How to Read a Room Like a Pro
Seasoned experts who understand how to work with the energy of a room—a high school teacher, a legal mediator, and two business executives—help you handle any family, work or social interaction with grace.
There are a whole cacophony of clues that allow us to roll with the punches, say, when a work meeting changes course midway or when the dinner party conversation suddenly makes a turn for the awkward. But, because we are often so wrapped up in what we’re going to say next, we may not be paying attention to the body language of others around us and miss these signs. Here, experts explain what a variety of common visual cues may mean.
Microphone in front of audience seated at tables
The clues: Furrowed brows, arms wrapped around themselves, either very quiet or excessively chatty about small talk to avoid the topic at hand.
The read: Worry and nervousness
What to do next: Be calm and empathetic. “When people don’t know what’s going to happen next, they often feel as though they are being called down to the principal’s office and are fearing the worst,” says Mary Greenwood, author of How to Mediate Like a Pro and an attorney and mediator in Fernandina Beach, Florida. To ease the anxiety in the room, she says, offer answers and explain the situation as best as you can in a soothing manner as you would to a close friend. “Slow down your talking and lean in to show your concern.”
The clues: Responses that seem off-base, dazed eyes, furrowed brows.
The read: Confusion
What to do next: Acknowledge what you’re sensing from the crowd with something like ‘I’m confused. Are you all confused?’, says Emily and Dick Axelrod, founders of a consulting firm the Axelrod Group Inc. and authors of Let’s Stop Meeting Like This. “This normalizes their unease and makes it OK for criticism to occur.” Then in a soothing manner, try to explain the topic in a way that relates to their lives so that it’s more meaningful for them.
The clues: Hardened expressions, hostile gestures (slamming books or flinging paper), massaging heads, little verbal feedback.
The read: Crankiness or anger
What to do next: “To bring a bit of humanity into the atmosphere, it may help to make small talk for a couple of minutes,” says Greenwood. And if the situation has blown up beyond casual chitchat? She suggests you put on your best poker face and speak in a calm, even tone, while acknowledging people’s emotions and trying to redirect focus to a specific goal at hand. “Get people into the present,” says Greenwood. “Instead of focusing on what happened in the past, ask them what they want now.” As for moody kids and teens, Laura Farrelly, who teaches high school-age kids in Eugene, Oregon, finds giving them a break may clear the air, as long as you turn it into a choice for them: “Do you want to grab a drink or take a walk?”
The clues: Silence, looking at the floor, sighing, rolling eyes.
The read: Awkward tension
What to do next: “Let people sit with the emotion and process it for a few moments, then acknowledge the weirdness by saying ‘OK, what’s going on? Seems like everyone got quiet,’ to get individuals to open up,” says Dick Axelrod. Of course, sometimes, tension occurs because someone’s being a jerk. In that case, Farrelly agrees that it’s important not to ignore it—everyone is aware of it. “After a beat, try to inject some humor with a closing remark, like ‘Glad that’s over.’ so you can move on.”
The clues: Smiles, good posture, chins up, leaning in, sharing looks with each other.
The read: Interest and engagement
What to do next: Ride the feeling as long as you can. “I’ll sprinkle some praise around the room with a thumbs up or a high five to keep spirits up,” says Farrelly.