Can You Read The Room?

Reading the Room for Better Empathic Leadership

This may seem like a small question, but for leaders in large, matrix and complex organisations, the answer can have big implications. In Australia, and throughout the Anglo-world, we are conditioned to be quite explicit in the way we communicate. Being explicit means stating the obvious and working with the obvious. But as we all know when we are working with the obvious, we can miss the nuances in a conversation or the underlying dynamics playing out in a team. And there’s the catch. Even though we are living and working in a culture where being explicit is a requirement, we are leading, and working with, people. And we are just a bit more complicated. We will engage in passive-aggressive behaviours. We will pay lip service. We will want help but not ask for it. And that’s where our ability to really be present in the moment counts. It’s where we pick up that small inflection in the way something is said that alerts us that everything may not be as it seems. Like a colleague who walks out of a meeting as soon as it finishes without so much as a thanks or bye, when this is the one person who would normally be last to leave and engaging in the small talk as you leave the meeting. It’s the little things like this that may not be something; but they may just be.

If reading the room isn’t your strong suit that’s ok. The good news is that it’s something you can practice and get better at – even if you don’t master it. The three things you can do immediately are:

  • Become observant. In my experience, being a people watcher isn’t hard – people are everywhere! Just as you would take in the scenery on a road trip through the countryside, you can do the same with people anywhere. On public transport, while sitting in a café or whilst in a meeting. Observe. Take it all in. To do this effectively you need to…
  • Really be present in the moment and observe the whole package – what’s being said, how it’s being said and the body language. Look for any signs of misalignment (eg; “of course I’m ok!” said with folded arms, a slightly clipped tone and avoiding eye contact.). Look for eye contact between members of the team and matched body language. This is a sign of alignment which can be both healthy and unhealthy – it just depends what they are aligning on, for example, your message or their interpretation of your message.
  • Pause, Reflect & Open. Before you respond to what you’re observing, take a moment to take it all in, to listen and to understand what has really been said, or what could be playing out in the group. But we don’t want to make any assumptions either, so the pause provides us with an opportunity to briefly reflect and make a better decision on next steps. If you feel something is bubbling away, a simple and well-timed open question can open the door. Something like “where is everyone’s head right now?” or “what’s standing out for you right now?” can often do the trick.

Picking up a small cue, or interaction between team-members in a meeting can allow you to adjust course in the moment or ask a question that allows a voice to be heard that can add value to a conversation. Reading the room simply offers you the opportunity to lead and engage in a more empathic way.

Ponte Valle Insight: Can You Read The Room?

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