Oct 12, 2023 - Economy

Axios Finish Line: Read the room

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Most professionals are terrific readers. Just not of rooms.

  • At parties, talking to friends, or especially in work meetings so many people are oblivious to the body language — and actual language — of those around them.

Why it matters: Imagine the tension and misunderstanding that could be averted if we were better at reading others.

The dynamics are usually obvious — if you bother to notice.

  • We learn to read words when we're young — slowly and through repetition. But no one teaches us how to read others — or a room. It's more art than science, and requires more EQ than IQ.
  • If you can master it or even become decent at it, you'll unleash magical new powers to get more out of meetings, and those around you.

Here are a few hacks:

  1. Back to school. Commit to fine-tuning your situational EQ radar. This means becoming a student of people in small group settings, be it card games, parties or work. It means wanting — and actively trying — to spot human tick, tells and patterns. This didn't come naturally to me. It has now, through hard work and practice, grown into a vital strength.
  2. Case the room. I speak to a lot of groups. It's important to know if I'm talking to farmers or pharmacists or Axios staff — and it's plain dumb and disrespectful not to find out. Know thy audience. Why are they here? Why are you here? Know the context of the conversation, so you can spot what the room is telling you.
  3. Shift your eyes. Be honest: Most of the time, you're thinking about your ideas — or dinner plans — when others are talking. You're itching to read an email or respond to a text. Instead, focus outward. Study what others are doing and saying. Notice body-language patterns, and what seems to motivate people or agitate them.
  4. Watch faces. In a Zoom room, facial expressions are your best focal point. Same inside an actual, old-fashioned room. You can tell in someone's eyes if they're paying attention. If a person seems defensive, then calibrate … confused, clarify … enthused, hunt for why.
  5. Let 'em talk. If you're in a small setting and you're doing most of the talking, you're losing. Even if it's a presentation, be quick, sharp, direct — then find a way to involve others. Listen. Ask questions. Seek clarification.
  6. Defuse tension. Nothing good comes from escalating a situation in front of others. It rarely shows the strength you think. It often puts others on the defensive, bringing out the absolute worst in people. If you see tempers rising, the perfect escape hatch is a simple: "Hey, appreciate your views. Why don't you and I chat afterward?"
  7. Take notes. I mean this literally and figuratively. Write down your observations and takeaways — in work meetings, in particular. It sharpens recall and keeps you focused. But also keep running notes in your head about people in the room so you can put observations into practice next time around. In our exec meetings, Mike Allen rarely talks but always walks out with a napkin or scratch paper full of brilliant insights.

The bottom line: Think of the room as a book. Read the words — and between the lines.

This article originally appeared in Axios Finish Line, our nightly newsletter on life, leadership and wellness. Sign up here.

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