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Staffing industry recruiting news, advice and thought leadership.

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Staffing industry recruiting news, advice and thought leadership.

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How to Read the Room

There’s a statistic that’s been around for years: experts tell us that 70 percent of communication is non-verbal. Your team’s facial expressions, posture, tone, and body language may be having a completely different conversation with you than the one you think you’re having.   

Remote work, conversations through platforms like Slack or texting, and virtual meetings have all made communication more efficient – and more challenging. You can’t see someone roll their eyes over slack, and you can’t hear a remote worker slap their forehead in frustration when you give them a new assignment. You often only hear the respectful “of course” when they use their words.  

Your in-person meetings are probably shorter and more rare these days, but they’re a great place to check in on your team’s non-verbal communication.  

Learning to read the room is a critical leadership skill. As you enter a meeting or observe a team interaction, watch for clues that the attendees are giving you and each other. As they wait for the meeting to start, do they look bored? Annoyed at the upcoming waste of time? Do they look tired or anxious?   

How do they react to other team members’ contributions? (They might be less guarded about body language with a peer than with their boss.) You may observe signs of disrespect, contempt, anger, or confusion, even if no one is speaking up about what’s being said.   

As a leader, you can take on non-verbal cues in a couple of ways. If you perceive a significant amount of resistance or confusion in the room, you might address it in the moment. Whether and how you do it will be based on the level of trust and connection among the team.  

“Reading the room, it feels like many of you are worried that this new project might create a lot more work when many of you are at full capacity already. Let’s talk about that.” Naming the elephant in the room may give them permission to say aloud what their body was signaling.  

If it’s just one or two people who seem to be thinking things they’re not saying, you might try a one-on-one meeting a bit later. Someone who’s new to the team, who is lower on the org chart than the others in the room, or introverted, may need time to process a conversation. You might also need to encourage them to speak out in a safe environment.  

“I noticed that you didn’t say much during the team discussion the other day. Do you have some questions I can answer about the project or your role?” Asking if they have questions is a neutral and non-threatening way of drawing out their real thoughts. It’s less likely to put them on the defensive and gives them a format for expressing their concerns. “I guess I was wondering how I’d be graded on performance. My territory is a lot smaller than some of the other team members, and I’m not sure I will be able to meet expectations.”  

Now you’ve got something to talk about.   

In our book Relentless: Leading Through Performance, Relationships, and the Lessons of Sports, we quote Sheryl Sandburg: “Authentic communication is not always easy, but it is the basis for successful relationships at home and real effectiveness at work. Yet people constantly back away from honesty to protect themselves and others. This reticence causes and perpetuates all kinds of problems: uncomfortable issues that never get addressed, resentment that builds, unfit managers who get promoted rather than fired, and on and on.”  

Here’s to more authentic communication, on and off the job. 

The Relentless Resolution Challenge:  
At your next meeting, look around the room and notice the body language at the beginning of the meeting, in the middle of the meeting, and at the end of the meeting and make note of what you see.  Was there a consistent theme from the group or did it differ by individual? Did the body language change throughout the meeting, and if it did, why?  Let us know what you discover.

Excerpt from the book:

COMMUNICATION: Non-Verbal Communication

I once had a senior executive whom I hired because she was good at the work she did and because it was a tough job where her direct style was a good fit for the team to which she was assigned. However, the rest of the team struggled with liking the executive—and not because of what she said but because they couldn’t hear anything over the roar of her negative body language. The executive oozed contempt in every team meeting, rolling her eyes and shaking her head. I finally had to address it. 

“Listen,” I said, “I assume you want to grow into my job someday.” 

“Yes, as a matter of fact.” 

“I want you to have that opportunity, but I have concerns based on the relationships you’re establishing with everyone. These are the people who would report to you. While they’re your peer group now and you have no dependency on them, you will need them in the future. You want their response to your promotion to be ‘Awesome!’ not ‘Oh no!’ You need them to advocate for you. You do great work, but through little things you’re damaging the relationships with those you need to be your allies. The people around that table are the key to your success, and you are alienating every one of them. You’ll need to work on your non-verbal communication to be able to grow your career.” 

“I hadn’t thought about it that way,” she said. We proceeded to have a discussion on non-verbal communication which I hoped provided her with information that would be important to her future success. 

About the Author of Relentless:

Rich Thompson, CEO of XPG Recruit, is an expert on staffing, human resources, training and leadership development.  He is also a former All-Big Ten football player for the University of Wisconsin.  XPG Recruit provides recruiting for staffing companies.  The XPG Recruit Athlete division places former athletes into business careers and works closely with universities through its sister company, Podium X.