In a job interview, client meeting, social or networking event, or any other important conversation, it’s vital to pick up on overt and subtle cues sent by the people around you. It’s called being able to “read the room” when you can watch for, respond and pick up on nonverbal cues to ensure your message is hitting the mark.
Studies show that non-verbal communications can account for up to 90% of the information shared. So cues that you hear and validate (or not) are critical to ensuring you’re communicating your value, delivering your message clearly and controlling your narrative.
If we ignore what others are feeling or experiencing as they interact with us, we can make mistakes, offer information that’s confusing and make others feel we aren’t relatable. When you can read the room, you can pivot your message, slow down or speed up your delivery, and ensure that the right people are hearing you in the right way.
As you navigate your transition from the military to civilian sector, here are tips for learning to read the room:
1. Look for Nonverbal Cues.
As you assess the people around you, consider: Is everyone in a good mood? Was bad news delivered by the person who spoke before you? Is the group anxious about getting to lunch soon?
Then, look at the body language of the people you’re interacting with. Are they holding good eye contact with open posture, or are they scowling at you with their arms crossed as you share your ideas?
2. Consider the Overall Environment.
Then evaluate what you see. If everyone suddenly crosses their arms and squirms in their seat, are they chilled (did the air conditioning just kick on)? Or are they upset by your message and tone? The environment can play a big role in how people feel.
3. Use Silence Strategically.
Resist being the only one talking and intentionally use silence strategically. Let others voice their views and ideas, ask their questions and contribute to the conversation. Then when you speak, your message should carry more weight and importance.
4. Check the Story You Tell Yourself About What You’re Seeing.
If, for example, you see people appear delighted with the stories you’re sharing, ask whether there could be another explanation. Hopefully they are happy with your message, but is there another way to explain their delight? Always check the messages you tell yourself about what you’re seeing to ensure you’re not missing a bigger-picture issue or opportunity.
5. Stay Present.
Just as you resist speaking the entire time, also focus on staying tuned in and present. Good eye contact, nodding your head in agreement as someone else speaks and asking good follow-up questions shows them that you are listening fully and considering their ideas and views.
6. Pay Attention to Your Own Nonverbal Cues.
You would surely notice if someone you were speaking to was constantly looking over your shoulder to see whether someone else walked in. So will they. Be conscious of your body language, tone, posture and nonverbal communication to send the message and impression you want consistently.
7. Check in if You’re Not Clear on the Signals They’re Sending.
If you’ve observed a shift in someone’s non-verbal communications and aren’t sure whether they’re confused, upset or otherwise not connecting to your message, ask. It’s fine to ask an interviewer or contact, “Am I explaining this clearly?” or, “Any questions popping up for you?”
8. Consider if Your Assumptions Were Off.
Maybe the audience doesn’t support your idea or have enough information to consider what you’re sharing. Did you assume they’d be more receptive?
9. Consider if Your Timing Is Off.
Tell a joke that lands flat? Ask for the job too early? Looking for feedback from someone who doesn’t feel invested in you? Maybe it’s your timing that needs to change. If you deliver a message prematurely or at a bad time or ask for something from someone who’s not sure they want to help you, the message can be good, but the timing is not.
10. Reframe, if Needed.
Sometimes the best way to recover if you’ve misread the room is to start over. Restating what you meant to communicate can help you recover from a communication misstep.
Reading the room takes practice and attention. For your message and value to be fully embraced, pay attention to how others are responding to you as you speak.
The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty” (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication and reputation risk management.
A contributing writer for Military.com, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.
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