Chances are, you’ve been there. You walk into a conference room, dinner party, or group of playground parents and make a comment that immediately shifts the ballast of the conversation. Eyes dart at you. Their message is clear: Dude, read the room. But you’ve already said or done something out of sync with what’s appropriate in the moment.
It happens. But it’s avoidable. When you’re told to — or sense that you should — “read the room,” it means that you need to slow down and pick up on the social cues around you. Is someone upset? Having a serious conversation? What is the overall tone? Learning how to read the room is an important skill, one that can be honed by pausing to observe a few key details.
While the impulse may be rooted in shyness or social anxiety, people who fail to read the room rarely suffer from passivity. They don’t enter as much as barge in. Subtle and restrained are not calling cards.
“They gotta make a splash,” says Laura Dudley, associate clinical professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University.
Confidence isn’t the problem. The issue is the inability to adjust. Think about if you’re home alone. You know that you can act a certain way, i.e., wear no pants. If company is there, you know enough to put on clothes. It’s about understanding context, and with a party, event, meeting or playground conversation, it means seeing and hearing what’s spoken and unspoken.
Properly reading a room requires a willingness to watch and bend to the situation, all of which can feel initially foreign. But it all falls into the possible-to-do category.
Reading a room begins with raising your awareness. If you were recently at a barbecue and reviewing the events, and think, That conversation went sideways fast. Was it me? — that’s enough self-reflection to lead to change. But if you cling to the attitude of, I am how I am: Deal — you’ll never be able to read the room because every interaction is about you, when it’s pretty much the opposite.
“Every relationship is a negotiation,” says Darrin J. Griffin, associate professor, chair of the communication studies department at University of Alabama, and co-author of Lying and Deception. “It needs concession. To win, it’s gotta be a win-win.”
The other part is a certain acceptance that you may have no clue how to read a room. Maybe it’s a skill you were never taught, or maybe you were always encouraged to set the tone.
“It’s not a flaw,” Dudley says. “It’s just that you don’t have the skill.”
Here’s how to improve.
1. Get Comfortable With Silence
Reading the room is about listening, or more precisely shutting up and listening. If you’re talking, you’re not gathering. You want to practice, and like with a recipe or golf swing, you can get better if you invest the time. Find a partner who’s willing and will provide honest feedback. The immediate kind especially helps. When it’s positive, you’re more likely to repeat the behavior. When it’s negative, you’re less likely, Dudley says.
Set a timer for 30 seconds where they talk and you don’t. It sounds easy but it will hurt at first because you desperately want to interject. But when you resist that urge, you’ll start to become more comfortable with silence. You can start taking in information and learn about the other person; how they feel about the information, and once you enter a room, you’re better prepared.
“You’ve practiced listening rather than speaking and practiced picking up on cues,” she says.
2. Tune Into Body Language
As in bring your eyes up from the floor. Look at how people’s shoulders are angled. Then notice where their chests are pointing. That’s the focus, Griffin says. You also want to notice people’s expressions as you listen to what they’re talking about, keying in on the paraverbals — the cadence, tone, volume, pace. You put it all together and you can get a sense of the vibe. You’ll be able to tell tell whether someone’s response of “great” to “how’s it going?” is genuine, happy, sarcastic, or something else.
“It’s not the words themselves, but how they’re saying them,” Dudley says.
3. Listen To What People Are Saying
If you’ve mastered the basics, try to decipher what people aren’t saying, because people are usually holding something back or couching their terms. It will give you further insight, but more than information, when you’re playing detective at this level, you’re already out of your head and completely engaged in the moment, which means, says Griffin, that when you do eventually speak, “you’re probably not talking out of your ass.”
4. Notice Your Environment
Pay attention to the acoustics and size. Pay attention to the setting and atmosphere — are things casual, or more formal? Look at the hosts and take a cue from how they’re acting. And remember an important fact: “It’s not your space,” Griffin says. Your job is to fit into it. You might know everyone there, and they might be people with whom you usually talk sports and use salty language. But this might not be the setting for that, and engaging in your usual dynamic can up people’s insecurities. “Let the room dictate it, not the relationship,” Griffin says.
5. Keep Your Eyes On The Prize
When you’re reading a room, you’re not looking to be a perpetual observer. The goal is to observe and then engage. You still say “Hi” and smile and answer questions and make small talk. It’s more about slowing down your pace, assessing and eventually responding, not with mirroring but calibration. If the tone is sad, you don’t have to become sad. You just don’t have to tell jokes or talk business.
It’ll take time, and you’ll make mistakes but because you’re trying, they’re usually non-fatal. It might feel like too much effort for people you may never see again, but think about those past conversations when someone perfectly gauged the situation and gave you the time and space to talk. That’s the impact you can have.
“There’s going to be a payoff and what a great payoff,” Dudley says. “You’ll be more connected to other people. What’s better? Nothing is the answer.”