Conversational Cues are Powerful Clues
Tips for Nonverbal Analysis
Reading the room is a term we’ve all heard before and depicts an awareness of the opinions and attitudes of those you’re speaking with. But what does it entail in practice? Reading the room involves four steps: observe, interpret, deliver, and reassessment. Note that reassessment is just a simplified way of saying “repeat steps 1–3” but is vital to your ongoing success in directing and leading conversations.
Step 1. Observe
What is your audience telling you before engagement?
We’ve all suffered through a small talk at some point, but have you ever noticed how it’s distinctly more awkward over the phone rather than in person? Forced laughter, pauses that last just a bit too long, copious amounts of filler words… Do any of those sound familiar? Even skilled conversationalists can struggle with these uncomfortable moments sometimes.
We subconsciously look for conversational clues to help us navigate these interactions but don’t have any information other than direct verbiage and tone of voice. For example, Albert Mehrabian, a body language researcher, found that 38% of communication happens vocally, and only 7% is from words. But the lion’s share of conversational cues, up to 55%, comes in nonverbal communication.
Nonverbal communication is information conveyed primarily through visual cues, though tone and inflection play a significant role. These cues can be conscious or subconscious actions that we all do intentionally or otherwise. How we interpret the words spoken to us can vary by their delivery and be influenced by facial expressions and physical gestures. Being aware of the nuances of body language can help you navigate conversations, influence your audience, and read the room before engaging others.
Observe how people orient themselves. Proximity to others can convey interpersonal relationships and who they view as leaders. Posture and body language can tell you about someone’s general disposition. Are they annoyed about being here? Nervous? Excited? How people feel can give you clues on how to approach the conversation. Careful and consistent observation will provide you with the information needed to interpret group dynamics and improve your social awareness accurately.
Step 2. Interpret
What do these signals and observations mean?
It’s important to note that nonverbal cues are heavily influenced by social and cultural context and can vary considerably depending on where you are in the world.
Arms and posture: Crossed arms can signify discomfort or nervousness if joined with poor posture. Alternatively, crossed arms and good posture usually show defensiveness.
Facial expression: Eye contact or lack thereof can tell you a lot about what a person is thinking. Looking up can mean they are accessing the creative part of their brain while looking to the side can indicate someone is trying to access a memory. Are they focused on you but not holding eye contact? They might be trying to read your body language. Are they smiling? Pursing their lips? Scrunching their nose? Raising an eyebrow? These microexpressions can all be clues in how they are receiving what you are sharing with them.
Proximity: Depending on circumstances, how close someone stands or sits next to you can be a sign of comfort. The distance can measure how someone feels about the conversation or even about the speaker. The closer someone stands or sits, the more comfortable or collaborative conversation. Conversely, substantial space can be evidence of a one-sided presentation or a non-personal relationship between speakers.
Movement: Fidgeting is typical of a lack of engagement, though it can also signify nervous energy. If someone is constantly distracted, moving, or just not engaged, take a moment to assess if you’ve allowed them to share their thoughts or if other clues might mean they feel uncomfortable.
Step 3. Delivery
Incorporate what you’ve learned into your presentation.
Be calm and empathetic. Most of the time, people want to have a conversation, not a one-sided lecture. Ease any anxiety building up by offering an explanation or outline of what you’d like to cover today. This sets up both parties for success and shows that you’ve given them due attention.
Preparedness is key. Your opening presentation or greeting may be heavily influenced by those you speak with, but knowing where you want the conversation to end and the benchmarks for getting there is vital to successfully navigating the conversation professionally. You want to meet them where they’re at emotionally and then walk with them to the destination.
It’s essential to keep your own emotions in check. Having self-awareness and assuredness in the task at hand helps set you up for success and solidifies you as the leader in the conversation. Don’t let the energy of others influence yours. If the room is tense, don’t fall victim to that negative energy. Instead, acknowledge any uncomfortable cues you are picking up on; you may have the power to change the energy and move on without settling into it. Be adaptable and keep a calm demeanor.
Step 4. Reassessment
What’s changed? What’s the same? What’s next?
It’s important to keep part of your attention in observation and interpretation mode during the conversation, but if you are struggling to present and engage simultaneously, take a moment to let the other person lead the engagement for a bit. You can do this between each benchmark by asking follow-up questions if you have difficulty reading someone.
Take careful note of how your information is being absorbed. Does the conversation steadily move forward, or do you find it continuously revisiting the same subject or getting off-topic completely? Revisit any points needing clarification, and then take a moment to clarify understanding and comprehension before moving on to your next benchmark.
Give mindful consideration to what your conversation partner says and practice active listening. It sounds simple, but we’re really just waiting for our turn to speak most of the time. Remember, you are crafting a response, not a rebuttal. Be present, be engaged, and be open with what you’re seeing and observing, not falling prey to confirmation bias.