a powerful asset. For those who don't, it can be a career-limiter.
If you've attended too many ineffective meetings, underwhelming presentations, or informal conversations that missed the mark, then you know what it's like when someone doesn't read the room. Even socially, can you recall a time when someone was talking about themselves nonstop? Did they read the room? Not so much.
Coaching many executives and emerging leaders over the last decade, I've found the need to be better at reading the room is a common denominator to building support and credibility among colleagues, clients, and others. It's as important when you're talking through a problem with one or two colleagues in the hall as it is brainstorming the latest innovation opportunity with your leadership team.
How it's done
Reading the room means doing the following four things well when you're meeting with an individual or group. Note that you don't have to try and do all of them at once; practice them one by one.
1. Read their signals: Listen to and watch the other(s) carefully. Every comment, question, and physical (face/body) movement are their signals to you. Read those signals and respond to them in real time. What do they really mean by what they're asking or saying--or what does their silence suggest? What's not being said but may need to be addressed? What are the most important signals to me, and how best to respond?
2. Assess their absorption: From their specific questions or comments to you (or lack thereof) what do you need to adjust to match your rate of delivery well to their rate of absorption? Is the conversation moving forward, or stepping back to what was said earlier? Are their questions and comments reflecting what you had hoped would be discussed, or are you off topic? What do you need to do to fix it / move it along?
3. Test their engagement: Periodically pause and ask questions that clarify their engagement with what you're saying / discussing / presenting. "Would you like me to go into more or less detail on that?" / "Are we addressing what you had hoped we would?" / "Is there anything you've been scratching your head about that we should cover?"
4. Elevate your perspective: Keep a part of your attention hovering over the conversation and considering: How am I coming across? Am I being too long-winded, too quiet, or striking the right balance between questions, comments, and silence? Who's more tuned in and tuned out, and should I adjust accordingly? Overall, are we heading for a good result here, or should I make an adjustment?
Looking at these four keys, it may strike you as a LOT to do, particularly when trying to cover whatever content is needed in the conversation. If you find that daunting, remember, it's a process of practice and more practice. Just think back to when you learned to drive a car--there seemed to be a lot of levers and buttons and divided attention needed. Just like learning to drive, with practice, you'll become a proficient and automatic room reader over time.
What it's like when it's missing
If you're wondering whether all of this practice is worthwhile, consider what it's like when it's missing. Here's what it sounds like:
"She's super smart and loves to talk. It's impossible to get a word in so people just tune her out in meetings, and still she just keeps going on and on."
"He comes across as too junior for his role. He always goes into too much technical detail and it sounds like he's too far in the weeds to know the big picture. He gets the feedback but doesn't understand why he comes across that way."
"When she presents to the Board, it's too much content and no recognition on her part they need time for discussion. They're really wanting to zoom in on one or two things, and she's 10 pages ahead."
"When I'm talking to him in my one on one meetings, he seems very distracted. He's not really listening, and it makes me feel like he's just going through the motions. I wonder if he doesn't really care about my division, but then I hear the same things from my colleagues."
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You can be the smartest most capable person in the world, but if you can't read the room, you're going to fall down, time after time, because you lose the people around you.
As you practice these keys you will notice a significant difference--not only in what you're able to pick up on and deliver in collaboration with others, but also in the level of colleague support and leadership you can achieve. It's well worthwhile.