Situational Fluency

Sara Canaday

  • Situational fluency means being able to read the room and adapt to improve communication and connection.
  • Situational fluency can be a competitive advantage for leaders—and it is a skill that can be developed.
  • Observing, listening, checking in, and staying flexible are all ways to enhance one’s situational fluency.

In my previous post, I provided a list of some unexpected but critical ways to measure leadership effectiveness. Now I’d like to add something to that list. What is it? Situational fluency.

The best way to define situational fluency is by describing what it looks like in action.

Consider this scenario. Luisa was leading a team meeting and presenting a new initiative. Her team members seemed engaged and were asking good questions. But about halfway through, she began to notice a change in their demeanor. They seemed distracted, perhaps even overwhelmed.

Because Luisa picked up on those clues, she adapted her approach in real-time. She paused, smiled, and addressed the group: “OK, I’m sensing some hesitation here. Is there something I said that didn’t quite make sense? Let’s talk about it. Tell me what you’re thinking….”

The team members responded well to her invitation for feedback, and several of them expressed confusion about one phase of the initiative. Luisa temporarily abandoned her deck and went back to the topic that seemed to be a roadblock. She simplified the information, breaking it down into more manageable parts. Then she described the rationale behind that specific choice in detail. She noticed heads starting to nod. With everyone seemingly back on board, she shifted back to her slides and finished the presentation.

At the end, Luisa took the time to ask her team members some questions. “How do you feel about this new initiative? If you’re on the fence, why? And what might make you more comfortable with it? Is there anything I’ve left unsaid?”

That is situational fluency—the ability to “read the room” and pivot instantly to better engage, connect, onboard, or even co-create optimal outcomes. It applies whether the conversation is occurring in person, through Zoom, or on the phone. People who are situationally fluent know how to analyze the needs and preferences of those around them and respond to meet them on the spot. They aren’t afraid to abandon their own agendas if they recognize a problem to be corrected or an opportunity to achieve more meaningful results.

In the world of leadership, situational fluency really is a competitive advantage that separates good leaders from great ones. So how can you work to enhance your situational fluency? Here are five strategies that may be helpful.

1. Become a world-class observer.

In short, pay attention to what’s going on with the people around you. The key is to look beyond just what they are saying or doing. Watch for non-verbal cues like facial expressions and body language. These aspects can provide crucial insights into what people are thinking and what’s important to them.

2. Listen on a deeper level.

We all know the value of active listening—focusing on the speaker, blocking out distractions, and resisting the temptation to let our minds wander. But to be situationally fluent, listen for more than just the content. What can you glean from a person’s tone of voice, pace, and emphasis? If you can learn to “listen between the lines,” you’ll pick up on subtle nuances, such as how people feel about certain issues or concerns they aren’t actively articulating.

3. Customize your communications.

Know your audience, and think in advance about the best way to share information with them. Are they financially savvy? Highly technical? Detail oriented? Or wildly creative? If you can tailor your message to suit their needs and interests, you can communicate with greater impact. When you make the effort to personalize what you say, you’ll increase your chances of connecting, influencing, and inspiring on a higher level.

4. Stay flexible.

Remember Luisa’s willingness to shift gears during her presentation? To become more situationally fluent, remain flexible, and be willing to adjust on the fly when it makes sense. Meet your audience wherever they are. Whether you are speaking to a group or a single person, keep in mind that your goal is to engage and connect rather than just deliver information. Sometimes you need to pivot to achieve that goal rather than barreling ahead with whatever you had planned.

5. Make checking in a habit.

Regularly check in with your team members, colleagues, or clients to ensure you are making the intended impact. This goes for one-on-one conversations, staff meetings, or formal presentations. Remind yourself to pause and get input: “Did that make sense?” “What’s your reaction to that?” “Am I missing anything?” More importantly, use that feedback to course-correct and improve the quality of your interactions.

By taking steps to become more situationally fluent, you can increase your leadership effectiveness and create a more positive culture for your teams.

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