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During a course on interpersonal skills, we did several exercises to help us assess our own abilities. I realised that while I do fine with assessing mood, reaction and engagement in one-on-one conversations, I struggle in group settings.

The trainer called this "reading a room" but wasn't able to offer any advice about how to develop these skills from one-on-one observations to assessing a larger group.

I experimented with looking around the room during a role-play conversation, with the permission of the person I was working with. This upset them as I wasn't paying them enough attention during the conversation, and I believe their reaction was justified. I was also resorting to looking at one person after another, which in a large group will take a long time - much longer than most people take to 'read a room'.

I most notice trouble in situations where I don't know people very well, such as arriving at a party where I only know one or two people, or attending work meetings with other teams. It's often around a dozen people: any fewer than that and I can get by with looking at people individually.

Let's assume that I'm arriving at a party, where there are a dozen or so people in a room, and I only know 1 or 2 of them. What are some tips and advice for quickly performing a shallow assessment of that room: their mood, group dynamics, or tension? What should I look for and prioritise?

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    This question, while interesting, is quite broad. Can you limit this a little in scope? - Strangers or Acquaintances? - Big or small event/room? - Professional or leisure? – user6109 May 16 '18 at 10:15
  • @Daniel I don't understand why those categories would give different answers. Are the skills different in each situation? Where would I even start? My question has now been put on hold, when I have no clue how to make it more specific. – Simon Fraser May 16 '18 at 12:08
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    For example if I get invited to a bbq with friends, I usually make a greeting round so I´ll automatically see what´s on. Also I have some information about who-is-who. If I have to go to a vernissage, I´ll may quietly observe from a corner, maybe seek to get a drink and go from there ... – user6109 May 16 '18 at 12:12
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    Unhelpfully, both, but I'll choose one and edit the question. Thanks – Simon Fraser May 16 '18 at 12:23
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat. – Tinkeringbell May 16 '18 at 12:26
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TL;DR: There is no time upon entering a party to assess all the people there, unless you're among the first 3 or 4 people to arrive. Use the occasional glance around the room to remain aware of your surroundings, but focus the deeper reading on the people that you're interacting with.


This upset them as I wasn't paying them enough attention during the conversation, and I believe their reaction was justified. I was also resorting to looking at one person after another, which in a large group will take a long time - much longer than most people take to 'read a room'.

Just like you, I've had social skills training, and just like yours, mine taught me to read the other person, but never reading an entire room. Here's what I've come to realise over the years though, based on that training:

When in a group, you lack the amount of time you have in a one-on-one conversation to keep judging the mood, reactions and engagement of a single person. Even in a one-on-one conversation this time is limited, in a group setting even more so. The bigger the group, the less attention you can give each individual, and the more you'll have to go on a sample of the reactions around you. Spending time looking at each individual closely will mean that you're distracted from the conversation at hand.

When entering a new room, full of people, there also isn't time to stand in the doorframe closely observing over a dozen people. This website, written by someone that claims to have over 10 years of experience in training other people's social skills, states:

look at the setting, take some time to observe and make mental notes. Resist the temptation to jump into a conversation right away (or conversely run from the room in terror). On the other hand you don’t want to appear as a wallflower disinterested in connecting. Some questions to ask yourself include:

  • What is going on around you non-verbally?
  • What are people doing?
  • What’s the mood?
  • Are you entering a conversation that’s already been going on?
  • What’s the topic of discussion?
  • Who are the players?

And remember, you've only got a few moments to do that upon entering a room. Now, the best way to go by this information, as I've come to realise, is:

1.) A quick glance around the room to pick up the 'high level' non-verbal clues and a sense of what people are doing.

Usually, when entering a room, look around that room, take just a glance at everybody. Don't worry about it yet, just register where people are sitting and where the free seats are, how many people there are and what they're generally doing. Are they sitting and listening to someone, or telling a story to which multiple others are listening? Is everyone looking at you, standing in the entrnace? What sounds are coming from the room? Angry shouting is probably bad, laughter and smiling faces sounds good.

Usually, in The Netherlands, the first move you make at a birthday party is a meet and greet with the host. Take some time to shake their hand, congratulate them, present them with their gift and exchange some pleasantries. Try and read their mood, are they happy because the party is going well? Cast a glance around the room, and focus on your host again (maybe when they're unwrapping their present?). Repeat as needed (and as time allows) for a few times.

This site gives some nice pointers on what you could look for when entering a room, and what those non-verbal clues might mean, as well as some guidance on the best ways to engage the group. There's different ways for different readings of rooms, I'm going to continue with a happy, fun birthday party, such as described by the last point on that website.

Try to pick up what's going on around you non-verbally, in the most global sense.

2.) Focus on the conversation/discussion that is going on already, take a seat and take some time to understand what is being talked about, and how.

Focus on the people talking first, identify the players. Read their mood, their reactions and engagement in the conversation. The great thing about groups is that they probably won't be talking all at once. Sit down, listen, and observe the closest person to you that's talking, and then the ones that are responding. Observe on a person by person base, just like in a one-on-one conversation.

From what I've experienced at birthday parties, if there's more than a dozen people there's likely to be several subgroups having several conversations, try to just focus on one for the moment. If it helps, it may be easiest to pick the one subgroup that has that person you already know. This will free up some 'processing power', as you don't have to worry about reading everyone, but only a few people at a time. If two or three people are having a pleasant conversation, you know enough and it should help you feel comfortable enough to chime in.

Identify who's talking, what they're talking about and how they're talking about that, just like you would in a one-on-one conversation with a person

3.) Reading while participating in the group.

After having a gotten a quick impression of the room, it's time to participate. Otherwise, you'll end up as in your experiment: On the sidelines of the conversation, with people thinking you're not interested.

If there's not a lot of conversation going on, and you notice people seeing you when you walk in, a round of introductions to at least these people does work nicely. If people are so busy having their conversations that they don't really notice, pick up a chair, listen, and at an appropriate time cut in with a remark of your own (make sure that it is relevant to the conversation!). If you feel like playing it easy, pick the subgroup that holds your friends to start.

Group dynamics at a party are likely to shift. People will get drawn to your conversational topic, or drop out. Take a few pointers from that first website on what to pay attention for when reading while participating:

  • Read others reception, are they interested in what you have to say?
  • Gauge the length of your talking, conversation needs to be give-and-take.

Even once you're a part of the conversation, keep the deeper observations to a sample. It's not necessary to keep track of over a dozen people at a birthday party, focus on your seating neighbours/your side of the table. If they start acting and looking bored, concerned, agitated or worse, it may be time to either sit back and let the conversation continue like it did before you chimed in for a while, or let it move on/actively change it to another subject.

On the other hand, take an occasional glance around the room. It might attend you to stuff as 'speaking too loudly' if people all start to drop their conversations and start staring at you.

Take an occasional glance around to remain aware of your surroundings, but focus most of your reading on the people you're directly interacting with.

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    All the makings of a great answer. Personally I avoid broaching new topics unless I'm in a direct conversation with a small number of people, or the current topic of conversation is exhausted. – Cronax May 16 '18 at 14:03
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    Another suggestion, on the topic of gauging the length of your talking, to avoid overdoing it I personally try to limit myself to pretty basic statements at first and seeing if I get any questions. For instance, if people are discussing smartphone X vs smartphone Y, I'll state that I have smartphone Z and am happy/unhappy with it. If questions come, I'm in the conversation and can try to share some more. If no questions come, I wait for another opportunity and if there are again no questions, I try to move to a different set of people. – Cronax May 16 '18 at 14:06
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When you just arrive

When you enter a room, you may make a short pause, scanning through the crowd.

  • Is there somebody you already know (acknowledge with a nod or so, greet them later)?
  • What kind of people are there. Clothing? Male/Female? Average age?
  • What are they doing? (what) are they drinking?
  • Are they standing in groups or do they seem to be focused on a central event/speaker
  • Noise level, Laughing?
  • Happy or stern faces
  • Their reaction on you entering.

This already tells you a lot.

Quietly join the crowd if somebody is speaking to the whole room and everybody is focused. Make a tour round the room if everybody is standing in groups, so you can introduce yourself. If everybody is looking at you when you enter, you may as well say hi to the whole group.

Keeping aware of changes

This is more a matter of diverting you attention. If you are engaged in a conversation, you can easily get tunnel-vision. From time to time you can just listen to the background noise. You can also try not to stay focused on one individual only, but join small groups where you are not center of discussion. Bathroom-breaks, drink-refills, buffet etc. are another opportunity to "check" the room.

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Reading a room 1. Noise level 2. Grouping 3. Open body language or closed 4. Laughter or whispering and looking around at others

Choosing your first point of contact. Seeing how others react to your intro.

Noise. If the group is relaxed and integrated the noise level is high, it is difficult to distinguish between people. If it is quiet and to make a noise attracts attention nothing is going on, and everything is frozen and people are nervous.

Grouping. People tend to group around their known people, and see others as outsiders. If there are no distinct groups everyone is relaxed enough to explore and enjoy one anothers company.

Body language. Crossed arms, hunched up, defensive, means they are not happy to be there and do not want to participate. Open arms, physical contact, smiles, people engaged and taking new things in, it is all going well.

Laughter is often an indicator of people open to new things, and enjoying the experience. In most groups, a joke helps people to relax and then be honest about their reactions. So creating this situation helps group dynamics progress.

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