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Making Things Happen in the Room

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jim Jones
August 12, 2020 

In the Tony Award winning Broadway musical Hamilton (now on the Disney Channel) one of the most celebrated songs is The Room Where It Happens. It provides a not so subtle reminder of the significance of being in the room where decisions are made or as some may say, having, “A seat at the table.” This theme is especially applicable in today’s public discussions around inclusion and diversity as that “room” seemingly moves from the back rooms to the public streets. However, just as significant as getting into the room (wherever it may be) is the ability to know what to do once you are there.

Can you read a room in order to recognize how people relate and what may impact their reactions? This skill can be instrumental in building support for your own proposals and increasing credibility among your colleagues. This is particularly true in boards or other public and private decisionmaking bodies where collaboration and consensus are essential elements of moving toward final decisions.

How to Make It Happen

Author Robert Fulghum suggested All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. He may be right. A childhood nursery rhyme may provide an easy framework for how to read a room effectively:

Stop, look and listen
before you cross the street.
Use your eyes and use your ears
before you use your feet.

Let’s look at how this simple logic can improve our ability to read a room and engage in meaningful decisionmaking.

STOP

A major part of this process is stopping long enough to pick up on unspoken cues, recognize alliances and predict reactions by others. It is being able to not only hear what others are saying but also to be able to read between the lines based on the unspoken conversations taking place around you. Every comment, question and movement are potentially important signals.

All of this requires that a person not charge full speed ahead but stop and assess the atmosphere of the meeting. Scanning the environment is a key step in understanding the players operating within that environment. Taking a mental pause to silently gather information, read body language and analyze the energy and emotions before (and while) engaging in discussions increases the likelihood of success.

LOOK

The ability to recognize and understand group dynamics is directly aligned with a person’s ability to influence decisions. This ability is primarily derived from one’s facility to be observant. In most super detective television shows, the detective’s “superpower” is not being the smartest person in the room but rather being the most observant.

These observations start even before entering the meeting room. To the experienced eye cues are being dropped at social events, receptions and in the hallways. Who is talking to whom? Who is not talking to whom? What is the obvious (or subtle) body language in these groups?

Karen Dillon, a co-author of How Will You Measure Your Life? also believes, “You need to be constantly assessing how other people are responding to you.” Are they receptive? Are they suspicious?

LISTEN

Another great song from Hamilton is, “Talk Less. Smile More.” Though the deeper admonition to, “Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for,” is questionable, the basic tenet is exactly right. Listening is critical to reading a room and moving forward the decisionmaking process.

Initially, you have no idea what you don’t know, and the only way to learn is by asking questions and then listening. There is nothing wrong with silence. Don’t just wait for your turn to talk. Be actively engaged in the conversation. Ask questions. Seek clarifications.

Stephen Covey defines this as the fifth habit in his bestselling book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Approach every meeting with a mindset of listening first and you will be well on your way to understanding the players in the room.

MOVE YOUR FEET

After gathering the various inputs, it is still necessary to analyze what has been discovered. Always maintain a part of your minds’ eye up in the balcony, looking objectively at the conversation and its import. Realize these analyses are subject to various perception biases. Every person, often without realizing it, holds and is subject to unconscious biases. These biases may be personal, social or cultural. The key is not to allow them to lead to premature conclusions or stereotyping that will adversely impact how you read the room.

Conclusion

In order to be an effective decisionmaker, reading a room must be instinctive. However, it is a learned skill that is developed and sharpened over time. Looking at the steps above, it may strike you as a lot to do, particularly when trying to interact in an ongoing meeting. Yet, in the end, reading a room is essentially about relationships. And building professional relationships is no different than building personal relationships. They are developed through communication, building trust and understanding human behavior.


Author: Jim Jones is a Senior Partner with Parliamentary Associates – a management consulting firm specializing in governance and human resources services. He is a Past President of the American Institute of Parliamentarians and National Association of Parliamentarians. He specializes in conflict management and board governance.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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