Reading The Room: Building An Awareness Of Others In Order To Strengthen Relationships (And Elevate Your Influence) By reading others, we can more effectively build relationships, work together, and increase our influence- and this becomes particularly important in the workplace.
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.
I love the variety in my work as a consultant. On a recent overseas trip to Sweden, where I consult for a media company, I had the opportunity to visit its new headquarters, and meet several new members of this rapidly growing organization.
During my visit, I had a meeting with the new sales manager. Almost immediately, she surprised me by saying, "You are nothing like I expected, or what others had conveyed about you." I felt slightly nervous, wondering what might have been said. Thankfully, it wasn't negative, just that others had painted me as very intense, and in-your-face. It was slightly humorous to hear, but still a bit disconcerting. Later, when asked how she perceived me now that we had met, she responded, "You are very relaxed, exude great energy, don't fight for space or attention, and you support a space for others to feel seen and heard."
This experience made me reflect. Sure, I can be intense and confronting on subject matters I care about, but I also view myself as relaxed and able to hold space for others. Upon further reflection, I realized that it's my ability to read a room that decides what facet of me becomes most pronounced in any moment. Understanding what others need, whether in a group or one-on-one, is a skill I've fine-tuned. Perhaps it began in my younger years as a waiter, paying attention to body language, facial expressions, and micro-reactions to understand my customers' unspoken needs. Today, I naturally know when and how to speak up, and I also recognize when silence is best.
The benefit of reading the room is that it is rooted in empathy. By reading others, we can more effectively build relationships, work together, and increase our influence- and this becomes particularly important in the workplace.
I chose to discuss this topic further with Sarah Kate Harkness, aka "Sharky." Sarah is a woman in tech who is inspiring growth, innovation, and resilience in business. She is the founder and CEO of Project Lotus, which exists to amplify the impact organizations can have in the world. She teaches empathy, emotional quotient (EQ), intelligence quotient (IQ), and energy intelligence.
Sarah Kate Harkness, founder and CEO, Project Lotus. Image courtesy Project Lotus.
Excerpts from our conversation:
Why is reading the room so important to building relationships and elevating the influence you can have with others?
IQ and EQ play critical roles in our ability to read the room, but I also believe in a third and even more complex application of intelligence: energy. As leaders, the ability to empathize and read others' energy enables us to coordinate ourselves into spaces that support our teams and influence others. By applying all three of these to decision-making, collaboration, and change, we can exponentially affect another person's day, career, or life.
As a CEO, how do you work towards being sensitive and mindful towards the feelings of the people you work with?
100%, I am proud to be an empath. I have been all my life. Despite many challenges I've faced, I still make all attempts to be "others"-focused, and not solely look inwards. As I get older, however, balance is becoming more and more important to me and my teams. I don't dare say I am perfect, and I've often missed the mark in applying empathy to interaction, especially if triggered, but as a leader, my primary concern is the health and well-being of my team. In the past, I've had trouble shielding them from others' narcissism, but I learnt through failing and learning together with my team that our collective commitment to success became the differentiator. Being entirely conscious of how you are speaking, the words you're saying, and how others are reacting in the moment enable us to be astute leaders who are highly tuned to how others may be feeling. By no means have I never hurt anyone. In fact, I often reflect on the times where I put my own needs above others; for example, in my health recovery, but I had fostered a team whose collective kindness and compassion was fostered and encouraged in a culture I had ultimately set the tone of.
Can "reading the room" be taught? If yes, how does a person begin to consider others if this does not come naturally?
Without question, yes. I would encourage everyone to read as many books as they can- see those by authors like Gabor Mate, Brene Brown, and Tony Robbins, to name a few. Empathy can be learned; I have even gone so far as to develop other ways to communicate where a client, family member, or team member doesn't hold the natural ability of empathy.
A great example of this is my incredible and bright son Rivers. Six-year-old Rivs, as we call him, has a personality where empathy is not innate. He is highly cerebral, incredibly intelligent, and wildly adventurous, but as early as four years old, I noticed small indicators where empathy was lacking for him during interactions with his sister. Concerned that my son would miss out on this natural language of emotions and empathy that my daughter and I shared, I looked to apply a simple algorithm to help him better understand feelings, express, and communicate. We developed an alternative to words and energy that he now uses to communicate love. We simply use two taps, on an arm or above his heart. This simple gesture in our family equals "I love you," so this is how we say goodnight. Suffice it to say, the method worked, and he now communicates love with a lot more ease, and this has led to many other inventions for us to help him communicate his feelings. It has given him permission.
I think the same goes for us as leaders at work. If we give our teams permission to feel, to succeed, or fail, we are allowing space for people to be human at work. Empathy-based interaction can be taught and is a huge differentiator for our teams. There is a great book on this by Marc Brackett called Permission to Feel.
Explain the role of mindset and growth mindset, as well as how we can tap into abundance theory to achieve our goals.
Having the right mindset is the variable in every equation or outcome. There are plenty of studies into this both at a quantum physics level (energy, motion, momentum, law of attraction, etc.), as well as proof in looking at how data points play out in our everyday lives and workplaces. Using energy or our frequency as a baseline, and curating our attitude, we can actually affect the outcome of any given situation.
Abundance theory is the application of this method for good. It demonstrates that if the two of us connect, we can ideate, create, and apply our vibration or frequency to an idea or outcome and bias it towards abundance. This does not necessarily translate when fear or scarcity is involved, so I always recommend the application of abundance theory if you're in a good headspace. Otherwise, you're amplifying lower channels like fear or greed, which we have enough of in the world.
Growth mindset to me means a constant wave of improvement to self, which extends into your work, teams, or organizations. This wave of growth is never ending, and it can help create continuous improvement. I apply both abundance and growth mindsets to the work I do with companies' funnels, and resilience is the other ingredient I'd add. It's one thing to focus on growth, but this can be hindered if you are under stress or pressure. By creating resilient workplaces rich in EQ, IQ, and empathy, you have an incredible opportunity to accelerate growth. Watch your bottom-line start to transform when your teams are empowered to show up fully as themselves and encouraged in a healthy environment.
How are you educating those you work with to develop their EQ so that they, too, can build empathy, read the room, and better serve?
Humility, self-care, empathy, kindness, compassion, sustainability, and growth are key and critical ingredients to creating thriving workplaces. I am seeing a revolution of this taking place and statistics show that these can exponentially improve client outcomes, employee engagement, and employee satisfaction. For example, a 2021 study conducted by EY Consulting showed that when mutual empathy is achieved between company leaders and employees, company revenue can be improved by as much as 83%! This to me seems like a no-brainer.
Personally, I'll share three things I'm doing to educate others on these skills:
1. Leading by example. I'm not perfect, but I strive to be empathetic in everything I do, balancing this with self-care, and ensuring my cup is also full. You can't help others if you're showing up empty. I do this with things like a morning nutritional shake, waking up early to see the sun, going to bed early, and making sure I am not burnt out.
2. Collaborating with giants, and sharing their stories. I help others learn by showcasing and sharing how you can choose to behave. I also share others' stories of overcoming adversity, and how they've developed their EQ, IQ, and energy intelligence.
3. Encouraging and collaborating with organizations. This includes organizations like Virgin Unite on "100% Human at Work" initiatives to develop intelligent organizations high in these three.