Can you read the room?

I loved the title in one of Dan Reiland’s posts – ‘If you can’t read the room, you can’t lead the room.’  Our lives are full of relationships with others and with meetings of one kind and another and whether we are talking with our wives, our kids, teaching a group of students or having a conversation with someone, it is vital that we learn to read the room.

Generally, the more relational you are, the more you pick up on relational cues and can read what is going on.  The challenge is that many leaders are more task oriented than relationally oriented and so are lacking in this vital skill of picking up where people are at and find it hard being able to know what is going on with their audience. If you are insecure or nervous, then it is difficult enough to put your words together, so thinking about the room is the last thing on your mind – thankfully you can grow in this ability.  The real concern though, is for those who are more secure in their leadership but not growing in their emotional awareness or sensitivity to where people are at or what is needed.  Here are a few thoughts to improve on your reading the room:

1. Initial connection: We have a little window into the life of Jesus as he approached the woman at the well and was able to read her and know what to say to draw her attention.  Other examples would include Zacchaeus, the connection with the prostitute brought to him by the pharisees to stone, the rich young ruler, the disciples and others.  Studies have shown that the first four minutes in a relationship are important to establish connection.  I remember a meeting where the leader started the staff meeting, announcing that in order to save time and energy there would be no tea, coffee and refreshments given at all future staff meetings.  He went on to tell a few jokes that weren’t funny and you could feel the whole atmosphere in the room hit rock bottom.  However, he carried on regardless, not aware of the feelings of discouragement that he had invoked on the group. 

People want to be enthused by meetings they attend, but it takes energy from you, the leader, to warm up the atmosphere and share how glad and appreciative you are for them being there. It really helps to smile a lot and you will find that people will naturally smile back!  If you find it hard to bring the kind of warmth necessary to make people feel comfortable and welcome, find someone that this comes easy to and have them start the meeting.  These are the kind of people you need to do the MCing.

2. Awareness of others: Jesus came into the room as the disciples were talking about ‘who was the greatest.’  Awkward!  Have you been in meetings where you could physically feel the tension or the temperature in the room going up?  I remember leadership team meetings where there was disagreement over decisions and I had to step in and say, ‘let’s have a time out for 15 minutes’.  At other times where people are tired or sleepy, a stand up break or a time for the group to interact is the obvious need.  We have all been to meetings in the past perhaps where the speaker was oblivious to the fact that we needed a break and the meeting dragged on for hours.  These experiences discourage us from attending more of the same type of meeting but hopefully help us to do better in our own awareness of how people are doing as they spend time in our presence.  Remember, it’s difficult to be aware of your audience if you are spending most of the time talking, you need time to listen too!

3. Picking up the atmosphere: Jesus had been talking to the crowd a long time and said to his disciples, ‘the people are hungry, let’s feed them.’  Jesus knew they needed a break (and a miracle).  It’s important to pick up whether people are cold, hot, tired, hungry, thirsty, irritated or however they feel.  If they are going to listen and be influenced, they need to be comfortable. If the physical setting is difficult, then at least talk about it, have a joke about it and let them know you are aware and will take it into account.  We recently had a meeting room where there were only benches to sit on, which were pretty uncomfortable.  So, we knew that it was important to have lots of break out groups and enable people to stand up and move around.

4. Non-verbal communication: If we are going to read the room, we need to be observant and t how people are responding and not just what they’re saying.  If you’re relying solely on their words, you’re only getting a fraction of the picture.  Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening, while Martha was clanging and banging away in the kitchen!  Jesus knew what was going on.  When you enter a room, scan the area   and notice who is sitting, standing, talking, smiling, alone, in a group, etc.  If when you ask a question, no one is responding, you need to ask yourself why.  What can you do to help the dialogue?   – Ask specific people a question, get them to share with their table or the person next to them and then have them respond to the whole group, encourage any staff to be involved and get the responses going, etc.  If people seem distracted, disinterested, distant, bored, what can you do to help them get interested?   – sometimes they just need a coffee or washroom break but more often you need to introduce activities, games, videos, discussion, role plays, anything to draw interest and gain their attention where just listening to your voice isn’t doing it!  Remember after 15 minutes of verbal communication, you need to switch it up to keep the interest up.

5. Energy level: Cultures vary so much and it’s good to ask some questions if you are travelling and speaking in different countries like, ‘What will help to build morale and bring interaction?’  The warmer cultures need songs, opportunities to talk and process.  The colder cultures probably need the same but perhaps are more used to processing material on their own.  Colder cultures just won’t show the exuberance that the warmer cultures do and don’t tend to give so much immediate feedback.  Ask yourself – what does this person or this group need, in order to become more engaged?  I remember a high S personality sharing about how they don’t get excited like the high I’s and their excitement doesn’t necessarily look excited to other personalities!  But sometimes, especially in meetings, we need to work hard at investing energy to raise the level in the group. So, try to be tuned into the emotions and the energy in the room and where its lacking, be creative in your approach to help them ‘get excited.’         

6. Sensing the presence of the Holy Spirit:  This is probably the most important aspect of leading meetings.  Jesus was aware of when his Father and the Holy Spirit were wanting him to heal someone whether in the synagogue, in the pool of Bethesda or as people touched him on the road.  He was sensitive to know when and what to share in the homes he visited and throughout his ministry we know ‘He only did e he saw the Father doing.’ 

I would refer to this ‘sensing’ as spiritual leadership.  It is the understanding of what the Holy Spirit is doing and how we can give him room and opportunity to speak to us.  It may be asking the group to be silent to listen, respond in prayer or repentance, have opportunity for individuals to speak out what they are hearing or sensing or allowing the meeting to simply carry on to make the most of God’s presence.  There is a huge difference from an empty silence and a God filled silence or a worship time where you keep repeating a chorus to fill the time and having an anointed time of singing where no one wants to stop.

Reading the room is vital to every leader who desires to relate well with others – that means you too!  If you know it’s not one of your strengths, then find someone to mentor you, or have someone close to you in meetings who can whisper in your ear what is going on and what you can possibly do to help the situation.  Staffing your weakness in this way can be a lifesaver.  ‘Lord, help us all to be in tune with you, so we can all read the room well and see the maximum fruit come from our times together.’

Until next month,


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