If You Can’t Read The Room, You Can’t Lead The Room

First, a shout out to Dan Vander Wal, one of our sharp campus pastors at 12Stone, for giving me this idea for a title. We were in the monthly leadership development huddle I lead for our campus pastors, and this subject came up. It was a great conversation and got me thinking about a post to share with you.

The reflexive thought when talking about reading the room is often limited to when you are preaching or teaching. That’s important, but only represents a small percentage of the nearly limitless moments to “read the room.”

The examples include a wide variety of things such as; board meetings, walking across the lobby on Sunday morning, staff meetings, training sessions, and one-to-one conversations.

A church asked me to consult with them, and as I sat in a staff meeting, a big part of the problem they faced became immediately apparent. The pastor could not read the room. The staff wandered in late, looked at their phones for an awkwardly noticeable amount of time and the energy in the room was almost non-existent. The pastor cheerfully talked about last Sunday and cast the vision for the next weekend. No one chimed in other than for a few necessary details like what announcements would be made. Honestly, it was a painful experience.

A worship leader asked me to coach his ability to read the room. He was gifted, passionate, sincere and loved Jesus. But something was off. He didn’t connect. My most helpful thought for him was “You seem to do worship to the people rather than participate with the people.” You can only participate with the people if you can read the moment. It was more than moving out of performance mode. He didn’t connect with how the people were responding. When we talked about it, he got it instantly. It took some time to learn the skill, but he got it.

If you’re married, you can probably relate to moments that you didn’t “read the room” with your spouse. Maybe you said something that made it appear like you were clueless, insensitive, distracted, or possibly hurting or tired and therefore thinking about yourself; or any number of options other than connecting and paying attention.

When it comes to leadership in the church, the same idea is in play. The bottom line is that it is possible for you to misread, or not read, the environment in the moment.

Sometimes you and I can get stuck in our heads and not be freed up enough to see and sense what is going on around us.

That has a tremendously negative impact on your leadership.

You’ve probably been in a room where you felt the leader was just unaware, he or she had no idea that what they were doing wasn’t working. That’s not an indictment upon them personally; they just couldn’t read the room.

How does that happen?

It’s easy; they might be:

  • Distracted
  • Emotionally detached
  • Inexperienced and don’t know what to look for
  • Insecure
  • Lack of focus or purpose
  • Misread social cues

7 questions to help you read the room:

1) Can you establish a heart level connection?

Reading the room does not work with a detached approach. The image of a scientist observing people for a study is not the right idea. It’s about you as a human being in full participation.

You need to be personally engaged and connected with your emotions. An emotionally vital connection includes vulnerability, authenticity, honesty, and risk. Essentially, being the real you. Above all, it’s about being fully present in the moment.

2) Are you secure enough to focus on the needs of others?

Insecure leaders are not bad people. We all have some insecurities. But depending upon the extent of your insecurity in general, or in the moment, you can be so focused on yourself that you don’t have the headspace to focus on the needs of others. That always gets you in trouble. 

Your ability to trust yourself, relax in who you are and tap into some confidence is a big part of what frees you up to be able to read a room.

Reading social and emotional ques is a good example here. Do you know if someone is upset with you, or someone else in the room? Not the more obvious cues like a raised voice, but the subtle kind, like withdrawn or quiet.

3) Do you have a specific purpose?

I was coaching a pastor who read the room brilliantly as he delivered the Sunday message. He was on purpose; he knew where he was going and what he wanted to say. But when it came to the altar call, it was as if he just checked-out. He finished his message, so in his mind, he was “done” and went into a mechanical mode. 

He made his primary purpose the message rather than the actual point of the specific message and how he had prayed the people would respond. So, when he delivered an invitation, he no longer had a purpose, and it was apparent. He was closing the service, not inviting people to change.

4) Do you pay attention to the physical elements?

Have you ever led a meeting in a room that was freezing? Or so hot you were sweating? Me too.

Reading the room means you know how the people are doing and what they’re probably feeling. And, for example, if it’s bad enough, you may need to shorten the meeting or move to another room regardless of the hassle. How about lighting, noise or clutter? A messy room reflects on how you value the meeting and the people in the meeting.

5) Do you know what the people are saying non-verbally?

Let’s pick up on the last point and for example say the room is too hot. Do you pick up the cues like the people are fanning themselves? Get someone to turn up the air-conditioning. If they are uncomfortable, they’re not with you anyway. This may seem like “Well, Duh.” But how many rooms have you been in where no one did anything?

If people are reading their phones, nodding off, or leaving the room early, they’re telling you something. In contrast, if they are taking notes, laughing, asking questions, and nodding in affirmation, they too are telling you something, but much more positive. Either way, reading the room right allows you to respond appropriately.

6) Is the energy level obvious to you?

Is it an evening meeting for volunteers? Are they tired or is the morale low? On Sunday morning, can you mentally and emotionally compare one service’s energy level to the next? Do you know what to do in the moment to correct it?

Some leaders panic and overreact. They just try to hype up the room when they think the energy is low. But that’s inauthentic, and temporary. As soon as you end the prompt for some kind of response, they stop. Instead, consider the more authentic ways to change the energy level. Such as genuine humor, a heartfelt story, stirring vision, a creative moment, or interaction, etc.

7) Do you sense the presence of the Holy Spirit?

I saved the most important for last.

As a spiritual leader, few things will trump the significance of God’s presence in the room. We know He’s always with us, but that’s not the same as a present moment sense that God’s spirit is engaged and part of what you are leading.  

A solid grasp of reading God’s presence in the room is directly connected to your intimacy with Him. In other words, God is with you, so sometimes His presence is more about your sensitivity to what He wants to do, rather than whether or not God will be there.

I don’t want to get overly theological here, that’s not my point. The important thing is, without God in the room with you, and you remaining attentive to what He wants, not much else matters.

So, how well do you read the room? How intentional are you?

Love to hear any additional thoughts you have on READING THE ROOM in the comment section below. Thanks!

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