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Reading the Room

10 ways to better understand group dynamics, pick-up on non-verbal cues, and keep people engaged in your next big meeting.

Words by Carrie Neill, Illustrations by Delaney Gibbons

Stop us if this sounds familiar: You're in the midst of a major presentation. You've prepared meticulously. Crafted a compelling narrative to tell the story of your research. You have beautifully realized visuals to back up your data. You've pulled out several meaningful anecdotes to further elucidate your points. And yet... half of the people on one side of the room are all hunched over their phones. Two members of the board are still arguing about a relatively minor point you made 20 minutes earlier. And your team is looking around in a mild state of panic. 

You've lost the room. 

It's a situation we've all witnessed at some point, and understanding the dynamics of why, when, and how it happens is a fine art. As People Nerds, we wanted to investigate: what are the keys to reading a room? How can we learn to be more cognizant of the cues coming from the people around us? What do we need to know to better understand the nuances of group dynamics—especially if individual clients or stakeholders have competing interests? How do we pick up on the verbal and non-verbal clues that tell us how interested people are in a conversation? And what tactics can we use so we don’t “lose” people while we’re talking to them?

We turned to several experts to hear their takes, and came away with ten tips to keep in mind the next time you need to “read the room.”

1. Understand the nuances of who’s in the room and what their relationships are.

If you’re in a meeting with more than just one or two members of your client team, higher-ups, or an external board of stakeholders, find out everything you can about who’s who in the room beforehand, and what distinct interest areas are important to each of those individuals.

"Understanding the structure of your client's organization is really important if you're going to deliver useful insights,” says dscout’s own Nicole Balthazar. (Deciphering that information may even be one of the researcher’s most useful hats.)

“Knowing who’s in the room, what their roles and responsibilities are, how they might share and use your findings, and understanding the political challenges within the organization—can all help ensure your work has maximum impact and doesn't miss the mark.”

“Romancing our clients a little bit can go a long way.”

Scott Weiss, Community by Design

And don’t forget that knowing what your client’s boss is interested in will help your client look good.

“Romancing our clients a little bit can go a long way,” says Scott Weiss, Partner and Creative Director at Community by Design. “You have to understand who you’re setting up for success in a meeting. A lot of that goes to how you collaborate with your clients before a meeting or a presentation. You don’t want them to be surprised by any of the insights. And make sure you understand questions that your client’s boss is particularly interested in. Then you can empower your client to actually answer those questions, which sets the client up for success too.”

2. Set the right tone from the get-go.

“One of the most critical things you can do to engage people is to change the rhythm,” says Monica McCarthy, a community strategist and public speaker whose work is built on principles of active philosophy and the theater. “You can’t always do this, but if you can, try declaring a phone free zone. That’s saying, ‘this is important and we all need to be present.’ And then be very clear about setting the expectations: no phones, but we’re going to have a break in an hour and you can make any calls then.”

If you can’t take away the me-machines, McCarthy says there are still plenty of other ways to go about indicating that the time set aside for a meeting is important and different.

“There’s a reason it’s a meeting, and not a memo,” she says. “There’s a need for everyone to be in one place together, so make it feel unique. It could be as simple as inviting everyone to take a moment at the beginning of the meeting and help themselves to the coffee that’s been provided in the back of the room. You want to signal that this time is special. It’s so rare to have a group of people in a room together these days, all completely focused, so make it an event.”

Michael Margolis, UX Research Partner at GV (formerly Google Ventures), emphasizes how important it is to greet people properly, and suggests thinking about it the same way you would at someone’s home, or at an intimate dinner party.

“I try to think about it in terms of hosts and guests—depending on whose turf I’m on,” Margolis says. “If somebody's on my turf, or in my office, then I'm the host. If I'm in somebody else's office or in their home, I'm the guest. That applies to how I prepare and plan, and how I think about it. It’s a shorthand I use, rather than thinking about a lot of the very nuanced detailed elements of body language, reading people's faces and their micro-expressions. Before I walk into the situation, I take a deep breath and I think what is my role. Then I can play that role, quite honestly.”

3. Understand the fundamentals of group dynamics.

Organizational change consultant Lisa Stefanac, Partner and Co-Founder of KSE Leadership, says when it comes to team dynamics, it's important to not just look at behavior, but also underlying structure. She suggests thinking about the structure of a conversation like you would whitewater rafting.

“If you go down a river, you’ll see that the water's choppy here, and not so choppy there, and really bad over there. What’s causing the flow of the river is actually the structure of the rocks underneath. That's the analogy I like to use when thinking about the structure of a conversation.”

A global expert in team dynamics, Stefanac is also the former Managing Director of the Kantor Institute, the consulting organization of eminent Harvard systems psychologist David Kantor. She says the Kantor Structural Dynamics “Four Player Model” theory divides the roles people play in a team setting into: Move, Follow, Oppose and Bystand.

Move sets a direction. It’s like somebody saying, ‘I think we should do X with the budget this year.’ Then someone might follow and say, ‘That's a great idea. How exactly would that work?’ This keeps the train of the move going forward. An oppose is someone who might say, ‘No, I don't think that's a good idea to use the money in that way. I think instead, we should use it in this other way.’ Then a move comes after that oppose. So the person that fills the role of the oppose has now stepped into another role, which is move. You can start to see how the structure works. Move, follow, oppose, move. Now we've got a semblance of structure.

Bystand is the tricky one—the role of the bystand is to offer perspective. A bystand would say, ‘You know, it might be good for us to look at how the market responded to our last product launch,’ or something similar. The best, most productive meetings happen when you have all of the roles accounted for.”

4. Read the non-verbal cues.

The non-verbal cues people give can also provide a wealth of information. Monica McCarthy says that paying attention to who is not speaking is key—but that it doesn’t necessarily mean someone isn’t paying attention.

“Often it means they’re paying more attention,” McCarthy says. “People process information at different rates, so just because someone isn’t speaking a lot doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention, or vice versa. Someone who is speaking a lot may not be listening. One key is to look for movement. People who are able to hear an idea and run with it to connect it to another idea, that’s active listening. Look for those connections, instead of people who are sitting passively, absorbing information.”

Michael Margolis points out that, often, non-verbal cues can tell us much more about the interpersonal dynamics in a room.

“There's sometimes a pecking order in a group of who's more dominant and who's more subordinate,” Margolis notes. “You can see it pretty clearly if you know how to look. We’re social animals, so we're reading and reacting to this all the time among each other. And there are a lot of clues that a group will give off about what the pecking order is. You can see it. Once you become conscious of the clues, you can see it shift during the course of a meeting. You can tell if the boss walks in, because people will shift. Maybe somebody who was sitting there taking up a lot of room, who had their foot crossed over their leg and was taking up a lot of space—if someone who is their boss walks into the room, they might settle down a little bit, move their foot off their leg, sit down. Look at what people do with the body language and when, and notice if someone new has come or gone out of the room. Dominant status people are less worried about imposing on somebody else, maybe they're taking up a lot of space, or maybe they’ve got their feet on the desk. Or even that they’re standing super still and they're just really relaxed and focused and drilling their eyes into you. Those are very high-status behaviors. Low-status behavior is when someone is deferring to you, asking for permission. They might fidget, shrink down a little bit, slouch, just take up less space.”

And, Lisa Stefanac advises, don’t forget to follow up with people who’ve been giving out non-verbal cues, perhaps after the meeting.

“I usually check in with someone one-on-one if I’ve seen them give any kind of non-verbal indication that they might be opposed to what’s going on. You never know, they may have been rubbing their elbow a lot because they have poison ivy. Or it may be because they disagreed with what was being discussed. Just say, ‘Hey, so we just made that decision. Scale of one to ten, how on board are you with it? Do you see the way through?’"

5. Adjust your behavior.

If you feel you’ve lost someone during a presentation, there are some key adjustments you can make to try to regain their attention and a sense of connection. As Michael Margolis says, one of the big keys with status is that it’s fluid:

“There’s a reason it’s a meeting, and not a memo. There’s a need for everyone to be in one place together, so make it feel unique.”

Monica McCarthy, Community Strategist and Public Speaker

“There’s an idea that status is like a seesaw, which comes from Keith Johnstone’s terrific book Impro. If I notice that someone seems uncomfortable in a situation or we're just not connecting, I'll step back and look at the status cues and whether there’s some big discrepancy. Am I making this person very uncomfortable? Am I behaving in some way that's making them nervous? If so, then I will do something to boost them up and lower my own status. This works more in a one-on-one situation, but one very simple thing you can do if you’re sitting, is just lower your chair a little bit, so that you’re looking up at them and they’re looking down at you. Shrink your body so you’re taking up less space. Or say things that boost them up, to try and find the right balance.”

And don’t forget to consider how you might be a contributor to the problem.

“If you think someone’s not paying attention based on their body language, or how much they’re participating, your goal isn’t to shame them,” notes Monica McCarthy. “Your goal is to make them want to pay attention to you. Sometimes we don’t acknowledge if we’re saying something that’s actually just not worth listening to. Are you rambling? Repeating yourself? Cultivate an awareness of that.”

6. Engage all of the senses.

Another way to engage the room is to stimulate people’s other senses, not just visual or aural.

“At our practice we’re big fans of the kinetic experience,” says Scott Weiss. “One of the things we do during meetings is invite people to participate by putting ideas on a post-it note, and the notes all go up on a wall. It’s visual of course, but it’s also tactile, you feel the note in your hand, you move to put it up on a board, you even feel the stickiness of the paper. It’s a different kind of engagement.”

“There are actually some great principles from improvisation and theater that can help cultivate awareness and engagement,” adds Monica McCarthy. “So much of the time we aren’t listening to other people because we’re tense. We’re hunched over, we’re not even physically open to hearing what they’re saying. That’s why so many acting classes start with breathing exercises. We roll our heads, take deep breaths, move our shoulders, plant our feet on the ground.”

7. Try a different language.

Lisa Stefanac explains that, in addition to the four actions people can take during a conversation (move, follow, oppose, bystand), there are three distinct languages people use: the language of power, the language of meaning, and the language of affect.

“The language of power is the language of action. It’s about getting things done, it’s results-oriented. It's all about deadlines and what people have to do in order to get there. The language of meaning is data-driven, it's about analysis, it's about creating shared understanding as to why are we even having a meeting right now and what is the purpose of us doing this? It's about creating alignment on the team before a decision gets made. The language of affect is the language of care and relationship building, and of making sure that the room is understanding the impact on both self and others in this decision-making process, and also understanding the impact of what's going on in the room, and on the team.”

Problems occur, Stefanac says, when people aren't open to other languages.

“Often people will be speaking one language to another person who is speaking a different language. I was working with a start-up team last week, they’re redefining what it means to be a player in their field, and almost everyone there is speaking the language of meaning. But one team member who was only in the language of power, and he just wanted to get it done, which led to a lot of conflict. When you’re trying to get people on board with something, what you’re really trying to do is get them to understand the language you’re speaking.”

8. Have a one-on-one.

Sometimes the solution to engaging an entire room of people is to focus in on one or two people, and ask them a question. Just be careful not to do it in a way that puts someone on edge.

“Be sincere,” advises McCarthy. “Make eye contact with someone and be direct. Ask, ‘do you follow?’ But mean it, be sincere and make sure people feel like it’s a safe space to speak.”

9. Flip the script, make the client the expert.

Michael Margolis acknowledges the power of questions, but says that sometimes just asking isn’t enough.

“When it feels like you're in a room and it’s just you talking, and you realize you’ve lost people, it’s a good time to stop and check-in,” says Margolis. “As a researcher I believe really strongly in the power of questions. But sometimes it’s hard for someone to jump in and answer something if I just stop and ask, ‘Any questions?’ Everyone might just stare at me blankly.”

Instead, make the client the expert, Margolis says: “Stop and say: ‘Based on what you guys already know and your research, how does this fit in with what you were thinking? Does it match what you already know or not know? Is it consistent with what you already know?’ That changes the dynamic very quickly, by doing a couple of things. You’re asking them questions. They think of you as the expert, so there's a little bit of a status transaction there—you’re asking them about something that they’re the expert on, and comparing it to what you’ve just said. They immediately have something to say, they’re immediately engaged.”

He admits the element of surprise can also work in your favor. “It gets people to look up from their phones or their email or whatever they’re doing.”

“The idea of reading the room is that you become an agent of change.”

Lisa Stefanac​, KSE Leadership

10. Stage an intervention.

If you’re at a stalemate of kinds, try an intervention. Lisa Stefanac outlines how the Kantor Institute model also provides terrific guidance for changing the dynamic of a conversation.

“The idea of reading the room is that you become an agent of change,” Stefanac says. “Intervening can range from a small intervention to a series of interventions that fundamentally change the course of the team. Take a situation like this: someone makes a move and offers a direction, someone else follows, or the whole team follows,” she says. “But underneath it, people aren’t actually on board. They’re actually opposing, but for whatever reason they feel like they can’t say that. Inevitably what will happen in a situation like that is you’ll have a team leader who thinks everyone’s on board, but then in two weeks suddenly everything’s falling apart. So if you aren’t getting any pushback or hearing any opposition to an idea, take a beat and ask people how they’re feeling. Say, ‘Time out for a moment, I know it looks like we're all on board with this, but just for the sake of it let’s brainstorm all the ways this might not work.’ If you give permission for the oppose dynamic to come forward, it usually will. Maybe not with the first comment, but with the second or third, because you’ve given them permission to oppose what’s being said.”

Oppose, Stefanac is careful to note, isn’t a bad thing. “I believe in the power of oppose. It's not like I'm trying to look for naysayers or ways something doesn’t work. I believe that oppose offers correction and creates a better solution.”

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

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