The Art of “Reading the Room”, or more importantly “Reading the Situation” Core Skills for a Change Agent

I guess we have all seen it……. a person who is on “Transmit” and has a mission to tell us everything he/she knows about a topic. Have you had a lecturer like that? As a one off it can be comical…….

However, the lack of ability to “read the room” can be highly detrimental to certain situations.

When I talk about reading the room I’m expanding upon literary being in a room to any type of situation, so relating that to work…..IN ANY SITUATION WHERE A PERSON NEEDS TO TRULY ENGAGE WITH THE WORKFORCE.

That is very often, when facilitating a business improvement or change initiative, of course.

Although, good facilitation skills can be learnt by conducting “training workshops” those skills can and should be transferred to other situations too. Such as;

  • Leading meetings
  • Attending meetings
  • One to one discussions
  • Working with individuals and groups to implement a new tool or work system
  • Working with groups to problem solve

The list goes on……

So, what do I mean by reading the situation?

What I mean is having the ability to observe people……really understand the situation and building empathy. The key “internal tools” for building empathy and sensing a situation.

  • Visual………. looking
  • Auditory…..listening
  • Kinaesthetic…..body posture. (Tense or otherwise)
  • Olfactory………..smell it!
  • Gustatory……..tasting it?

Well, I might be getting in too deep there! But…..showing empathy is more than just saying you are.

WARNING…being able to read a situation really starts with having an honest belief people are valuable to the process. If you don’t think so, then question why you are doing what you are doing?


  • Are they really engaged……..don’t ask them, look at their body language and make a judgement
  • Are they talking/asking questions?
  • Are they talking more than you!
  • Paying attention or are they shuffling about

All simple stuff, but trust me, I have sat in a room with very bright people on “transmit” and the building would collapse, and they wouldn’t know!

True facilitation is a way of “being” and is not something that is switched on and off at will. The best facilitators are people who have a genuine belief in individuals being an asset in a business that can be tapped into and released to make real business improvements.

Good facilitators understand that Knowledge alone is NOT king but combining knowledge with skill and having the right attitude is the correct combination that raises one’s capability to achieve greater things.

Also, good facilitators understand that a workshop, meeting, or a simple gathering is NOT a series of tasks or lectures, but a “system”, with a clear purpose, outcomes, inputs and outputs and many influencing factors. When that is understood then a good facilitator owns and manages that “system” and that is the method to achieve real understanding, development.

So, let’s look at some tools and models that should help you FACILITATE  and not simply TELL

Below is a simple chart that you can print off and keep close to hand and remind yourself of key points prior to engaging with groups

When implementing new work systems, tools and techniques and ways of working…..REMEMBER THAT PEOPLE ARE DIFFERENT and one of those key differences is how people except new ideas and challenges. (How they learn)

Below, I have added Honey and Mumford’s learning styles traits.

In essence, to engage with these different types of people you need to think about different approaches.


They need to get on with it

Activists involve themselves fully and without bias in new experiences.  They enjoy the here and now and are happy to be dominated by immediate experiences.  They are open minded, not sceptical; and this tends to make them excited about anything new.  Their philosophy is: “I’ll try anything once.”  They tend to act first and consider the consequences afterwards.  Their days are filled with activity.  They tackle problems by brainstorming.  As soon as the excitement from one activity has died down, they are busy looking for the next.  They tend to thrive on the challenge of new experiences but are bored with implementation and longer-term consolidation.  They are gregarious people, constantly involving themselves with others but, in doing so, they seek to centre all activities on themselves.


They like time to think about it

Reflectors like to stand back to ponder experiences and observe them from many different perspectives.  They collect data, both first-hand and from others and prefer to think about it thoroughly before coming to any conclusion.  The thorough collection and analysis of data about experiences and events is what counts, so they tend to postpone reaching definitive conclusions for as long as possible.  Their philosophy is to be cautious.  They are thoughtful people who like to consider all possible angles and implications before making a move.  They prefer to take a back seat in meetings and discussions.  They enjoy observing other people in action.  They listen to others and get the drift of the discussion before making their own points.  They tend to adopt a low profile and have a slightly distant, tolerant, unruffled air about them.  When they act it is part of a wide picture which includes the past as well as the present and others’ observations as well as their own.


They like to fully understand

Theorists adapt and integrate observations into complex but logically sound theories.  They think problems through in a vertical, step-by-step logical way.  They assimilate disparate facts into coherent theories.  They tend to be perfectionists who won’t rest easy until things are tidy and fit into a rational scheme.  They like to analyse and synthesize.  They are keen on basic assumptions, principles, theories, models, and systems thinking.  Their philosophy prizes rationality and logic.  “If it’s logical, it’s good”.  Questions they frequently ask are: “Does it make sense?” “How does this fit with that?”  “What are the basic assumptions?”  They tend to be detached, analytical and dedicated to rational objectivity rather than anything subjective or ambiguous.  Their approach to a problem is consistently logical.  This is their ‘mental set’ and they rigidly reject anything that doesn’t fit with it.  They prefer to maximize certainty and feel uncomfortable with subjective judgements, lateral thinking, and anything flippant.


They like new ideas and will test them out

Pragmatists are keen on trying out new ideas, theories, and techniques to see if they work in practice.  They positively search out new ideas and take the first opportunity to experiment with applications.  They are the sort of people who return from management courses brimming with new ideas that they want to try out in practice.  They like to get on with things and act quickly and confidently on ideas that attract them.  They tend to be impatient with ruminating and open-ended discussions.  They are essentially practical, down to earth people who like making practical decisions and solving problems.  They respond to problems and opportunities ‘as a challenge’.  Their philosophy is: ‘There is always a better way’ and ‘if it works, it’s good’.              

So, in summary…….

  • Look for tell tale signs that people aren’t listening
  • Talk less than them (30% v 70%)
  • Seek first to understand then be understood (S Covey)
  • Value people and value they are different
  • Telling (transmitting) isn’t engaging
  • Knowing isn’t doing…. things won’t change/improve because people know more
  • Not much will change by being in the office, work with groups in their workspace

Written by Martin Gummery, Managing Director, NewLeaf International Ltd

If you would like to know more about how NewLeaf International helps organisations with Business Improvement and significant Organisational Development programmes, please make contact for an informal chat.

Tel: 01905 425209