The art of “reading the room” is a technique most professionals don’t know about or understand how to do. Almost anyone can learn how to read a room to help navigate business scenarios. It just takes time to learn the language spoken and understand the dynamics playing out in front of you. People convey much more than their words can say. Learning the mechanics of reading a room full of people can benefit anyone. For a project manager, it can help successfully lead a team.
Successfully reading a room full of different people, personalities, and knowledge levels is a learned skill that provides a wealth of benefits beyond what high-level conversation alone can tell you.
A group of people meeting together in a room offers multiple levels of behavioral and psychological dynamics that can provide a project manager with the details they need to successfully lead a team, steer a project, and minimize blockers. This is useful in understanding hang ups, decision-making behaviors, and the creation of strategy and new ideas.
Things to Pay Attention to
Discussions are revealing, and more than just verbal. While the words can tell you specifics about the topic, they are only part of the conversation. Conversations have both straightforward and underlying meanings. Voice inflection, especially on the executive level, can cue you into what they are thinking and what their opinions are.
An individual’s body language and facial expressions — and the underlying messages they communicate — hold a wealth of information. Difficult, uncomfortable or complex discussions force people to provide information on one level, while their personal opinions and oppositions are communicated on a separate level. They share something hidden, yet important, and that shapes the meaning of something else without being explicit.
Non-verbal communication in reaction to shared information can include involuntary facial expressions, body movements or positions (posture), gestures, eye contact, touch, space, and voice. Inconsistencies in any of these visual clues is also telling.
Examples of non-verbal cues to pay attention to include reactions that appear:
- Worried or nervous: Furrowed brows, darting eyes, arms wrapped tight, quiet, or excessively talkative and unfocused
- Confused: Vacant or dazed eyes, partial or incoherent responses, hesitant or unsure
- Angry: Hostile or abrupt gestures, flushed appearance, slamming items, not speaking, or intentionally mute
- Awkward: Silence, looking away or at the floor, sighing, rolling eyes, avoidance
- Interested: Fully engaged, smiling, laughing, head up, leaning in, eye contact, compliments
Tips for Reading a Room
Observe the room. Don’t just listen, as this will only give you half the story. Look around at everyone present and make note of something specific and unique about each person. Note where and how they choose to sit or stand, how little or how much they participate, if they make eye contact, and what they do throughout the meeting. Give your undivided attention, take notes, and notice if participants appear distracted or bored.
Control how much you speak. No matter how much you have to share, plan ahead and stick to talking points. Show consideration for time and allow for questions and feedback. Speaking too much will not allow participation and lead to boredom. Speaking too little can make you seem unprepared or not in control of the meeting. Be sure to listen for the rest of the time. Remember: There is a difference between listening and hearing what is said.
Contextualize observations. Focus on observing individual behaviors in an effort to learn from them. Try to understand by considering what is happening now — in the company, in the moment, in their individual lives and roles — that may influence team members’ opinions and motivate them. Make mental notes if you cannot write them down, and ask yourself the following questions:
- What was the topic and how was it discussed?
- What input was different and what was the same?
- How do the details of the discussion affect the outcome of the problem?
React accordingly. Take in the information presented and react in a way that is supportive. No matter the mood of the meeting, try to keep your emotions in check. You should neither project or be influenced by individuals or the group dynamic. Be a leader and make your best judgement based on assessment and analysis of the group as a whole. Take the best details to make a suggestion or provide direction. Follow up after the meeting with individuals if that makes sense.
Guide the room. Realize that you have the power to lead the tone or direction of the room. Interject when things get heated with empathy or humor. Identify the most influential or outspoken person in the room, and then engage and interact with them in a positive way.
How to Read the Room in a Virtual Meeting
Online meetings of remote workers offer a unique set of challenges. Reading a virtual room is more difficult, but not impossible. A digital setting offers limited viewing angles, providing you less feedback to work with. Also, microexpressions on screen last less longer than in person, and are critical when you can’t see the person’s whole body.
The same guidelines as in-person meetings apply, but understand that the quality of a given person’s internet connection may vary. Don’t overthink it if someone chooses to not be on camera or has to call in from another location, like a car.
Virtual meetings provide the opportunity to read many faces at once in a lineup on the screen. Click through the thumbnails and enlarge the feed to see better when someone is speaking. Get to know the individual patterns and personalities in your team. Note those who consistently dial in early or late, turn the camera on or off, or multitask on multiple screens.
How Project Managers Can Make the Most of Reading a Room
Project managers gain a lot of knowledge from properly reading a room. This can help guide decisions and provide direction, especially when you’re leading a team that does not directly report to you.
Above all, remember that knowing and practicing theory alone does not make a project manager a good leader. Get to know your team members individually to understand what makes them tick. Understanding all the levels of communication taking place in a meeting can give you an edge on understanding what is going on, how to influence change on a project, and how to head off problems before they snowball.