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Read the Room

Recently I had the opportunity to do personally what I have helped CEOs and executives do for years – deliver a difficult message to an audience containing with hostility, who were not in a receptive frame of mind. That’s a tough room to address under any circumstance. When the outcome matters to you as the presenter, and the stakes feel high, it is even more so. In that situation it is vitally important to read the room—not just once, but constantly.

Reading the room is a speaking skill, but it is more than that. It is a communication skill, a negotiation skill and a leadership skill which everyone needs, regardless of whether they are speaking, negotiating or leading. Reading the room keeps relationships on track and restores them when they go sideways. Unfortunately, few of us learn formally how to read a room. We get very caught up in the message we feel compelled to deliver, and miss the nuances of the full experience. We miss the EQ component that is so vital to reading a room.

Before we cover what reading the room is, though, it is important to get really clear what reading a room is not:

Reading the Room is Not Mind-reading

Even those of us who know better can still fall into the trap of expecting others to read our minds. This can take several forms, which include:

1. It’s obvious what anyone in my position would expect. No, it is not. We are all unique individuals with unique experiences, biases, personalities, styles and priorities. We may believe a thank you, apology or support is natural to expect. But instead of feeling like a victim of someone’s perceived lapse, we can ask for our expectations outright, now, or in the future.

2. You should know how I feel. Even the most rational, linear, logical among us have constant emotions. We worry, care deeply about outcomes and others, work very hard, and then can experience disappointment if things don’t turn out the way we had hoped. We are grateful, celebrate other’s wins, and try to be supportive. In fact, our inner emotional state is rich and constantly with us. And other people have that inner life too—except it is different. If we want someone to know how we feel, we simply must be transparent from the beginning—not after the fact.

3. You are self-absorbed, a jerk, cruel, or worse. This statement is the result of trying to read someone else’s mind and assigning motivations to actions that upset us, or we don’t understand. Very few people are actually narcissistic, sadistic, sociopathic, predatory or pathological. Still, we call them that behind their backs, and in our judgmental thinking all too often. Instead of assuming bad intentions, try assuming normal, doing-the-best-they-can intentions, and become curious. You cannot know why someone does the things they do, unless you ask.

Reading the Room is Not Contempt Prior to Investigation

If we have already decided something is good, bad, right, wrong, etc. before we hear an explanation, or do research on our own, then we have stepped right into a confirmation bias. From that pre-conceived decision, we are only able to see the information that confirms what we decided. This blocks the ability to connect with our audience who may feel differently. It shuts down cooperative dialog. And it prevents us from hearing any concerns we might actually be able to address.

Reading the Room is Not Defensiveness

When someone is aggressive, bullying, disrespectful, passive-aggressive, combative, or attacks us in any way, it can be extremely difficult not to defend ourselves. We begin arguing, providing our backup data and rationale. This amplifies conflict, rather than abating it. Defensiveness is self-defeating.

Reading the Room is Not Lecturing

Mansplaining is just one form of lecturing. What all lecturing has in common is a lack of understanding what the audience thinks, feels or knows before we launch. It is presumptive and lacks full empathy and engagement. Am I lecturing?

Reading the Room is Not Being a Doormat

For some of us it is excruciatingly painful to be at odds with our audience. We want a kumbaya moment more than anything else in the world, and our inner voice is crying out, “Can’t we all just get along?”

We would tell them anything just to get back on the same page, even if it means undermining what we know needs to be said and done next. This is not reading the room because you, as a leader, on the stage, in the negotiation, are also in the room. You simply must stand up for what you believe, or no one will believe you again. You may not “win your point” but you will instill trust, which, once lost, is extremely difficult to regain.

What Reading the Room Actually Is:

When we read the room we are willing to meet our audience where they are. We are not afraid of them, nor are we angry at them. We don’t hang back in the wings and then launch our content cold. Instead, we are intensely curious about who they are, what they think, and what really matters to them. In short, we work the room prior to speaking to understand what music in playing on the radio station inside their head (WIIFM – What’s In It For Me, for those of you not familiar of the call letters!)

Second, we have tremendous understanding, compassion and empathy for our audience. Although we may not be in their shoes, we accept why they feel and think as they do. We articulate what we do know about that in as close to their words as possible. We let them hear our understanding by reflecting it back to them, so they can feel seen, known and heard.

Third, we make it personal. We use first person, and are fully transparent—even vulnerable—in sharing our insight and stance. We tell a story. We let ourselves be human with them. Reading the room isn’t about showing up with our armor on, trying to be superior and overpower and impress. It is about capturing an audience’s imagination and engagement, so they can read us as well.

Reading the room is fluid, adaptable and dynamic. When a presenter shows up with a word-for-word, carefully crafted speech, and rigidly adheres to every nuance regardless of the energy in the room, things often go south very fast. You’ll know when the heads go down, cell phones come out, arms cross, and eyes glaze over. If that happens, it’s time to mix things up. Ask for a show of hands on an issue people are passionate about. Create some dialog and engagement. Name the elephant in the room, if there is one. But whatever you do, don’t shame or criticize your audience. Instead, build them up, and make them the star.

Reading the room is in your body language and expression. Professional speakers know to minimize their movement and footwork while presenting, to lean in toward their audience, to make frequent, individual eye contact, smile when appropriate, and as much as is possible. This is puts you in the conversation and as you do these things, you will receive visible responses. Reading the room is a dance between the presenter and the audience, which goes far beyond mere observation.

I have coached and written content for many, many leaders over the years to help them do all these things successfully. The results have almost universally exceeded their expectations. Now, however, I have a much deeper understanding and empathy for how difficult it can be to employ these things when faced with extreme negativity in a high-stakes situation. I am happy to share that, like with my executive clients, what I have been preaching, worked for me and my team as well. Reading the room really does work, even when everything in us is clamoring to do the opposite.

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