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After the Bar

Professional Development

How to Read the Room and Be Fully Present in Your Practice

Eleni Kelakos


  • Being fully present is where an effective connection with others begins, and it’s the first thing dismissed in the adrenaline rush of a high-stress spotlight moment.
How to Read the Room and Be Fully Present in Your Practice
Anna Om via iStock

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“Jason,” an up-and-coming attorney, struggled with re-entry to social interactions in the workplace after pandemic-induced mandatory remote meetings. “It’s like I’ve forgotten how to communicate with people,” he confessed in our coaching session. “I just wish I was better at knowing when to speak up and stay quiet.”

I have come across several “Jasons” in the years since the pandemic began. The advice I always give emphasizes being fully present in the moment—because presence equals being present.

Being present means being relaxed, calmly breathing, with ears and heart wide open. In other words, Spidey senses on max. Being fully present is where an effective connection with others begins. It’s also the first thing dismissed in the adrenaline rush of a high-stress spotlight moment, such as sharing your opinion in front of your boss or with an important client.


To help yourself be fully present, here’s a simple tool I call “FBI” that you can implement before stepping into a meeting.

  • F Is for Feet—Ground yourself by feeling the floor under your feet. This helps get you out of your head (where your inner insecurities live) and into your body.
  • B Is for Breath—Bring your breath into your belly by slowly inhaling and exhaling 10 times. By breath number seven, you’ll have countered your body’s natural fight or flight stress response.
  • I Is for intention—Determine the purpose of your presence in the meeting or conversation. Staying true to your intention is more important than trying to impress people or force likeability, and it’s something you can focus on, moment-by-moment.

Once you’ve engaged in FBI and achieved a deeper level of presence, you’re ready to read the room and speak up when it matters. Here’s how.

Reading the Room

If you have ever walked into a room and immediately picked up on a friendly (or not-so-friendly) vibe from another person, you already understand what it means to read the room. This means picking up on subtle energetic, physical, and nonverbal cues to what people might be feeling. At their most useful, these cues can help you know the success of a conversation. The better you are at this skill, the better you will be at capturing people’s attention and establishing trust, which are instrumental in building relationships.

To read the room, visually scan the crowd (or the video thumbnails on your computer monitor, but only when you are not speaking), staying fully present, curious, and aware. Look for the nonverbal cues and feelings people convey through body language or facial expressions. For example, smiling or leaning forward can indicate agreement; fleeting frowns and crossed arms can indicate disagreement; and yawning, glances at cellphones, or fidgeting can reflect a lack of engagement.

The heightened awareness you bring to reading a room also activates your empathy, allowing you to make communication corrections if, for example, you sense anger, confusion, or resistance. On the other hand, beware of assuming you know exactly what someone is feeling or overthinking, as it may trigger your self-doubts and diminish your confidence. Better to take a moment to ask a question to elicit greater engagement or understanding, like “I noticed you frowned when I brought up that suggestion. If you have any concerns, I’d love to hear them.”

To Speak or Not to Speak?

I believe in letting your voice be heard as often as possible, especially while building your visibility and credibility. Speak up when you have an idea to share, a comment that benefits the group, or a perspective that expands upon what someone else shared. Don’t second-guess yourself, waiting for your idea to crystallize into perfection before sharing it. Open your mouth and speak, trusting that your input is valuable. Conversely, if what you want to say won’t add to the conversation, and pertains mostly to you, keep it to yourself.

If you disagree with someone’s comment and feel your opinion is important, speak up. Offer your dissenting opinion respectfully in a way that doesn’t shame or shut down the other person. One way to accomplish this is to engage in the diplomatic art of saying “yes, and . . .” instead of “no, but . . .” My father, a career US Foreign Service Officer, always suggested a brilliant method of placing this into practice. If he did not agree with something, he would say: “Mr. Jones, that is such an interesting concept. I appreciate your sharing. Can I suggest a different approach that may also address the issue effectively?” This is an example of an affirming response that helps others feel valued while presenting your perspective.

If someone like your boss says something you know is incorrect, wait to speak to them privately about it so they don’t publicly lose face. Make sure to have done your due diligence around the issue and show humility and respect when you do discuss it with them.

These are the steps that Jason took to be more relaxed and confident in his work-related social interactions. As a result, he was able to share his ideas more readily and build stronger relationships, impressing his boss and setting him on a faster track toward partnership.

Jason is proof positive that the more you practice being present, the better you will be able to read the room, speak up when it matters, and use your words to make a difference—at work and in the world.