reading the room is a soft skill

Thursday September 7th 2023 by socraticDev

Reading the room is a common english expression referring to a complex social skill:

  1. the ability to quickly understand people's emotions, opinions, and tendencies in a group setting like a job interview, a business meeting, or even a live show;
  2. the ability to adapt one's discourse and behavior according to these insights.

communication 101

Effective communication is a lost art.

I believe faulty communication to be at the core of most hardships. Learning about communication and its various angles will shed light to a complex process about which most of us are careless actors.

Let's agree that communication is an activity taking place between at least two parties: the speaker and the audience. The speaker is one person and the audience can be one or more than one person.

Leaning on my philosophical roots, I'm putting forward greek philosopher Aristotle's breakdown of persuasion to split communication in three integral parts:

I - Ethos

Ethos or "character" relates to the speaker. It refers to the audience's perception of the speaker. The speaker can seen in a good light: a competent, honest, positive and likeable person. Or the speaker might have a bad reputation; he might have crossed me several times and caused me harm. Or, I might not know the speaker at all.

II - Pathos

Pathos or "emotions" relates to the audience. What is the mindset of the audience during the communication? Are they eager to hear what the speaker has to say or are they fearing bad news? Are they in a hurry? Do they think the speaker can help them get what they want or do they think the speaker only wants to take from them?

III - Logos

Logos or "logic and reason" relates to the message. It is the discourse itself: facts, evidences, statistics, logical reasonings, etc. In my blog post, the logos can be found in my effort to define concepts, write down descriptions, use quotes and excerpts from experts, propose hypotheses and reflections over arguments andc counter-arguments.

Aristotle underlines the composite nature of communication. Every communication must satisfy these three poles (ethos, pathos, logos) to be effective.

Almost every failure in communication results from neglecting one of these poles. For example, as a tech professional, I might wander off focusing exclusively on the logos aspect in a meeting. I'd bring forward technical articles, white papers, diagrams and graphs in order to obtain the audience's approval. Only to find out a week later that they have forgotten about my proposal or chose to do something else. I've written documentation and presented my idea in front of the whole department. What could I have done more?

a failure in empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else. It's the ability to accept that others have different values, opinions, goals, and emotions that I. Most failure in communication results from short circuiting this primordial attitude in all communication. Simply put, in every communication there is two or more participants; each has individual emotions, opinions, goals, and fears. That's a lot!

Reading the room is a bit like that moment, before a musical performance, when the musicians tune up to the same pitch. No one expect that musicians can walk up to the stage, sit down, and start playing. Due to known and unknown factors, instruments are rarely in tune with each another. Moreover, one's own instrument gets detuned due to the temperature and other factors.

It's the same thing for human beings. Before starting a conversation, we want to tune up to the others participants. It's not because we were in tune last meeting, that we can expect everyone to be feeling the same today.

reading the room helps close the gap between the speaker and the audience

Reading the room requires that openness and humility from the speaker to recognize that their knowledge, expertise, past successes, and the merits of their proposal is just not enough for the communication to be effective. The speaker relies on their audience to move forward. Before requesting their agreement, the speaker must first be interested to learn about them; the audience.

"Reading the room" means two things.

First, wanting to learn the most about one's audience. Are they in a rush, are they preocupped with more urgent matters than listening to you right now? What are their goals and how can I help them achieve them?

Secondly, being able to adapt and to react positively to what I've learned about the audience. If the audience are uneasy because they don't know me, I will take the time to introduce myself and answer questions. If the audience is busy and doesn't have the time to read and appreciate the documention I had written, I will summarize it for them, etc.


Communication skills are crucial to one's happiness. A lot of our failures and problems come from a failure in communication. Usually from our part.

By looking to improve our communication skills, we learn deep truth about ourselves. We learn that we are fundamentally alone in this world; we are islands unto ourselves. By improving our communication skills, we are becoming bridge builders. We are building bridges to visit others and to invite them to visit us.

To sum it up, "reading the room" should not be seen as a mischievous tactic, but as a bona fide attempt to learn about others and collaborate in harmony.