Reading the Room

"The title of this book refers to a priceless leadership skill: the ability to read the room to understand what’s going on as people communicate in small groups…when the conversation is moving forward, when it may be just about to leave the rails, and possibly even how to guide it back on course."

- Reading the Room, page 1

Years ago I heard about David Kantor’s 4-player model and was intrigued. It sounded like a helpful way to get below the surface of the conversation to the dynamics in the room. Until recently it was hard to learn more about this model. Reading the Room remedies that—and provides access to the broader body of Kantor’s work—especially as it applies to leadership. Kantor focuses on the underlying structures at play in personal and team dynamics. As you read, you craft a behavioral profile based on your typical moves and mindsets. Throughout the book we get to see how this works within a fictional leadership team. We observe as the CEO and his team work through both low and high stakes challenges.

Kantor’s does not shy away from the very personal. He believes that our childhood stories are deeply relevant to the way we lead and who we are as leaders—and, therefore, need to be surfaced. This creates some unusually explicit reading for a business book. We learn about the relationships that the leadership team has with their significant others and about their childhood challenges and traumas. Confronting these stories is, for Kantor, an important part of growing as leaders in the workplace—and as humans in all aspects of our lives.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Intuition Can Be Taught

"…structural dynamics asserts that beneath style and content there exist deeper universal structure of how conversations proceed… problems in face-to-face communication are often due to the unseen influence of this deeper, invisible structure. Once the structure is made visible, individuals can learn to observe and even change it."
- Reading the Room, page 6-7

Each of the levels of Kantor’s 4-level model adds a different dimension to what we can observe in a room, under the surface. As we explore these levels, we can actually learn to be intuitive—to become one of those people who “reads the room.”

Each of us has a typical way of behaving at each level of the model. By seeing our typical behaviors, we can see where we can expand our range—and how our propensity to act in a certain way can bump up against someone with a very different way of acting. We can adapt our behavior (expand our range) and we can also make our behavior and theirs explicit if we all share this vocabulary. At worst, we can understand why things are stuck.

The foundational level is the action stance we adopt. This is all about what our words are doing in the conversation—moving things forward, pushing back, supporting or observing. The second level is the domains of communication—which reflect more about why we speak up—what’s important to us: feeling, meaning or getting things done. These levels will be covered as the Insights of this summary.

The third level is our operating system—whether we tend towards using an open, closed or random system. Each suggests different expectations around feedback and boundaries—while we won’t explore these here—they further build the model.

Finally, underlying these three levels is our own childhood story which informs how we came to be the people we are and how we respond in any given situation.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

The Basic Moves: The 4-player model

"Whether there are two people or twenty people in a room, each and every speech act they make can be categorized as either a move, follow, oppose or bystand."
- Reading the Room, page 23

I seem to find myself in a particular conversation often. I put an idea forth—my conversation partner pushes back. I try again, he pushes back again. It gets exhausting. Turns out, I am by nature a strong “mover” and my partner is very comfortable “opposing.” We’re stuck in this dynamic. Similarly, when I led an organization, I was such a strong mover that I left little opportunity for others to move and they were almost always following or opposing. And, because none of us were great bystanders, there was no one to notice what was happening in the conversation and help us gain insight, redirect, learn together.

Since learning about this model, I’ve noted some of these dynamics and made subtle shifts. I’ve been playing with action stances that don’t come so comfortably. I’ve realized that as a coach (a piece of what I do when not writing these summaries,) I need to be more of a bystander and follower than a mover or oppose—so I need to build those moves in my repertoire.

I hope that these examples give you a sense of how these four action stances work and how they support our ability to read the room. The Kantor Institute has built a simple app that allows you to do a mini-assessment of your action stances. It’s a cursory introduction—and a good place to start.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Why We Speak: The Domains of Communication

"The space in which we each focus our language is connected to a deep inner sense of what matters."
- Reading the Room, page 50

In any conversation, people not only speak using a particular move, that move is rooted in their commitment to what matter most. These can be boiled down to three domains. If you operate in the affect domain, what matters most is intimacy, relationship and feelings. In the meaning domain, what matter most is understanding, new ideas and truth. In the power domain, you are focused on getting things done.

Because I tend towards the “meaning” domain, I can frustrate people in the “power” domain who just want to get it done—and often feel uncomfortable with those who operate from affect—it can be a bit too touchy feely.

Combine action stance and affect—and you can start seeing how much is happening in the room. And you can begin to see how adding additional levels makes this even richer!

There is a much more in this book than can be covered in a brief summary—it represents a fifty-year career. After exploring the structural model, Kantor guides the reader in building their own leadership and organizational practice models. There are extensive tools supporting those sections—I intend to use those related to building your personal and organizational “narrative purpose.”

At the same time, this is not an easy book—I was more than a bit overwhelmed by how much is here and struggled to keep the thread as I read and tried to assimilate what I was reading. As mentioned earlier, I found the explicit stories jarring and at times uncomfortable. And, I appreciated being challenged—which this book certainly did.

If you read the book—do share your thoughts. If you take the assessment—share your experience with that as well!

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Ronni Hendel-Giller

ABOUT Ronni Hendel-Giller

Ronni Hendel-Giller has been passionate about leadership since she was a teenager. She's worked in non-profit and for-profit leadership positions—always with an eye to guiding others to realize their leadership potential...
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