WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO READ A GROUP?
It’s the ability to understand the mood in the room and how receptive people are.
When you’re working with groups in the museum or online, it’s extremely helpful to be able to know how to ‘read the room’. Paying attention to others and listening for clues can pay dividends.
Being able to read a group and see how engaged they are, whether they are enjoying the programme, following along or even whether they are listening is extremely important.
It can help you to:
Adjust in real time so that you can address any issues or concerns before they become too serious
Capitalise on things that are going well (and do more of them) and to change course if things aren’t going well
Confirm or change your plan for the group. Paying attention allows you to be flexible and change in the moment based on the clues you’re picking up from your group
Being able to read your group allows you to personalise experiences to what the group needs at that moment.
Knowing how to read between the lines is a great skill to have – It helps you to understand other people, what they want, what they don’t want and this builds trust.
It’s important to be able to pick up on clues not only from the discussions taking place, but also from the underlying reactions and things that are left unsaid from those in the room as well.
These subtle cues aren’t always easy to pick up on, but you can train yourself to not only be aware of them, but to influence group dynamics, by paying more attention.
FIND OUT AS MUCH AS YOU CAN AT THE START
Depending on where you’re working, sometimes you can take the time to get to know your group before you start the session with them. Sometimes it’s when they’re getting off the bus or arriving into the museum and taking their coats off. Interact with the group and chat to them as they arrive. This will help you to understand where the group is at and how they are arriving at the session.
Obviously it goes without saying that your introduction is the place where you want to get to know your group and find out as much as you can about them (in a relaxed way) as this will help you to read them throughout the programme.
Your goal at this point is to find out who’s in the room and what their relationship is to each other.
Find out everything you can about who’s who in the room in your introduction, and what distinct interest areas are important to each of those individuals.
Scan the room. This can be done at the start of a programme (you can learn a lot in the first 5 minutes) and regularly throughout.
Notice who’s standing where and who they are next to. Who’s together? Who’s alone? What’s the rhythm and pulse of the room? Who’s smiling? Who isn’t?
Then do your best to read how they’re feeling through their facial expressions, their posture and body language.
Micro-expressions like quick smiles, raised eyebrows or small frowns can be telling.
Be aware that body language and facial expressions can give off false clues.
Crossed arms is a really good one – although crossed arms can be a sign of someone fed up they can also just be a neat way of doing something with your hands when you’re standing. Don’t assume anything.
Careful and consistent observation will give you information and this information will help you to navigate the group.
Do be aware that your observations and perceptions can lead you astray. And your emotions can come into play too. Think of a variety of possible reasons why people might be behaving in this way. Keep your emotions in check and don’t take anything too personally. Participants could be bringing all sorts of emotional states into the museum with them and it’s not necessarily as a result of what you’re doing. Keep an eye out for positive signals and focus on those.
Reading the room is definitely more challenging in a virtual meeting, but you can still pay attention facial expressions and watch the eyes. Take time every so often to scan the participants in full (rather than just the few you see on your screen) and notice how they are responding to what you are saying.
Are people nodding, smiling and engaging with you? Or are people looking down or away (this doesn’t mean they’re not engaged, it can mean they are reading something else to the side for example, try not to make assumptions).
From time to time, you could take a brief pause – perhaps for a sip of water – and take a moment to observe what’s happening in the room.
This means listening without thinking of something to say or how what the person is saying relates to what you are thinking. Try to rid your mind of thoughts and tune into what is being said.
Listening well is especially important in the case of virtual meetings where things like body language and eye contact won’t be present. As you listen, pay attention to the emotional tone of their words for clues to their responsiveness.
Listening more ensures that you will talk less. By talking less you’ll be able to tune in to others, listen to what they are saying and the way they are saying it and pay attention to any clues they are giving about how they are feeling.
Use paraphrasing or restating and lots of open-ended questions to give participants the chance to talk and for you to listen carefully.
CREATE MOMENTS TO ‘TAKE THE TEMPERATURE’ OF THE GROUP
Apart from at the start, you want to be able to have moments throughout your programme when you can observe your group and take a moment to ‘take the temperature’ of the room.
So, think about how you could sequence your stops (if you’re on a guided tour) or activities so that you can build in a few moments that allow you to do this – points when you can learn about their energy and their willingness to participate.
For example, this could be during a pair-share or a small group activity where you observe how the group interacts with one another – who is talking, who is quiet, who looks keen, who looks a bit more reluctant.
And taking that time to pay attention to the make up of the group and to notice.
It could also be just after you’ve asked a question, in your waiting time, when you’re scanning the group to take the temperature and watching people’s facial expressions and body language closely.
Design space into your programmes where you don’t have to take such an active role, so that you can observe the group.
This will also give you time to think about how the group are responding to your programme so far and whether you need to tweak or change anything. Maybe you might need to tone down some elements or switch up some others.
Sometimes you can almost feel a shift in your audience’s attention.
People might start looking at their watches or their phones, or they start looking at other things rather than you or the artwork or object you’re discussing.
Or the group may suddenly go quiet or noisy in response to a comment.
If you observe this occurring, you should respond to the changing situation, rather than continue as if nothing has happened.
Be flexible and go with what is happening in the moment. If the room has suddenly become tense, diffuse the situation with humour or empathy to lighten the mood. Be happy to deviate from your plans and to think on your feet.
CHECK IN WITH YOUR GROUP
Linked to this is asking regular check in questions. Ask your group how they feel and what they are thinking.
Asking ‘How are we all doing?‘ And giving them a quick summary of what’s still to come. Asking them what they’re looking forward to.
These quick check-ins usually come in the form of closed questions and are really easy to insert into your programme at regular intervals.
You can also get your group to confirm what you’re reading of the group – ‘I’m sensing that as a group there’s not a lot of energy today, am I seeing this right?’ many times the group will confirm what you think you are seeing and tell you that they are in fact really tired!
Finally, when you are ‘reading a group’ make allowances for the fact that the group is made up a variety of individuals and don’t assume that what you’re reading in one person is the same for the whole group. Some people could exhibiting signs of weariness or irritability or boredom purely due to external factors.
And bear in mind that things like body language are not an exact science. The key thing is here is to pay close attention and notice what is going on, and be open to a variety of possible reasons.
So there are some suggestions for how to read a room. I have a great class on group dynamics and building rapport that’s available in both my membership programme if you want to dive into this subject a little deeper.
And don’t forget our new Facebook group The Slow Looking Club.
It’s a place where I can share more information with you about the things we talk about on this podcast. And it’s a place where you can share your thoughts with me and others too. And as everything I do in my work in underpinned by slow looking, I’ve called it the Slow Looking Club.
The Slow Looking Club is a place for conversation and discussion about engaging with art, objects and life slowly.
I’ll share resources, ideas and tips for anyone interested in looking at art – whether it’s for your personal enjoyment or your practice as a cultural educator.
And we’ll have regular slow looking moments together too!
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