Of all the skills needed to make it in our industry (and in life in general) knowing how to read a situation may be one of the most crucial.
It is critical to know how to read a room, a facial expression, a tone, an inference, a subtext, a backstory, a level of sincerity, an agenda and so much more.
Rarely do situations come clearly and overtly labeled. Reading them requires some very special skills. Here are a few:
1. PRACTICE. PRACTICE. PRACTICE.
We are talking about learning how to read situations. Doing so requires as much study and practice as learning to learn to read a foreign language or learning to read music.
No one is born with reading skills. They are only learned and improved through study and experience.
2. READING SITUATIONS MEANS GETTING INTO SITUATIONS.
Don’t be an armchair philosopher.
Trade the theoretical for the experiential.
Get out of your head and get into situations. Put yourself into rooms and with people you need to read.
Do this a lot.
Go into these situations with the realization that being in them is more than half the battle of learning to navigate them.
3. THE FIRST STEP OF READING A SITUATION IS UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION.
Before even stepping into a situation, try to get an objective lay of the land:
What situation are you walking into?
What people are in play?
What are the objectives of the others in the situation?
What outcomes are others seeking?
What got you a place in the situation?
Who are you in the equation?
Reading the broader landscape really helps in then reading the details within it.
4. MAKE PEOPLE A PRIORITY
Situations ALWAYS involve other people.
Caring to figure out what makes them tick is key.
A love of humanity helps.
People are complex, diverse, contradictory, evolving, challenging creatures. Learning to read them requires patience and a genuine sense of curiosity and compassion.
5. LISTEN TO WHAT IS SAID. AND WHAT ISN’T.
Since no one can listen and talk at the same time… start by SHUTTING UP.
Now listen very carefully. Get a sense of tone. Of subtext. Of facial expressions.
Pay close attention to the things that aren’t being said.
Pepper in smart questions designed to help illuminate more information for you to read. Be artful with your asking. Help others reveal more because your questioning encourages them to do so.
6. GET FEEDBACK
Find smart ways to get feedback. Make it comfortable for others to share their impressions. Accept them without argument.
Getting feedback is a precious gift. Treat it as such.
7. PUT YOURSELF IN THE OTHER PERSON’S SHOES.
Who is that other person in the situation? What makes them tick? What are they going through? What do they want? What do they need?
Your empathy and curiosity make you a substantially better reader.
8. TAKE YOUR PRECONCEIVED NOTIONS OUT OF THE EQUATION.
It is hard to read anything if you are distracted. Don’t clutter a fresh read of a new situation with your own old agendas, prejudices, dogmas, absolutes, and assumptions.
Try to see what is really happening and not be blinded by what you project onto it.
9. USE SOUNDING BOARDS WISELY.
Bouncing observations and thoughts off of others can be useful… or disastrous.
Always consider the source… and your motives.
Are you asking those with great success at reading situations or picking those who are stumbling on it themselves?
Are you using sounding boards for challenging input, or to just find those already in agreement with you to boost your own preconceived readings.
10. FAIL. FAIL. FAIL.
Watch a child as they learn to read. Lots of fumbling, mispronunciations, errors and stumbles.
To get better at reading situations you’ve got to be willing to fall splat on your face.
Personally, I have misread situations an epic number of times in the past… and continue to do so today.
I have put my foot in my mouth, misjudged what was really going on and sized things up completely (and horrifically) incorrectly on endless occasions.
I have paid the consequences of my misreads by losing jobs, clients and opportunities.
I have been embarrassed, mocked and scorned for my many monumental reading fails.
And all I can do is pick myself off the floor and power forward into more situations that allow me to improve on my situational reading skills.
READING SITUATIONS IS A LIFELONG JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY. TAKE THAT JOURNEY!