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How to do a Better Job of Reading the Room

Reading the Room by David KantorToday’s guest post is by David Kantor, Ph.D, author of Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders (CLICK HERE to get your copy now).  You can learn all about him at the end of the post.

“Be self-aware!” “Don’t get stuck wearing one hat!” “See yourself how your team sees you!” “Convey a narrative purpose!” “Be an active listener!” So often are leaders told this by coaches, how-to sites, their husbands and wives, and co-workers. It is all good advice, but it merely scratches at the surface.

I’ve found throughout my career that leaders and coaches overlook the underlying thread connecting that manual on “aligning people” and the article on “modeling behaviors you want to see”: the simple truth that communication belies work among groups. What if leaders, coaches, consultants, managers, and family members had the ultimate encyclopedia on speech—a resource that broke conversations down into a soup of visible intentions and judgments, and also outputted the proper words for one to say in order to be heard, to make others feel heard, to break a standstill, to create an environment of collaboration, to create a sense of purpose? I believe it is possible, and I would go further to say any change in leadership, whether to “be authentic” or “be transparent,” must come from the bottom-up, from the discourse itself.

While this opinion may seem reminiscent of those long-forgotten critical theory college courses, Derridean, Habermasean, an academic fad concerned with the linguistic turn—it is inarguable that leaders with a wider repertoire of communication can navigate these leadership problems more naturally and with greater ease. That is, along with a stronger skill set in communication—both verbal and non-verbal, on transmitting and receiving ends, among selves and the self, and regarding impersonal and personal subjects—comes leadership intuition and the knowledge to garner action and get results.

My structural dynamics theory analyzes groups on three levels and is predicated on the fact that each person has communication preferences in low- and high- stakes situations. Without delving into the different levels, here are some basic questions regarding discourse, which I hope will help leaders uncover problems on the ground and find opportunities for change.

- How often do I/does my team member initiate topics, agree with or carry forward the direction others suggest, challenge directions other suggest, stay back to observe others’ without commenting much, or observe and then make comments about the nature of the conversation?
- Who is actively participating in the conversation? Is this typical of how the group interacts?
- Do I/does my team member prefer that everyone contribute to a conversation, or get faster conclusions without hearing it all?
- Do I/does my team member prefer to talk about material issues—money or timing—emotional issues, or theoretical issues?
- How often are there clashes between members based on differences in preferences to talk about material, emotional, or theoretical issues?
- How does my own preference to speak about material, emotional, or theoretical issues affect whom I support in conversation and whom I do not?
- Are individuals/am I moving fluidly between different communication preferences or are they/am I locked into one?

A richer set of questions to help figure out your typical action stance in conversation can be assessed by a free itunes application, which was created by Jossey-Bass in tandem with the publication of Reading the Room. Once you see your typical moves and the preferences of your co-workers, you will know better how to speak in their language.

Then, the possibilities are endless.

You can be heard, you can assure them they are heard, you can stop the endless clashing of heads, you can encourage the voice of a group member whose natural communication preference for theory will stop the standstill regarding deadlines and cost, you can bring varied personalities to feel for a common purpose. This way, the communicative puzzle pieces of your team may not necessarily fit together—which would actually cost innovation—but, with your knowing guidance and ability to know what to say and who to bring into conversation, group fragments will create dynamic friction and avoid stuck and bent parts.

It is an unending workload to think about communicative preferences for each and every person you work with… But remember, “being authentic” depends as much on your definition of authenticity as it does on how it is heard and how it is conveyed to different ears, different minds, and different hearts.

- David Kantor, Ph.D is a systems psychologist, organizational consultant, clinical researcher, author of Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders, and founder of The Kantor Institute, a training center for consultants, coaches, and leaders.

One Response to “How to do a Better Job of Reading the Room”

  1. […] and interventions.  Systems therapist David Kantor has written about some of this in his book Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders.  And there is psychologist Bruce Tuckman’s classic work on stages of team formation - […]

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