There’s a simple answer: LISTENING. And the #2 area? UNDERSTANDING.
When we engage in conversation we automatically filter what we hear through preconceptions about the speaker. If we know the speaker the filer derives from from past interactions: “he’s a snake,” “she’s a micromanager,” “they don’t like me.” Even if we don’t know them the filter is shaped by such visible and audible signs as gender, race, age, and tone of voice.
Skilled listeners strive to dampen those filters, and put aside their agendas when hearing from others. They’re not defensive or focused on how to respond. Instead they’ve made a very conscious and deliberate effort to hear exactly what’s being expressed. And then to understand why the other person is expressing themselves in the way that they are.
One particularly effective technique that enhances listening ability is the practice of “active listening.” Active listening refers to a pattern of listening that keeps you engaged with your conversational partner in a positive way. It is the process of listening attentively while someone else speaks, paraphrasing and reflecting back what is said, and withholding judgment, counterarguments, and advice.
An example: your boss takes you to task for a minor delay in completing a project you committed to finishing by a certain date. That might feel unjust to you. But rather than immediately providing excuses for being late you could restate/paraphrase the criticism: “So I hear your annoyance (or disappointment) that the project didn’t get completed when I promised.”
That puts you on the same page, a place from which it is easier to find a remedy than would be the case if you disputed the boss’ reaction. “What can I do to make up for this?” Or “What can I do to minimize any problems that this might have caused?” Just about any boss will be happier with this kind of response than a defensive one.
As for UNDERSTANDING, Steve Covey, the author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” wisely suggests as Habit #5: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood). The best technique to improve those skills is to again put aside your stance about the issue in question and to focus on putting yourself in the other’s position. So rather than concluding “What an a-hole” you would be better served to generate hypotheses as to why the boss reacted in that (seemingly unfair) way. Maybe the boss is under pressure from upper management. Maybe she(he) got chewed out by his spouse that morning. Maybe he’s hungover. Etc.
Broadening your search for an explanation will better equip you to interact effectively with that person in the future, and, by shifting from a defensive to a curious posture will probably make you feel a little better in the moment as well.
To summarize, learning how to wholeheartedly listen and better understand where others are coming from allows you to operate more effectively and will enhance the opinion others have of you – invaluable political assets!