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Empathy and Active Listening

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© Article translated from the book “Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace“. copyright Dr. Daniele Trevisani Intercultural Negotiation Training and Coaching, published with the author’s permission. The Book’s rights are on sale and are available. If you are interested in publishing the book in any language, or seek Intercultural Negotiation Training, Coaching, Mentoring and Consulting, please feel free to contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani.

Give your absence to who does not value your presence.
(Oscar Wilde) 

 

Empathy is a value and it generates value. Therefore, it is good to see what some of the indications from the world of research have to say about this. Empathy, practicing it well, requires a well-functioning mind1. This means for us, that the empathic communicator has to take care of himself, his health, the state of his mind, e.g. he/she must be rested, don’t abuse substances, eat and exercise – in short, we are dealing with athletes of communication and athletes of the mind. 

Of course, it can be argued that some psychotherapists manage to be extremely good at active listening and empathic even at the age of 80, or with a sick body, but let us not forget how much experience is supporting them, and therefore, let us do our personal homework diligently to find our best shape and have a body-mind that supports and helps us.  

Taking care of oneself helps empathy. Having personal, physical, bodily, mental, motivational energy helps empathy. If you don’t have energy, you will never really listen to anyone in depth. 

Other evidence: when the subject of active and empathic listening is a distress2, having a methodological school behind you, for example humanistic psychology, Bioenergetic Counseling, or others, is a helpful factor, because you are no longer alone in listening, you are only alone physically, but the presence of the ‘school’ helps you to proceed well. However much good will you have, having a school behind you gives structure, helps, supports morally. 

The ‘school’ can also be an association, club or group of people where people meet and discuss about methods and work, cases or models, and this discussion is of enormous professional enrichment. Whether it is a circle of leaders, a circle of Counselors, a training school, moments of “unwinding and realignment” like those of supervision are fundamental, even in the non-clinical context. Indeed, think how much better it can be in a company to have interviews with employees by a leader, knowing they have a Mentor and then being able to discuss them with a supervisor, rather than leaving them in the dark. 

Finally, an important reflection. Empathy is a concept that is interpreted in literature in many, sometimes incompatible ways3. 

The substantial distinction is between two extremes, an emotional type of empathy, which is primarily experience-centred, i.e. based on feeling and reflecting the feelings of the speaker, and a cognitive type of empathy, based on reflecting and understanding the reasoning of the speaker. 

Our vision is that empathy is a concrete form of mental presence in communication, a conversation in which the End State (point of arrival) to understand a person in their full physical, bodily, intellectual and emotional nuances. 

In our method, therefore, empathy must be both emotional and cognitive. It means being able to understand a situation or a piece of life from the point of view of the person who is experiencing it, and this requires shedding light on both emotional components (understanding emotions and their nuances) and reasoning (understanding values, beliefs, actions, structured thoughts). Only the union of the two components can lead to true empathy, at least as far as empathic listening is concerned. 

The empathic ‘way of being’, which means constantly living with attention and sensitivity to the emotions of others, is a different matter, but this is outside the scope of the technique of active and empathic listening and is certainly not to be condemned, but neither is it to be forced.  

I think it is right to leave it up to the free will of each person how to lead their lives. Certainly, however, when we enter into an active or empathic listening session, being able to tap into this sensitivity is needed. 

 

Difference between empathy and sympathy 

Empathy and sympathy must be distinguished. Empathy means to understand. For example in the company, to understand why a customer postpones a purchase or wants a low-priced product, why a customer arrives late for an appointment, whether it is because of strategy or real impediment, or why a customer tells us about a certain specific problem, what is behind it. Sympathy, on the other hand, means appreciating, sharing, agreeing. Selling requires the application of empathy and not necessarily sympathy. The same applies to a coaching, a counselling or a leadership interview. 

Active listening and empathy should not be confused with acceptance of others’ contents or values. A Decalogue of active listening is not to be confused with blind acceptance of other people’s content. These are merely methods of allowing other people’s thoughts to flow as freely as possible in order to gain openness and useful information. 

The phase of inner judgement on what we hear, which is inevitable during negotiation, must be ‘relegated’ to our internal processing, held for later stages of negotiation, and must not interfere with the listening phase.  

When our aim is to listen, we must listen. 

To do this we will have to: 

  • suspend our judgment; 
  • give signals of assent and presence (contact signals, phatic signals); 
  • try to stay connected to the flow of the discourse; 
  • ask questions whenever an aspect seems worthy of investigation; 
  • avoid ‘anticipating’ (e.g.: I am sure that you…) and avoid making statements that are ‘stances’; 
  • simply rephrase the key points of what the other person said; 
  • do not interrupt inappropriate. 

We should reserve our judgement or make clarifications only after having listened in depth and inside an appropriate negotiation frame. The aim of empathic techniques is to encourage the flow of other people’s thoughts, and to collect as many ‘information nuggets‘ as possible that the interlocutor can give. Empathy, if well applied, produces “empathic flow“, a flow of data, factual, sentimental, experiential information, of enormous usefulness to the negotiator. 

The opposite behavior (judging, correcting, affirming, blocking) breaks the empathic flow, and risks stopping the collection of valuable information prematurely.  

 

Few people think, but they all want to judge.
(King Frederick the Great) 

 

There is a moment when the negotiator has to stop the flow of the other person’s discourse (turning point) but in general it is good to let it flow, until one has really understood who one is dealing with and what the real objectives are, and all other necessary information. Empathic techniques are also helpful in curbing the premature tendency towards informational self-disclosure: the giving of information, the inappropriate or premature leaking of data about ourselves. Giving the customer information and data that could be counterproductive has a boomerang effect. Any information must be given with extreme caution.  

The empathic attitude is extremely useful in focusing the negotiator’s mental energies on listening to the other person and curbing our own inappropriate interference. 

Let us also remember another point. Listening is a gift. Giving the gift of listening, today, in a materialistic world, is among the most precious gifts one can give, provided that the person who has to be listened interests us and we want to give this gift. Human time is precious and limited, and listening well, takes time. For this reason, dedicating a moment of life to someone full of quality listening, and doing it with passion, must be done for work, or for love. 

 

“Loving means above all listening 

© Article translated from the book “Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace“. copyright Dr. Daniele Trevisani Intercultural Negotiation Training and Coaching, published with the author’s permission. The Book’s rights are on sale and are available. If you are interested in publishing the book in any language, or seek Intercultural Negotiation Training, Coaching, Mentoring and Consulting, please feel free to contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani.

© Article translated from the book “Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace“. copyright Dr. Daniele Trevisani Intercultural Negotiation Training and Coaching, published with the author’s permission. The Book’s rights are on sale and are available. If you are interested in publishing the book in any language, or seek Intercultural Negotiation Training, Coaching, Mentoring and Consulting, please feel free to contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani.

 

Few delights can equal the presence of one whom we trust utterly. 

 (George MacDonald) 

 

In empathy, ‘being there’ is important. To ‘be there’, it is essential not to confuse between listening and expression. Listening communication, and the quality of listening, includes the need to perform a clear separation on a mental level, the activities of paying attention to the communication of others, understanding it (incoming communication) from the activities of expressing our messages (outgoing communication). 

We are referring to a ‘flow’, an empathic one, a two-way flow between two people during an empathic communication. There is something magical about this kind of flow sometimes. To be clear, the content of this flow in terms of words, sentences, facial expressions and any other ‘communicative content’ is expressed by the speaker, but the listener expresses an equally powerful, even more powerful flow, the flow of attention and mental presence. Two opening flows of acceptance, which create a unique and special moment of human sharing. If you happen to hear yourself say “I have never felt as much understanding as in this conversation, thank you very much” you probably performed a high empathy rate. 

When we know how to separate these two flows properly, first on a mental level, then on a physical and behavioural level, we will know how to give presence, avoiding intruding on the empathic flow with inappropriate communications. When it is ‘our turn’, we will always be empathic, ‘connected’ and relevant. 

 

People also leave presence in a place even when they are no longer there. 

 (Andy Goldsworthy) 

Ten rules to quality empathic listening. Ten rules always to apply. 

Most quarrels amplify a misunderstanding. 

 (Andre Gide) 

 

During the listening phases necessarily: 

  • do not interrupt while other persons are talking; 
  • do not judge them prematurely; do not express judgements that could block their expressive flow; 
  • summarize what you understood (so, if I understood well, it happened that…), re-formulate critical points (ok, he doesn’t answer to the phone, and you feel really bad, I see), to paraphrase (so, as I understood, is it…?) 
  • do not get distracted, do not think about anything else, do nothing else but listening (except for taking notes if necessary), use your thoughts to listen, do not wander; 
  • do not correct the other person while he/she is stating something, even when you disagree, keep listening; 
  • do not try to overpower her/him; 
  • do not try to dominate her/him; 
  • do not try to teach or impart truths; restrain the temptation to interfere with the expression flow and correct something assumed as incorrect; 
  • do not speak about ourselves; 
  • show interest and participation through verbal signals and body language; 

 

Particularly interesting attitudes may be: 

 

  • genuine interest and curiosity towards the other: the desire to know and explore another one’s mind; activating human and professional curiosity; 
  • inner silence: creating a state of emotional stillness (free from negative emotions and prejudices), in order to listen and respect the other person’s rhythms; 
  • mentally preparing oneself for the ‘whole’: being able to support even ‘heavy’ psychic material (fears, traumas, dramas, personal tragedies, dreams, disturbed states of mind) that the other person expresses, or when they emerge in the process, being able to explore them while keeping the ‘focus’ on mental and emotional balance and not overwhelmed by what is being heard (technique of Controlled Emotional Distancing – CED). 

It is remarkable quoting Carl Rogers, psychologist, and founder of Counseling, the person that most of all has influenced the same concept of empathy: 

 

“Our first reaction to most of the statements which we hear from other people is an immediate evaluation, or judgment, rather than an understanding of it. When someone expresses some feeling or attitude or belief, our tendency is, almost immediately, to feel “That’s right”; or “That’s stupid”; “That’s abnormal”; “That’s unreasonable”; “That’s incorrect”; “That’s not nice”. I believe this is because understanding is risky. If I let myself really understand another person, I might be changed by that understanding.” 

Carl Rogers 

 

“What the statement means to him” is the true meaning of any empathy operation, understanding the emotional connection, the motive seen from within. It is a technique. Then it matters little whether that technique is applied to a criminal to understand their next gestures and moves, or to a person suffering from anxiety, or to help a young person find his way in the future, a sportsman wins his next race, or a team in which we are trying to produce the state of ‘flow for maximum performance. 

© Article translated from the book “Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace“. copyright Dr. Daniele Trevisani Intercultural Negotiation Training and Coaching, published with the author’s permission. The Book’s rights are on sale and are available. If you are interested in publishing the book in any language, or seek Intercultural Negotiation Training, Coaching, Mentoring and Consulting, please feel free to contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani.

Copyright by Dr. Daniele Trevisani. Article extracted with author’s permission from the book “Ascolto attivo ed Empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace” (translated title: “Active Listening and Empathy: The Secretes of Effective Communication”. The book’s rights are on sale in any language. Please contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani for information at the website www.danieletrevisani.com

Positive and destructive elements of empathy 

…sometimes you talk to the world and the world doesn’t seem to hear… …. 

other times the world is talking to us and we are somewhere else. 

Daniele Trevisani 

 

Empathy is that state of “mental presence,” where “I am here, with you,” alongside a human being we want to fully understand.  

As such, it has a possibility of limited duration, that of an interview, but its effect can last forever, as with any memory or experience. Empathy is based on the fact of strongly wanting to be present, a mental presence that takes in every nuance and detail of what is said, of the nonverbal, of the paralinguistic, trying to understand its meaning, until you get to understand the “story” of a person and his “salient episodes, positive and negative”. It can also come to a total understanding of a person’s “state of mind,” beyond any verbal etiquette, beyond any possibility of expression. 

 

In the ALM (business development) and HPM (personal development) method, a special model of empathy is elaborated, with a typology initially exposed in the volume Intercultural Negotiation. 

Fig. 1 – Types of empathy based on observation angles 

  • Behavioral empathy: understanding behaviors and their causes, understanding the why of the behavior and the chains of related behaviors. 
  • Emotional empathy: being able to perceive the emotions experienced by others, understand what emotions the subject feels (what emotion is in the circle), of what intensity, what emotional mix the interlocutor lives, how emotions are associated with people, objects, facts, internal or external situations that the other lives. 
  • Relational empathy: understanding the map of the subject’s relationships and their affective values, understanding with whom the subject relates voluntarily or out of obligation, with whom he must relate in order to make decisions, work or live, what is his map of “significant others”, referents, interlocutors, “relevant others” and influencers that affect his decisions, with whom he gets along and who does not, who affects his professional (and in some cases personal) life. 
  • Cognitive empathy (or cognitive prototypes): understanding the cognitive prototypes active at a given moment in time, the beliefs, values, ideologies, and mental structures that the subject possesses and attaches to. 

It is astonishing how elements that seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens, how confusions that seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard. 

Carl Rogers 

 

Empathy is either destroyed or fostered by specific communicative behaviours and attitudes. 

 

Fostering empathy  Destroying empathy 
Curiosity, passion, motivation to listen  Disinterest, listening for duty; lack of motivation 
Real listening participation, without fiction  Pretending a listening role only for professional duty 
Acting as a “discoverer”, like a truffle or gemstones hunter. Let’s see what’s going to happen today!  Bureaucratic plastered approach. Even today, not today, another meeting, that is so boring 
Re-formulation of contents 

Recap – re-capitulate “histories” and “topics” 

Judgement on contents, comments 

Endless flow without the security to understand the topic or the sense of the conversation 

Plural approaches to question (open, close, clarifying, focusing, and generalizing questions) 

Flexible questions related to the variation of a session or its context 

Monotonous questions, statical questions, questions that are too anchored to a dogmatic scheme or school 
Focus on emotional experience, emotional listening  Exclusive focus on facts 
Verbal or non-verbal signals of attention, “phatic” signals (contact signals) es, yeah, well, ok, I see your point…  Body language expressing disinterest, apathy, boredom, or desire to be somewhere else… 
Paralinguistic signals of attention, encouragement to express oneself, “phatic” signals (signals expressing participation and attention)  Poor evidence of interest and concern to the flow of thought. 

Lack or scarcity of ‘phatic’ signals and mental contact. 

 

“Empathy between people is like water in the desert: you rarely encounter it, but when you do, it calms you down and regenerates you.”  

 

Emanuela Breda 

© Article translated from the book “Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace“. copyright Dr. Daniele Trevisani Intercultural Negotiation Training and Coaching, published with the author’s permission. The Book’s rights are on sale and are available. If you are interested in publishing the book in any language, or seek Intercultural Negotiation Training, Coaching, Mentoring and Consulting, please feel free to contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani.

Copyright by Dr. Daniele Trevisani. Article extracted with author’s permission from the book “Ascolto attivo ed Empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace” (translated title: “Active Listening and Empathy: The Secretes of Effective Communication”. The book’s rights are on sale in any language. Please contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani for information at the website www.danieletrevisani.com

When a sunrise or sunset no longer gives us excitement,  

means that the soul is sick. 

 (Roberto Gervaso) 

 

Empathy is defined in a thousand different ways.  

For our purpose, it is sufficient to focus, here and now, on the fact that empathy is a “state of mind”, a state of openness to listening, of predisposition to grasp the data and emotions that come from the other person, to “feel” them, coming to understand a situation with identification, to be aware of what lives, with the eyes and the heart of the person who is telling us. We will go into this concept in more detail later. We have already said it, but empathy, however deep, is not equivalent to sympathy. 

Those who practice empathic listening must be very good at “grasping” and “feeling” but they must absolutely not fall into the trap of “confusing their own self with that of the other”. So, let’s stay for now on a technical aspect: the decomposition of listening into data and emotions. It is fundamental to distinguish “active listening”, of data, from listening to emotions. Listening to data and listening to emotions are two different processes.  

Sometimes co-present, and often they become two “tasks” or tasks that travel in parallel. But conceptually they are different.  

We always have “the whole” available to us while we listen, it is up to us to be able to grasp, to be able to distinguish, to be able to “appreciate” and be sensitive to even the most subtle nuances of the soul and emotion. 

The two layers of listening can be seen as two rivers traveling parallel to each other. Two streams of information, rather than water, that we need to perceive, simultaneously. 

It is true that even an emotion is a form of “data”, but we must note, of course, that it is one thing to deal with qualitative data such as feeling pleasure, or being proud, or feeling sad or depressed, and another thing to note down information such as “London“, “Milan“, “50 km“, “10 kg”, “plane“, “train“, “100 Euro“, and other more tangible quantitative or qualitative information. We can say that scientifically we have a “data-point” (data point, certain information) every time we manage to extract a verifiable proposition.  

The statement “Before 5 p.m. David made a sale and was overjoyed” contains four data points 

Listening closely resembles the process of “mining and separating” as it occurs in a deposit. Extracting material and separating it into stones on one side, and mud on the other. In listening, the materials are almost always joined, almost glued together, but we can learn to separate them. In the example written below it will be quite easy to do this. 

When we move on to video excerpts, or real-time human interactions, we have to get even better at it, because emotions can be “hidden” behind micro-expressions, small involuntary facial cues, or can instead become very manifest and verbalized. 

When we listen, we can pay attention to one, the other, or both. Being able to grasp both is surely better. Behind listening to emotions there is a vision of man as a creature that “feels” and not just as a creature that “reasons.” 

 

When dealing with people, remember that we are not dealing with people with logic.  

We are dealing with creatures with emotions. 

 (Dale Carnegie) 

 

It may seem strange to underestimate the logical part of the human being, but we must realize that, according to neuroscience, only 2% of the mental calculation capabilities are available for conscious and rational reasoning, and the rest is divided between data necessary to run the “biological machine” heart, lungs, breathing, and millions of processes, and subconscious data, on which emotions are grafted, whether we want them to or not. Remember that even an emotion is to some extent a data, but it goes without saying that it is one thing to ask active questions starting from the sentence “I bought 4 kilos of fish” and another to do it to deepen the sentence “in this period I feel full of hope but also of remorse“. 

Emotions are expressed both with words, but much more so through facial microexpressions, body signals, and voice state (paralinguistics), than through the verbal component.  

Words alone do not convey emotion if they are not accompanied by an appropriate context. The way they are said, much more so. But they are not usually “said.” They simply manifest themselves in non-verbal behavior, in facial expressions. And even if not said, they need to be “heard.” 

 

The most important thing in communication is  

Listen to what isn’t being said. 

 (Peter F. Drucker) 

 

Listening to data or listening to emotions qualifies the difference between data-centered informational listening and psychologically oriented listening. Listening to data is not the same as picking up emotional states. In fact, we can apply psychological listening or technical-informational listening. An advanced negotiator and a high-level salesperson will be able to apply the correct level of listening, or both, depending on the situation, without entering into a predetermined, stereotypical, rigid listening state. 

This is also true for a parent who wants to listen to a child about how they are doing in school, fixating on grades and data as if filling out an Excel spreadsheet, or trying to understand moods and relationships. 

Learning to listen well is possible, with care, with practice, with passion and willingness, making mistakes, and always starting over. 

 

Always be like the sea, which breaks against the rocks and always finds the strength to try again. 

Jim Morrison 

© Article translated from the book “Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace“. copyright Dr. Daniele Trevisani Intercultural Negotiation Training and Coaching, published with the author’s permission. The Book’s rights are on sale and are available. If you are interested in publishing the book in any language, or seek Intercultural Negotiation Training, Coaching, Mentoring and Consulting, please feel free to contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani.

Copyright by Dr. Daniele Trevisani. Article extracted with author’s permission from the book “Ascolto attivo ed Empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace” (translated title: “Active Listening and Empathy: The Secretes of Effective Communication”. The book’s rights are on sale in any language. Please contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani for information at the website www.danieletrevisani.com

That there are worse things than an absence. A distracted presence. 

 (manuela_reich, Twitter) 

Apathetic or passive listening is characterized by our or others’ “mental absence,” and is negative. Devoid of energy, tired, “dead”, switched off, distracted. It is an empty listening of signals, practiced by a person who is disinterested, or incapable of listening, often totally absorbed by his internal processes, by his inner reasoning, in which the words heard do not make a breach. Like throwing darts at an armoured safe, those darts shatter and fall. Nothing really gets in. Communication and messages only touch these people, and to say that they will understand little of what is said is to give them a gift. 

 

Listening at times 

It’s not the chatter of people around us that is the most powerful distractor, but rather the chatter of our own minds. Utter concentration demands these inner voices be stilled. 

(Daniel Goleman) 

Sometimes attentive listening, sometimes distracted. It is a mechanism that creates bad listening. 

Distracted listening is extremely common, probably the most realistic state of average We listen; then something about someone else’s content ‘turns us on’ because it relates to our own interests; then we could ask a follow-up question; then someone else’s content changes, or something comes to mind, we jump from one thought to another, our head ‘goes away’, or we hear a sentence from someone else’s conversation that catches our attention; we get lost, we ‘walk away’ from the conversation, even though we are still physically there. The quickest way to apply bad listening “at times” is to listen with a media on, listen while typing on a keyboard or screen, listen with the TV on or with a monitor on, which we may consider “background” but is not background, as information comes out of it that sometimes catches us, and this is one of the worst listening ever, except for a few moments of “mental presence”.  

The effort of talking to someone who listens ‘in fits and starts’ is enormous, both physically and emotionally. After this review of bad listening, let’s move on to listening of a better nature highlighted on the scale. 

Effective listening. Selective, active, empathic and sympathetic listening 

When we think of effective listening, we think first of positive experiences, moments when we have felt heard with our hearts and not just our ears. 

But effective listening can have many nuances, which are worth exploring. It is essential to understand that listening becomes effective when it achieves its ends, and its ends are different depending on the relationship. In a phase of listening to a person who has experienced trauma, empathic listening will be important and indeed healing.  

But if we are listening to a person who is telling us about an accident in progress in which there are people still in danger, we will have to know how to switch to active and selective listening immediately, not a word more, not a word less. Fast, quick and incisive, getting what we need, to move on to action or swiftly pass the information on to others. And the information must be ‘clean’, otherwise we risk circulating ‘dirty’ and wrong information, and doing damage. 

The good listener is therefore not always “good, good, patient, nice and always says yes”, but rather, knows how to use the right listening mode for the purpose, knows how to understand the context, knows how to use multiple tools and ways, which can sometimes be quick and sharp, other times slow, soft and welcoming. 

Selective listening 

With selective listening we overcome the “red zone” of listening and enter into modes that can be really useful.  

Selective listening, although not empathic in intent, seeks very precise information, which can be both objective (things, people, times) and emotional (moods, feelings), with respect to a certain episode or theme being explored. Whoever wants to do active listening must know how to do selective listening, because in some moments it is essential to know how to “dismantle an episode”, in order to understand what to repeat or not to do again, and to know how to dismantle positive episodes, in order to understand the success factors that we managed to create, and how precisely the chains of events followed one another. 

Some listening techniques become fundamental here: 

  • Reflecting: acting as a mirror, reformulating what has been understood. It allows one to be more precise and opens up other content. 
  • Deflecting: Recognizing the input of themes that do not belong and managing to get them out of the conversation, dampening them and expelling them. 
  • Probing: Testing a piece of information with a related question, e.g. asking “since you told me he arrived late, when did he arrive?”. Useful for further investigation. 
  • Recap: Recap and re-launch. Recapitulate what has been collected so far and open “OK, we’ve reached the point where you turn up for the interview, they make you wait, you start to get nervous, you walk in and you don’t know what to say. Then what happened?” 
  • Contact: constant eye contact signals, nodding of the head, guttural and paralinguistic expressions (mmm, ah, oh), everything that is a “phatic” signal (phatic signals are those that say, in essence, “I’m here”, I am present, I am here for you). 

All these techniques will be discussed in more detail when we talk about “conversation analysis”, but it is good to know that they exist, and that active, selective or empathic listening uses precise techniques, not just the will to listen. In selective listening, we are extremely focused on understanding a specific thing, a specific question about what the other person is thinking, or a precise piece of information that we want to grasp.  

Everything else is of no interest to us.  

Our mental presence is switched on, sharp, but directed like a laser towards an information point, and not – as in empathic listening – welcoming towards whatever emerges. When material emerges that does not interest us, we bring the conversation back to the ‘focus’ we are interested in with questions (with topic shifting, or conversational refocusing). 

In terms of the efficiency and effectiveness of selective listening, our questions only become ‘diagnostic’ when they manage to cleanse the picture, leaving only what really interests us, so practicing it well requires technique and study. This also happens in daily life, and we need not worry about it. The question can be “what time will you be home?” and we can only be interested in one hour, and nothing else. Not the story of life. We have to worry instead if the intention is to listen actively and empathetically to an emotional and human experience, and only questions of clarification or monosyllabic answers come out. If we ask selective listening “where would you like to go on holiday”, the listening will focus only on the “where”, neglecting the “how”, the “subtle nature” of the type of holiday the other person would like to take. Practicing selective listening is not in itself wrong or right. It depends on the consistency between our underlying purpose and the type of questions that come up. We can assess it on the basis of the empathy factor – if our purpose is to create empathy, it can be used but it must be dosed very carefully. Empathy is a process that ‘welcomes’ rather than excludes and so selective listening is great for gathering data but very poor for really targeting emotions. 

Active listening 

A good listener is one who helps us overhear ourselves.
(Yahia Lababidi) 

When we practice active listening we are immersed in a special activity. We are giving interest, our time, our energy, to understand a person, their content, their intentions, and a piece of their story. People are generally wary of opening up and telling about themselves, their inner selves, even to themselves. Active listening offers a ‘life platform’ where the words of others and the thoughts of others can gently and progressively rest. 

Each opening is followed by a greater opening, until the ‘core’ of the person is revealed for what it is, in its splendour, in its pain, in its truth. Freed from masks and self-consciousness. 

Getting to the ‘human core’ of a person takes a long way, but it can be done. From the nothingness of empathic listening, every small step towards ‘sharing’ is always significant. 

The person who engages in listening, basically, wants to listen, considers it an important fact, to the point of putting the brakes on his or her thinking, omitting to say how he or she thinks, putting the brakes on ‘taking the turn of the conversation’ to make an argument or express opinions.  

Active listening focuses on listening. It does this with words, with questions, and also with the body. It uses bodily and para-verbal signals of participation in what is said, reformulations and recapitulations of perceived content, and other linguistic and non-verbal devices that serve to give the signal “what you say interests me, I am following you”. Active listening can be practiced for two major classes of interests, even opposite to each other. It can be done as an extreme act of love, a gift we give to a friend, or a moment of great humanity in which we take an interest in others.  

Or it can be an extremely strategic listening, a professional listening in which we need the information inside someone else’s mind. We may need it to help the other person, as in coaching or therapy, or we may need it to run an organization, or to make decisions, as in leadership. 

In any case, what we have in our minds is always enriched by listening to others. 

It is natural that more information emerges from active listening and the person can also expose emotional information, which is all the more profound the more the listener is committed to not judging, not judging, not interrupting, not ‘interpreting’. 

Active listening requires energy, commitment, a rested body, an alert and watchful mind. When we are in this mode, even a single nod of the eyebrow can give us valuable information. 

We can not be distracted for a moment that we’re screwed  

for the rest of our life!  

Micaela Ramazzotti – Anita 

Empathic listening 

Listening without bias or distraction is the greatest value you can pay another person. 

(Denis Waitley) 

Empathy is a superior and highly advanced state of human relationships. It means learning how to put yourself in someone’s shoes in order to feel what they feel. 

Empathy – per se – is neither positive nor negative: we can also use it to understand the way outlaws and killers think and to find out what their next move is going to be (strategic empathy). 

 In wider terms, when referring to everyday human and professional relationships, empathy is positive and rare. As Jeremy Rifkin points out: 

“empathic consciousness is based on the awareness that others – like us – are unique and mortal beings. We empathise with people because we recognise their fragile and limited nature, their vulnerability and their one and only life; we experience their existential aloneness, suffering and struggle to exist and evolve as if these feelings were ours. Our empathic embrace is our way to sympathise with the others and to celebrate their lives”.19  

Empathy is rare because it requires the subtle ability to “tune in” emotionally and to understand the hidden, emotional and personal levels of the interlocutor’s experience – rather than the numerical or objective data they expose. Empathy also uses metacommunication (meaning “communication about communication itself”): for instance, it fearlessly asks for the meaning of a word it does not understand or it explains useful ideas for the communication process itself – when the listener does not speak. 

Empathic listening is rare. We could say last time we found it was when a person listened to us for an entire hour, without talking about themselves – only listening to what we wanted to say (both information and emotions) and asking questions for a better understanding. If this has ever happened to you, it was probably during a coaching, counselling or therapy session. It rarely happens in daily life. 

Shorter periods of time – but with the same listening intensity – can be found in real friendship or with loyal partners at work, but the attention is not necessarily focused on one person – as it happens when talking about empathy. Besides, if specific courses to learn empathy are needed, it is because school, academic education and manuals tend to give information, rather than teaching how to listen. 

Just as the art of narrating exists – firmly codified through thousands of attempts and mistakes – the art of listening also exists, equally ancient and 

noble, which, however, as far as I know, 

has never been validated.  

(Primo Levi) 

The most difficult part of empathic listening is the suspension of judgement. If anyone says, “I hit my child” or “I threw the rubbish bag out the window”, it is impossible not to judge. Yet, “suspending the judgement” means precisely that – and not to “make judgement disappear”. Suspending it is fundamental in order to understand what, where, how and why certain things happens. If we did not do it, we would miss a large part of the information we could obtain. 

Sympathetic listening 

Sometimes, some fondness are so powerful that, when meeting for the first time, it feels like meeting again. 

 (Alfred de Musset) 

Sympathetic listening expresses affinity towards the speaker; it aims to both listen and show affection and delight during the interaction. Sympathetic listening is not necessarily better than empathic listening; it is just different. Here the priority is to give to the other person the feeling of pleasantness and closeness. Making the interlocutor understand that we are interested in what they say is fundamental – not only regarding the information itself, but also for the person expressing it. The act of listening becomes part of a relational game that has a seductive component; what we are interested in is not a passive data analysis, but we strongly admire and appreciate what has been said. Listening shows human warmth, delight and appreciation, with both verbal and non-verbal communication. Let’s consider a very practical aspect: sympathetic listening brings people closer and this is an excellent psychological strategy for a deeper and more accurate listening. 

“We usually consider as good listeners only those people 

who share our opinion.”  

François de La Rochefoucauld 

Sympathetic listening can be easily – and wrongly – defined “panderer listening”, but let ask ourselves whether we live in a society that is stingy with compliments. Our society is quick to judge and blame – and it is also stingy, even when we do something good. That is why sympathetic listening – whenever there is the right opportunity – is a precious gift. 

When we listen to a person and we sense something good, we should feel free to experience it, without being ashamed.  

“Does the song of the sea end at the shore or in the hearts of those who listen to it?”  

Khalil Gibran 

Throughout the manual various techniques, methods and strategies to practise active and deep listening, to reach hearts and minds, to gather information and to work effectively together will be described. 

Yet, whatever our intentions and abilities, there is one thing that cannot be taught, but only recommended: to be willing to listen.  

Levels of listening quality

© Article translated from the book “Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace“. copyright Dr. Daniele Trevisani Intercultural Negotiation Training and Coaching, published with the author’s permission. The Book’s rights are on sale and are available. If you are interested in publishing the book in any language, or seek Intercultural Negotiation Training, Coaching, Mentoring and Consulting, please feel free to contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani.

Copyright by Dr. Daniele Trevisani. Article extracted with author’s permission from the book “Ascolto attivo ed Empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace” (translated title: “Active Listening and Empathy: The Secretes of Effective Communication”. The book’s rights are on sale in any language. Please contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani for information at the website www.danieletrevisani.com

Negative listening modes: when and how to give the worst of yourself by getting everything wrong in listening  

What is the difference between question and accusation? 

An accusation is one that is not answered; a question is answered. 

 from the movie “The Marauders” by Steven C. Miller 

A visual tool is very useful to understand immediately that there is a real “scale” in the levels of listening and in the quality of listening. From a critical listening to an empathic listening, the difference is considerable and tangible. This scale is shown in the next figure. In it, we see a progression towards improvement in listening levels as we move up the scale. 

Let’s start with the decidedly negative levels: The negative elements of listening are the ones that make you feel bad when you experience them. They generate the feeling of not being understood, or neglected, or not considered for what is said or even as a person. They go against, in practice, a basic need of every human being: to be understood. A need as strong as the need for air. 

To be at your worst in listening, it is enough to interrupt, judge, not listen, get distracted, listen while watching TV or typing on a smartphone, do not look at people, distort every possible interpretation, in short, a whole baggage of errors just mentioned here, which you can explore better below. 

Perhaps one did not so much wish to be loved as to be understood. 
(George Orwell) 

Shielded or distorted listening  

Screened listening blocks or amputates part of the data coming from the auditory channel and distorts it, as it does for the other channels: sight, touch, taste, smell. The outcome is not understanding, not paying attention, distorting the incoming data. Literally, understanding one thing for another. It happens when you are too tired to listen, or the listener is experiencing an emotional state that is not appropriate for quality listening (e.g. anger, frustration, euphoria, passion, and many other strong emotions) and there are internal states that stand in the way of quality listening. 

You will have very often been on the other side, in the role of the person speaking, and not understood at all, or even completely misunderstood. Well, you now have a definite label for this condition. 

Judgmental/aggressive listening  

Being misunderstood by those we love is the worst condition for living and facing life’s commitments every day. Misunderstanding weighs like a mountain and traces deep furrows on the soul. 

 (Romano Battaglia) 

Judgmental/aggressive listening is characterized by the fact that the receiver does not really listen but, gathers snippets of information and then immediately makes judgments and judgements. When it affects us, we can say that we are “putting up a wall” towards the other person, such that it doesn’t even matter what they say, how they say it, it’s all wrong “regardless”. What we can call a “negative reverberation” can either touch on “what you said on topic x is nonsense”, or go straight to the heart, attacking the person themselves and not their phrase “you are an egocentric and don’t understand anything”.  

This second form of offense is much more serious than the first because it involves the person in his or her totality: “you are”, and not in a delimited action “you do x and I don’t like that x”. Judgmental listening is done with words, but not only. It can also emerge from a very subtle grimace emitted in a non-verbal way, such as “turning up one’s nose” during an affirmation that one does not approve of, and it is not to be confused with emotional participation in what the other person is saying. Aggressive listening triggers the aggression-hate spiral. It is truly an enemy of human relationships and humanity more generally. 

Peace cannot be maintained by force; it can only be achieved by understanding. 

 (Albert Einstein) 

© Article translated from the book “Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace“. copyright Dr. Daniele Trevisani Intercultural Negotiation Training and Coaching, published with the author’s permission. The Book’s rights are on sale and are available. If you are interested in publishing the book in any language, or seek Intercultural Negotiation Training, Coaching, Mentoring and Consulting, please feel free to contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani.

 

Copyright by Dr. Daniele Trevisani. Article extracted with author’s permission from the book “Ascolto attivo ed Empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace” (translated title: “Active Listening and Empathy: The Secretes of Effective Communication”. The book’s rights are on sale in any language. Please contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani for information at the website www.danieletrevisani.com

We can enhance listening through models that help us to ask more correct and centred questions, both  

  1. in the way (listening mode) and  
  2. in content (content of the questions). 

If we centre both, we will have made a perfect centre. For this purpose we anticipate the model, central to this book, of the “scale of listening levels”, which concerns above all the “way” of listening. The scale is shown in the figure below. 

levels of listening quality scale

We will go into the details of this scale in the next chapter.  

For now, suffice it to say that the tools for making quality leaps in active listening do exist, and you can make huge strides, to the point of making it one of the strengths of your life and changing the way you are. 

Listening is part of communication, communication is part of people’s lives, and people’s lives are part of the universe.  

By listening, we are also making a contribution to understanding the part of the universe that lives in us. 

 

The effort to understand the universe is among the very few things that raise human life above the level of a farce,  

giving it some of the dignity of a tragedy. 

 (Steven Weinberg) 

 

Returning to the scale, as we can see, we start from the bottom, with imprecise, judgmental, aggressive listening, until we get to active, empathic, positive listening, going through intermediate traits. 

These are the modes of listening. If we apply these modes to a model, be it psychosocial or organisational, we obtain ‘modelled listening’. The model we focus on briefly now is the IkigaiIkigai (生き甲斐) is the Japanese equivalent of meanings such as ‘reason for living’, ‘raison d’être’, ‘purpose of life’. In Okinawa Ikigai is seen as “a reason to wake up in the morning”, and certainly, “what is your reason for waking up in the morning” is both a powerful question and a moment of powerful empathy and advanced active listening. 

Ikigai is a composite word, derived from Ikiru, meaning ‘to live’ and kai, meaning ‘shell’. Symbolically, it represents our space of expression, the place in space-time in which we feel ‘at home’, and our life mission.

ikigai model 

 “Everyone, according to Japanese culture, would have their own Ikigai. Finding the reason for one’s existence, however, requires an inner search that can often be long and difficult. This search is considered very important and its successful conclusion brings the person deep satisfaction.  

In addition to the positive aspects for those who follow their Ikigai, there can also be negative aspects: those who live life with extreme passion risk being consumed by it to the point of degradation”.  

The four main vectors or variables are 

  1. What you LOVE
  2. What the world NEEDS
  3. What you can be PAID FOR
  4. What you are GOOD AT.

From this come four major stimuli. 

Think about these four questions: 

  1. What do you like or love to do?
  2. What are you good at?
  3. What does the world need from you?
  4. For which of the things you can do can you be paid?

When we manage to find answers that satisfy all four propositions, we may say that we have found our Ikigai. Many studies have shown that Ikigai, or approaching this condition, prolongs and improves life17, so this concept has come to be the subject of high-level18 academic study. Ikigai represents the perfect centre, the condition that satisfies all other conditions, whereby we are able to do work that we love, work that is useful to the world, work that we are paid for, and work at which we are skilled. 

In psychology, this condition closely resembles a life or existence led in a state of Flow. 

, or Flow, “the magical moment when everything flows perfectly and time seems to vanish”, a concept introduced in 1975 by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and then spread to various fields of application of psychology, including performance, sport, spirituality, education and work, the immersiveness of experience in everyday life, creativity, and meditation.  In moments of flow, everything seems to work magically and perfectly, even though the challenges are there and they are high. We can say that listening in a Flow state exists, and is made possible by our total “Mental Presence” in listening combined with the mental presence of the other and mutual availability. We notice how the imperfect intersections, those spaces where one or more of the four basic needs are not satisfied, generate different types of “state of life”, which can be examined in the figure itself. 

We will then have questions such as:  

 

What do you love to do in life? 

What do you think the planet and the world need right now? 

What are the jobs for which you can get paid? 

What are the things that make you feel good? 

 

Listening can become more and more complex, as in management coaching where we want to be able to understand what condition a person is in in relation to their work experience. So for example: 

 

  • Do you love what you are doing now? 
  • Do you think what you are doing now is useful? 
  • Are you satisfied with your remuneration? 
  • Do you get gratification at work, apart from remuneration? 
  • How do you live your working day? 
  • At which moments do you feel that you are giving your best at work with pleasure? 

We could ask many more questions, not an infinite number, but a very large number. The answers can allow us to make “hooks” on what emerges to deepen and widen the discourse, or instead we can go into detail with selective listening when we find a problem, or focus on an emotional detail of a conflict with a co-worker or a leadership problem, and apply empathic listening. In the beginning we need useful starting models to help us get off on the right foot, and then correct the course as we go along. 

Listening is one of the most sensitive human activities, using models certainly enhances it, but it never replaces the human sensitivity needed to practice quality listening. Capturing the nuances of people, whether at work or in life, requires an enormous empathic will, method and a pinch of artistry. People are universes, they are infinite worlds, looking into them can make you dizzy, but it is worth it. Because to know a person is to know a piece of the universe. 

 

It’s strange how your life can take a direction.  

Then you meet a person and everything changes. 

 Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson) 

from the movie “The answer is in the stars” by George Tillman Jr. 

 

© Article translated from the book “Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace“. copyright Dr. Daniele Trevisani Intercultural Negotiation Training and Coaching, published with the author’s permission. The Book’s rights are on sale and are available. If you are interested in publishing the book in any language, or seek Intercultural Negotiation Training, Coaching, Mentoring and Consulting, please feel free to contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani.

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Copyright by Dr. Daniele Trevisani. Article extracted with author’s permission from the book “Ascolto attivo ed Empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace” (translated title: “Active Listening and Empathy: The Secretes of Effective Communication”. The book’s rights are on sale in any language. Please contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani for information at the website www.danieletrevisani.com

Knowing how to grasp emotional resonances, towards “sensitive listening” 

The power of listening, we will say at once, is above all the ability to see beyond words. Seeing the other person’s cards to play better and not in the dark. Listening, the real kind, the kind that “half-opens” communication and the communicator to look inside, is an extremely powerful weapon. It unmasks lies and falsehoods, it prevents mental fog from entering conversations, because it can recognise it. 

It is so easy to tell lies to those who do not know how to listen well, to those who let themselves be carried away by rhetoric and status, and who do not get to the bottom of the message to grasp its truth. 

Attentive listening is the anti-persuasive weapon par excellence, just as distracted listening is a slave to status and roles and is the main way to get subliminal messages into your head that persuade you without you realising it. Listening takes over when negotiating with internal and external customers, with stakeholders (the various stakeholders that revolve around the life of a person or a company), it manifests itself in the family, between couples, between parents and children, between friends, with people of the same and different cultures. 

The power of listening is equal to that of playing cards by being able to see your opponent’s cards. We read people better, we read situations better. We see better. 

It can be used to cure (Carl Rogers, in his Client-Centred Therapy, makes it the central tool for psychotherapeutic healing14) or to persuade (study of a target audience and strategic empathy), to plan, as in project management, to fully understand a person’s desires and objectives and “what is in their head”, and to make wiser group decisions without anyone feeling excluded or unheard.  

Even difficult decisions and decisions in critical conditions use the power of listening. Because listening, except in an interrogation, is a state of mind of spaciousness for the words of others, for the emotions of others, for the stories of others. 

Anger and intolerance are the enemies of right understanding. 

 (Mahatma Gandhi) 

Certainly, we can say that people who can listen have a competitive advantage over others. They can grasp more information, they can perceive more, they can enter neural connections with other minds, they can have the option to listen or not, to their liking, while those who do not know how to listen have only one option: not to listen, or to listen very badly, and as Malcolm X specified, “those who listen to nothing will fall for anything.”  

In every conversation, a listening phase takes place, there is always a ‘part’ of us listening, whether we are aware of it or not, and implicit ‘manoeuvring’ takes place.  

Who speaks first? Who listens to whom? For how long? With what purposes? Implicit purposes? Explicit purposes? And what perceptions will the other have? What formats does this conversation have, beyond the individual words? Is it a ‘plea’, is it a ‘self-celebration’, is it an ‘attack on the cruel world’? 

What do we understand about a person when we have listened to them well? We understand how they think and their state of mind, right down to their personality. And having understood those, we have understood 90% of the person. 

Emotional resonances are ‘echoes of emotions’ that seem to come from afar but bring new content to a different level and enrich the listening experience. There are at least ten ways of saying “everything is fine” when faced with the question “How are you today?”, and those ten different nuances come from the emotional resonances that reverberate in the person and are associated with the words. Try it to believe it. It is possible to practice ‘hearing’ emotional resonances, to get as close as possible to the truth of things. While traditional listening focuses on words, empathic listening focuses more on capturing emotions. The other person’s emotions have a vibration, a reverberation, ours too, and a real moment of resonance is created. 

When I understand that emotions are resonating in the other person, we are in sensitive listening. When I start to take an interest, to try to understand what kind of emotions are resonating, we are entering empathic listening. 

Each of the main publications I have written15, each line, contains possible worlds of interpretation. To feel that there is a flow, to decide that you want to decode a text, a word, a sentence, a conversation, is to be able to listen with the heart and not only with the mind. 

In physics, this phenomenon is called an ‘interference pattern between two singular sources’, and what physicists call interference, to us may instead be richness and sensitivity. In the arts, the pattern is called vesica piscis or almond, a symbol of ogive shape obtained from two circles of the same radius, intersecting in such a way that the centre of each circle lies on the circumference of the other. 

The name literally means fish bladder in Latin. For us, it becomes important because it represents the “entrance” into the door of other people’s emotions, the basis of all empathic listening. Empathic listening is about: 

  • The nature of emotions (What emotion do I feel when I listen?);  
  • The multiplicity of emotions (How many emotions do I feel? Which ones are included?);  
  • the strength of the emotions (How strong are the emotions I feel in the other person: peripheral, intermediate, central?), and  
  • what moves them (What could be the reason for the emotional state I feel in the other person?).  

This is just a beginning of empathic listening, which we can call “sensitive listening”. Moving on to empathic listening then requires specific questions, specific rephrasing, and an appropriate context. But let us stick to sensitive listening. 

A family member tells us “I would like to change job”. But he does not say it with enthusiasm, we grasp an emotional resonance of sadness, melancholy. 

If we are in the empathic phase, we will ask questions, we will try to understand, for example, if this search is motivated by dissatisfaction with the current job, and if so, what causes it.  

We will also come to understand what the person is looking for in a new job, whether he/she wants to travel or not, what characteristics his/her ideal job should have, and whether the person feels mentally up to it – as a personal power (self-efficacy) – to start a real job search. We will have, basically, helped that person, starting from an emotional resonance. 

Our awareness of how quality listening works, the ability to activate active listening, and above all the full awareness of all its enormous nuances and emotional variables, will influence our lives. Listening already affects us today, in every negotiation and in our professional lives, and even in our wider existence as human beings, from birth to our last breath. Listening is with us, always. Whether we want it to be or not. We listen to our emotional resonances as we talk. We make great discoveries. 

Listening also enters companies, into consultative sales relationships. A strong helping relationship, centred on listening to the client, is the basis of any honest, authentic, sincere, and professional consultative sales methodology. It is no wonder that, in the absence of the ability to listen, many sales situations can be described as “putting on the memorized song” and talking over the client’s head, regardless of what they really need. 

At the heart of any true consultancy process, be it medical, professional, technical, or human, is listening, the ability to bring out data and situations that help to make a useful, contributory, effective proposal.  

When we hear or perceive something that resonates within us, we have listened. 

 

If what I say resonates with you, it’s merely because we’re branches of the same tree. 

 (William Butler Yeats) 

 

Seeking resonance and listening also applies to strategic professionals. In the case of sales, the listening technique is transformed into real coaching of the customer, who is helped to make progress and improvements thanks to our active listening actions. Active listening is always the “mother of all reflections”. It does not change much if we move towards examining the listening skills of a doctor towards a patient.  

How many times have you felt you were listened to fully, thoroughly, and without rushing to conclusions?  

The technical times of health care do not always make this possible, but the problem is that – even if there were time – doctors do not “know how to do it”, they are not equipped, nor have they been trained during their studies, with the ability to listen in depth that is needed. And I can say this, having taught Doctor-Patient Communication in numerous Master courses for doctors16. Their first discovery, with practical listening exercises, about not being able to listen, often shocked them. 

Companies, on the other hand, often think they are “listening” to us by making us fill in questionnaires or using automatic responders, which certainly does not help to create an empathetic bond with the customer. 

With questionnaires and online forms, so distant, so cold, it is difficult to create the emotional resonance that only active listening can create. 

Listening also comes into play in leadership, because it is one thing to give orders to people without knowing what impact and adherence we will find, and quite another to give instructions, deliveries or delegations having a noticeably clear imagine of how people think and what they may or may not accept or see as feasible. 

If listening were a river, we would have a simple listening, which is limited to looking at the water passively and distractedly, and an empathic listening “beyond words”, which goes to observe with attention also the different colours and nuances of the water flow, the banks, the inlets, the vegetation surrounding it, the subtle eddies of the water, a boat, a transported log, and the speed of the current, and all the possible flow of signals we see in the environment. 

To offer a first contribution of method, let us now examine a first visual scale of listening levels, useful to fix some points from the beginning. A scale for listening levels is necessarily a reduction, compared to the complexity of such a vast and enormous phenomenon. And yet, if this reduction helps us to make progress in training, then it is welcome. This scale can help us defend ourselves against aggressive listening or activate empathic listening. The choice is ours. 

Because the important thing is to have the option and to be able to choose. 

© Article translated from the book “Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace“. copyright Dr. Daniele Trevisani Intercultural Negotiation Training and Coaching, published with the author’s permission. The Book’s rights are on sale and are available. If you are interested in publishing the book in any language, or seek Intercultural Negotiation Training, Coaching, Mentoring and Consulting, please feel free to contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani.

This article about the Power of Listening is about

  • active listening
  • active listening skills
  • active listening skills and empathy
  • active listening skills and empathy in leadership
  • aggressive listening
  • aggressive listening effects
  • emotional resonance emotional resonance
  • empathic listening
  • scale of listening levels
  • scale of listening levels example
  • sensitive listening

Copyright by Dr. Daniele Trevisani. Article extracted with author’s permission from the book “Ascolto attivo ed Empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace” (translated title: “Active Listening and Empathy: The Secretes of Effective Communication”. The book’s rights are on sale in any language. Please contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani for information at the website www.danieletrevisani.com

Paths to empathic listening

It is one thing to know the right path, another to take it. 

Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) 

from the movie “Matrix” by Andy Wachowski 

We all know that listening is important, but few do it, and of those few, even fewer are those trained in empathy, which means “trained” to technically develop empathy and empathic listening. Sometimes it takes knowing how to do it methodically, and not just by natural aptitude. 

If you happen to have a person “feeling you by the skin of their teeth,” and you “feel by the skin of your teeth” that they are understanding, you are experiencing a moment of listening beyond words. Magical moments. Listening is absolutely beyond words. Listening is everything that enters us and to which we attribute meaning. Listening then, becomes perception, and it can become “heightened perception” if we enhance it. We can even come to understand more about a person than he understands about himself, because listening, practiced from the outside, is able to grasp elements that a person constantly experiences, but of which he is not aware.  

It’s like walking around all your life with a sign behind your back. Everyone sees it but you. Personality is like that sign. 

Equally hidden are the deeper beliefs. For those peripheral ones, preferences, what you like or dislike, can be picked up from details, with a simple observation of the raising of your nose muscles (as when you smell something unwelcome), and are rarely verbalized in public. Yet, careful nonverbal listening will pick them up.  

When we observe all of this and not just the words, we are practicing “listening beyond the words,” augmented perception. 

Augmented perception means “knowing how to read people“, knowing how to pick up on signals, words, unspoken phrases, gestures, symbols, hints. 

He knew how to listen, and he knew how to read.  

Not books, they are all good, he knew how to read people. 

 (Alessandro Baricco) 

Augmented perception can even go so far as to enhance the sensory systems themselves, making a trained person able to listen for changes in vocal stress (lie or embarrassment signalling), something that typically only specific software can do.  

Augmented perception can lead you to pick up on facial micro-expressions lasting less than 1/10th of a second, so brief, yet so significant, such as the raising of an eyebrow muscle, or a lip muscle, an indicator of interest, or surprise, or alarm. And there is no doubt that when we are sharper in grasping, in perceiving, in listening, we become different people, ourselves. We change within. 

Listening can then be defined as “empathic” when we have really managed to “get inside a person’s head”, understand how they think, understand how they reason, grasp the nuances of their thinking, and understand why they think the way they do, “from inside” their belief system, convictions and emotions.  

This concerns not only simple matters, but also something that seems very strange to us, something arcane that with empathic listening we can understand, because we have managed to grasp the internal logic that the person is using. 

Listening is one of the phases of a “conversation”, of a dialogue, of a relationship. Often, it is the most important. And the most neglected. Listening is an act of gift, understanding a person is a form of gift, and it can turn into a strategic act (for example, in a negotiation) but basically and in daily life, it can be considered a great gift. 

I call religious the one who understands the suffering of others. 

 (Mahatma Gandhi) 

Listening is absolutely not limited to wanting to understand the suffering of others (a theme that touches on psychotherapy, counselling, and helping relationships), but can also enter into increasing the performance of athletes, athletes, managers, businesses and teams, when listening is used as a primary weapon in good performance coaching. 

Empathy, then, also becomes a powerful weapon for overcoming the biggest challenges in our lives, or those of a client. 

© Article translated from the book “Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace“. copyright Dr. Daniele Trevisani Intercultural Negotiation Training and Coaching, published with the author’s permission. The Book’s rights are on sale and are available. If you are interested in publishing the book in any language, or seek Intercultural Negotiation Training, Coaching, Mentoring and Consulting, please feel free to contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani.

Copyright by Dr. Daniele Trevisani. Article extracted with author’s permission from the book “Ascolto attivo ed Empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace” (translated title: “Active Listening and Empathy: The Secretes of Effective Communication”. The book’s rights are on sale in any language. Please contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani for information at the website www.danieletrevisani.com

From pressing towards being persuasive to rediscovering quality listening

In our society, we live a sort of “pressing” towards being hyper-communicative and persuasive, quick-quick-wins, but never towards listening. This bias remains strong and pulsating. The time to slow down in order to reason, reflect, the time needed to generate quality and not just quantity, disappears. Yet paradoxically, even in companies – where quality is rightly idolized and rewarded – despite this, people among themselves never really and thoroughly listen to each other, sometimes even in a meeting. Not to mention conversations between bosses and employees.

We are all invited to “speak well,” to be “great communicators”, but less so to “listen well.” Listening also includes “listening to things”. Bridges talk, ships talk, cars talk, if only you know how to listen to their languages, if only you know where and what to watch for, if only you walk by with an eye, ear, and hands trained to catch emergencies, dissonances, and problems.

And if you feel like it.

– Listen to the ship.

– What’s there to listen to?

– Just listen to it.

from the movie “Pandorum – The Parallel Universe”.

We are pushed to be incisive, for example to pass a job interview, or in a public speaking course where we study the mechanisms to get an applause, or in advertising, the strategies to communicate to targets and persuade. But it is always a “one-way” communication. It is never true listening.

Listening is a holistic process. You can listen to a person, you can listen to a waterfall, you can listen to a river. And that has to do with fundamental issues like safety. Never, ever, would anyone think of “listening to a bridge,” or a ship, or an airplane.

The other side of the communication coin, knowing how to listen, how to perceive, has disappeared. Incorporated by a world that “goes too fast” to afford the luxury of stopping to listen. Yet, without listening, we die. You don’t pick up on danger signals, you don’t grasp the nature of subtle messages.

Before it dies or gives way, a structure gives many signals, the case of the 300-meter viaduct that fell in Genoa[1] being an example.

During a period of my life of some years, when I was in charge of coaching Cruise Ship Commanders, with 5,000 people on board, and a staggering burden of responsibility on my back, I used to make the commanders and vice-commanders perform a special exercise, I used to say “Now lie down on the ground and listen to the ship“. “Close your eyes. Listen to the ship.” At first they were stunned, but then after a few minutes an enormous number of signals emerged, the perception became more acute, from the known vibrations to those they had never heard, from the noise of a pump they had never heard (yet it had always been there), to the ability to do a “holistic listening” of the ship, roll, pitch, including the men, the crews, their real conversations and emotional states in manoeuvre.

The “listening to the machine” part is called in my method “Structural Listening”, the “human” part is called “Listening to Emotional Climates, or “Listening to Emotional Aquariums” when applied to Team Leadership situations.

It is time to give dignity and method back to the “hidden part of communication” that is precisely listening, whether it is actively listening to a structure, or empathically to a family member, a worker, a supplier, or a client, or to better understand the data of a work project, to better connect to the emotions of others, to understand one’s own crew and team and understand in what emotional condition they are in, to know how to intervene when necessary.

[1] Date of occurrence: 14-08-2018

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© Article translated from the book “Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace“. copyright Dr. Daniele Trevisani Intercultural Negotiation Training and Coaching, published with the author’s permission. The Book’s rights are on sale and are available. If you are interested in publishing the book in any language, or seek Intercultural Negotiation Training, Coaching, Mentoring and Consulting, please feel free to contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani.