Everyone wants to be confident. To be able to sashay into work, or a classroom, or your kid’s PTA meeting with a smile on your face and your head held high is one of the most coveted qualities on the planet. Why? Because confidence feels good. It feels powerful and it feels independent.
When you’re confident you can stand on your own two feet and trust yourself. You know how to handle the good and the bad AND you know how to manage your little foibles, missteps or mistakes.
Confidence feels like the exact opposite of anxious, or left out, or misunderstood.
But the truth is that many of us struggle to feel confident. It’s elusive. It’s not a skill that we were born with, confidence is a learned skill. As an adult, this is especially important to remember if your pattern with friends over your lifetime has included feeling uncertain about yourself.
So the good news is that confidence can be learned.
The perhaps not-so-great-news is that you have to learn it.
I know it’s hard to see people around you looking and acting confident when inside you feel insecure and unsure. But that’s the launchpad for growing confidence.
You have to feel confident enough to believe something can change.
So whether you need to meet your coworkers for coffee, at a big meeting or when offering an important presentation, learning how to feel confident is a life skill that will carry through your life once you learn it.
The good news is that there’s one quick skill you can start to practice right now that keeps you motivated as you work on transforming your inner sense of self from lacking confidence to fully confident. And that skill is “reading the room.”
Learning to read the room will give you a process to meet any social situation.
Reading the room helps you feel you can count on your own judgment of a situation which builds confidence.
Reading the room teaches you to take time (even a breath) before acting so you’re not reacting but acting.
Reading the room empowers you to observe those around you to take in the social norms before making a messy social judgment or saying the wrong thing.
And, reading the room is putting your own needs first which is a very important step in building confidence. You have to learn what you need in order to feel confident.
So here’s the truth, no one reads the situation 100% of the time.
Feeling you have to be vigilant all the time is hard and draining.
The goal is to read the room so you can make a choice, determine what the social dynamics are so you can decide how you want to respond.
What is Reading the Room?
When you read the room, you scan the room to understand the people, the situation, who is there and what are they doing. In any situation, there are nonverbal cues that tell you how people are feeling, what they might be thinking, their level of energy, and the context of the situation.
Like so many situations in life, the people involved determine the context and mood of that event. Gestures, glances, and facial expressions all communicate nonverbally what people are thinking and feeling.
Being able to pick up on the subtle dynamics, vibe or mood in a situation can feel daunting but it is the path to growing your confidence for how you want to respond or interact so that when you do, you’re coming from a place of deeper assuredness that you know how your behavior will be received.
The skill of reading the room builds over time. Each time you work on these skills, you will find they grow and that they’re easier to do.
Why Reading the Room Builds Confidence
If you have ever been told by someone that you need to “read the room” better, I’m with you. This is a common way of giving feedback that really means “you made a social faux pas” or “you made an error in judgment” with how you interacted with others.
Feeling baffled by the people and situations around you and/or feeling overwhelmed by having to interact with others is not uncommon for people with neurodiversity. A history of rejection and social blunders can leave you feeling like you’re “not very good” at social situations, making friends or even being part of a group.
But, if being social is a part of your work or your goals, practicing confidence-building activities like reading the room will help.
This is a game plan for how to approach social interactions with more thought and less impulsivity. It’s especially helpful if your natural style is to “see what’s happening” only to wish later that you had more of a plan.
Confidence comes from knowing things can work out for you.
It’s trusting in your abilities to successfully navigate whatever social setting you’re in and believing in your skills to interact well with others. The tools to read the room can help you become more confident in your ability to enter any situation and figure people out.
Over time each little win, each time you find your observations are correct, each time you feel successful helps to make you feel more confident.
How to Successfully Read the Room
Reading the room is all about observing the people around you. Everything we learn about other people we learn from observing. So reading the room is observing what’s going on around you before you act.
There are several elements involved in reading the room. Below are details on all of them
#1 Start Reading The Room As A Social Spy
Social Spy is my way of teaching people how to observe their surroundings with a little more stealth and ease. Think of Social Spy as a “curious observer;” someone who wants to find out more about the people and the situation they’re walking into.
Spying is quietly observing in a subtle way without staring, hovering or leering. It’s people watching without being obvious.
You can drop into Social Spy at any time in an interaction with people. All it takes is a breath to slow down and observe.
It starts by watching big group muscles as you observe the whole scene. Once you have the big picture, you can then zoom in to observe details from one person to the next.
As a Social Spy reading the room, you may notice the nonverbal cues being displayed as people talk to each other. You may observe the facial expressions or body language of the people in conversation. You may hear language or word choices in conversation. You may notice things NOT being talked about or things that are “left out.”
Social Spy is something anyone can learn – at any age. It’s particularly helpful if you have doubts about what to say or your role in conversation. When in doubt, spy. You spy to find out the things you need to know about people, the things people don’t tell you, the things you are wondering about.
#2 Scan & Observe
Take 2 beats to scan the room. This is people-watching in fast motion. Nobody’s looking at you while you scan the room. So take the 2 beats, and get the information you need – who’s there, what are people doing? Do a sweep with your eyes of the whole situation.
Think of a lifeguard in the tower at the beach- they scan clockwise sweeping their gaze across the room looking at 12 o’clock, one o’clock etc. Each time you scan you can notice more.
Design your own spy mission. Think of the information you want to know and then spy to get the details/information you need. As you spy, you won’t be lingering, staring or making your scan obvious. This is meant to be a glance to gather information.
#3 Notice the People – Who is There?
People are the trigger, the reward and the punishment around social faux pas. Building confidence happens when you successfully interact with your co-workers or peers in the way that you most want to.
To do a good job at this, you have to know who is in the social situation you’re observing.
Ask yourself some questions as you scan:
- Who is there?
- Do you know them?
- What do you know about them?
- What is your history with them?
- What is your relationship to them, are they your boss, colleague, higher-up, stranger?
- How are other people acting?
- What is the pace of the people talking at?
- What are people talking about?
Every time people come in or out of a situation they affect the dynamic of the gathering. If the people change, the situation changes.
For instance, when your boss enters the break room, chances are your conversation with a co-worker changes.
When your friend of a different political persuasion enters the room, you may change your topic to avoid conflict.
When someone you don’t get along with enters the conversation, you may choose to downshift your engagement.
Bottom line: People affect the environment.
#4 Identify Their Actions – What Are They Doing?
Once you notice who is there then, again take two beats to scan and notice what people are doing and what actions are they involved in.
Ask yourself some questions as you scan:
- What is their energy like?
- Are they talking loudly or quietly?
- Are they adding to a conversation or looking down at their phone?
- Are they greeting other people?
- Do they smile at you?
- Are they sitting or standing?
- What activity are people engaged in?
Actions tell us what people are feeling and how to respond to them.
For instance, if someone looks at their watch for a second time, they might be pressed for time and ready to end the conversation. Or if someone is packing up their bag with the lights off, they may be ready to leave the office for the day. Both are not the best time to strike up a conversation.
#5 Check Out the Environment – Where Are You & What Does That Convey to You?
After you check out the people and their actions, notice the environment. Each environment has its own set of expectations. If you’re unsure, you may want to spy again.
Take 2 beats and scan to find out where you are and what the environment tells you about the expectations, situation and context.
Ask yourself some questions as you scan.
- What is the situation or context?
- Where are you?
- What is going on there?
- Is it a formal or informal location?
- Do they ask questions in the meeting?
- Are there certain social expectations?
- Are the chairs comfortable and inviting? Or the opposite?
- What are the social rules based on that environment?
- What kind of physical movement is expected in this environment?
The context you want to explore includes the situation, environment, mood, circumstances, and what has been going on for the people involved.
To understand how people are feeling you spy on the people.
To understand the context or mood you spy on how people are acting and what they seem to be feeling.
Then, if you can detect how someone is feeling, then you will feel more confident responding to them.
Ask yourself: what do they want? What do they NOT want?
#6 Tune into Social Cues, Facial Expressions, Body Language & Nonverbal Signals
To tune into someone’s nonverbal or social cues, take 2 beats and scan their face to notice their expression and pick up on signals offered. Do this two times. The first time you want to scan by their face and then on the second pass, zoom in on the person’s face. Then, zoom out and look at the person’s whole body.
I call this zoom in and zoom out.
Ask yourself some questions as you scan.
- What do I notice about their facial expression?
- What do I see in their gestures?
- What emotions do you notice?
- What do you see on people’s faces?
- What gestures are people using?
- What do these gestures tell you about their mood?
Once you feel confident that you have observed the situation you’ve walked onto and successfully read the room, then you can engage.
Noticing social cues is hard for me– I miss stuff- I can’t do this
Reading social cues and nonverbal communication can be hard for many people. Learning to notice social cues and body language is not something that happens overnight. It takes practice which is very helpful for building confidence.
If feeling confident around your coworkers was easy, I believe you would have done it by now. I know the awkwardness and isolation of feeling uncomfortable with your peers is deeply motivating. So the truth is, this takes practice.
Here’s my advice…
Take a field trip and people watch. Pick an activity or event and at that location that’s easy for you and practice reading the room. Pick one aspect of reading the room to work on to start. Or, you can pick one thing you really want to find out, uncover or you need to know. Then reflect on what you learned by journaling, chatting about it or even verbalizing the discoveries to yourself!
Rather than expecting perfection, let go of that expectation and realize that you are in the learning and practice zone. Everything you learn helps you grow personally and builds confidence. Celebrate every win.
This is a journey and each time you practice you will gain more knowledge. We can work on this together and I will be here to help you through this.
Since a picture is worth 1000 words- follow me on Instagram for videos of these steps in action @authorcarolinem .