If there is one skill that is a critical requirement for being a senior manager then it is the ability to read people and and understand what they want, what they don’t want and what they feel about the things that are going on around them. This is very similar to empathy, but in a conscious way.
So much of what we say is unsaid, if you see what I mean. There are lots of reasons for this: some people (more than I can ever quite believe) are very cautious about what they say; sometimes the stakes are high and people don’t want to give things away; and some people are just not very good at saying what they want.
Now I’m not saying that the ability to read people is needed to gain a competitive edge, as though it were some form of mind reading. Though that is definitely a skill that all good salespeople have. What I mean is that many of us are only looking at the world with one eye open, if that, so having both eyes open allows you to spot the other people that have both eyes open – and they generally turn out to be the most senior people in the room.
Don’t make the mistake of equating good awareness with good communication skills. Many people can be great at empathy but rubbish communicators. The two are not related.
Reading people does not come naturally to many, it has to be learnt as a skill. I only know one way of learning this skill:
When I’m in a meeting I try to take a step back and examine the other people. I try to read their expressions and their body language; work out if they are comfortable with what is being said or uncomfortable; try to work out what they want; are they straining to say something; are they bored; and so on. This means getting inside their heads and learning to think like them, understanding what drives them and therefore what their motives are in specific circumstances. Over time this becomes second nature.
Just remember I’m not talking about any kind of intuitive feelings. This is detached observation. When I forget this and try to rely on intuition alone (if there is such a thing) then I generally mess up.