Reading the Room: A Conversation with Douglas O’Loughlin

Reading the Room a Conversation with Douglas O’Loughlin

As a process facilitator, reading a room can be one of the hardest things to do. When I first started facilitating focus group discussions, I struggled with understanding why participants weren’t as ready with answering. I would ask a question, and hear… crickets.

I didn’t know how to tell if participants were ready to discuss difficult issues. How do you bring them to the same page? How do you warm them up?

Having more questions than answers, I asked Douglas O’Loughlin, an expert facilitator.

Start Early

Douglas’ first advice? Start upstream.

Reading the room starts from the initial client meeting, where you understand what the problems are, what the client wants, and the people who will be invited into the room.

Arriving early at the venue also helps. Douglas makes a deliberate effort to connect with the participants over coffee in the morning, getting to know them as people rather than workshop participants. He acknowledges that it can sometimes be difficult when you have many participants. Does he go for quantity or quality interactions?

I try to do a bit of both. I may initially talk to a person, and then introduce another person to the person I’m talking to.

As a young(er) facilitator, Douglas remembers a time when a colleague made clear to him how important connecting with the participants were.

I remember an incident in the first few months when I first started.

My colleague told me, “I’m going to be better than the three of you combined.”

Douglas was curious and asked why.

You all are going to be worried about your content, your delivery, but I’m just going to be connecting with the people, relaxing, enjoying my tea and coffee with them, and that’s why I’m going to make a bigger impact than you 3.

That was when Douglas realised the power of connecting with the people in the room.

Douglas sees this crucial period before the start of any workshop as a part of ‘warming up the room’, preparing them for what comes later.

Don’t Overreact

Don’t Overreact

But how does Douglas read the room, when the session eventually starts? Here, Douglas points out what’s important not to do.

He recognises that it’s easy for process facilitators to overreact, especially when they see participants on their phones, or dozing off.

When I was first teaching at SIM, I remember seeing some students dozing off.
But it was 9pm, they had come from a long day of work, and that was normal.
It’s important that facilitators don’t overreact to what they see in the room.

Trust Yourself

Whilst it’s important to listen to one’s intuition, and take signs from the room, Douglas suggests that facilitators not to jump to assumptions about people.

This is naturally difficult, especially when process facilitators take participants through what can be difficult topics to discuss.

Douglas suggests 3 perspectives that facilitators can take.

Trust Yourself

The first is to trust yourself.

Believe that what you’re doing is meaningful.

Often, in process facilitation, when you take a group through difficult topics, there is naturally resistance in the room. In those instances, it can be easy to doubt one’s capabilities, and to feel that one is not up to the task of bringing the group through the ‘messy middle’.

You have to trust that what we’re doing has the right intentions.

Trust the process

Being clear about why you’re there is also important. Recognise that you’re not necessarily there to solve the group’s problems. You’re there to facilitate the process. Only the group itself can work through their issues.

You’re there to channel the process, and not necessarily there to complete the process. Eventually, when you leave the group, the group will themselves be working through the process. Giving them the tools and a frame to handle that process will be much more sustainable than you problem-solving for the group, every time.

Whilst it can be scary to see frowns and even tears in the room as the group works through a messy process, believing in one’s own ability to take the group through that process can come by remembering how one has guided previous groups (or persons) through that process.

Trust the Process

The second perspective that Douglas shares is to trust and honour the process.

You’ve listened to the client, deliberated with the client, and thought long and hard about how to take the group through the process. That’s demonstrated itself through your session plan. Trust that plan.

When it does not go according to plan, it comes back to the first advice of trusting your own ability to ‘work the room.’

Douglas is quick to point out here that facilitators need to ready themselves for what shows up in the room. Being comfortable with conflict and power plays in the room is vital for any facilitator who hopes to bring a group from conflict to resolution.

How Do You Tell if the Room is Ready?

But how do you tell if the room is ready? Here Douglas offers a different perspective.

Think of yourself as permission-givers.

Rather than waiting for the room to be ready, Douglas suggests that facilitators be the ones to ready the room.

How Do You Tell if the Room is Ready?

If something comes up in the room, just talk about it.

Give permission to people to talk about it.

I often like asking clients, “How many chillis do you want the group to experience?” Sometimes they may say 3 chillis! They really want me to poke and provoke them on the day.

So it’s not up to me assess on the day, but to contract before the actual facilitation about what the client is ready for.

A Practical Technique

Whenever a group discusses conflicting opinions, Douglas likes using sub-grouping. He will ask,

Can anyone else relate to what he has said?

This allows the group to quickly come up to speed about what has been discussed. Certain issues may not be well-known within the group, and doing this helps to share the different lenses to the issue.

To bring out more perspectives, he will then ask,

Let’s see how many other perspectives there are.
What other perspectives are there in the room?

He will then invite the participants to break out into groups to talk to people with the same opinion, in a fishbowl style.

He will then invite the group to share an integrating statement that summarises what the group has discussed.

Perhaps all that Douglas has shared on reading the room may be summed up in this adage,

Ready yourself, ready the group, before reading the room.

Ready yourself, ready the group, before reading the room.

When Douglas started the interview, he shared that he didn’t feel that he was very good at reading the room. Perhaps this is why.

Reading the room may sometimes result in knee-jerk reactions that prevent facilitators from taking the group through the messy process of working through issues. It’s why Douglas recognises that the first step for himself, and perhaps other facilitators, is to give themselves the permission to take the group into difficult places. It’s to be comfortable, with discomfort.

After that, it’s giving the group permission to share what can be discomforting.

And it’s only after these 2 steps, that facilitators respond and adjust to the room.

It’s then that I remember an earlier conversation with Douglas, in a quiet Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, at 7:16 in the morning. He got me standing, and told me to grip his arm tightly.

Not sure what he was trying to demonstrate, I gripped lightly.


I hung on to his arm for my dear life.

And suddenly, his arm just relaxed.

You see, in a normal situation, when someone pushes back, you would expect to react in the same way. Equal, if not more force. Aikido is different. It’s about softness. Unity. Flow.


Somehow that analogy sticks. As you take a group through conversations, there may be frowns in the room. Pushback. Disengagement as people turn to their phones or emails. In those moments, you may be tempted to ‘read’ the room, and drop it.

Your mind may say,

The group’s not ready. The group’s bored.
Another time.

But maybe it’s also time to flow with the room.


John is excited about helping young people to brave challenges of the 21st century and writes about how young people can flourish in work at

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