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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.

Use of vocalisations that show interest in the “story” and simplify expression – e.g. guttural speech sounds and whispery voice such as “Uhm”, “Oh”. Giving a written report of these expressions is not possible, but if we listened to a person that “listens well”, we would notice that they make careful and particular use of paralanguage and sounds during essential parts of the speech. Paralinguistic techniques – together with visual non-verbal techniques – aim to provide phatic signals (contact signals), so that the interlocutor understands that we are listening, we are understanding and we are focused and interested. 

Non-verbal active listening techniques 

Non-verbal active listening techniques use body language to express interest: 

  • Open and leaning forward posture to express willingness; relaxed body posture; 
  • Proxemic (approaching and moving away): reducing the distance from the interlocutor during moments of great interest, moving away in moments of loosening; 
  •  Facial expression: vigilant, careful and caring – not doubtful, ironic or aggressive; 
  • Vigilant and direct gaze; 
  • Eyebrow movement combined with key points of the interlocutor’s speech; 
  • Nods – approval or rejection; 
  • Soft, slow and rolling gestures to communicate a feeling of relaxation and to encourage moving forward; 
  • Non-verbal metaphors: use of body language to show comprehension of what the interlocutor is saying. 

In terms of non-verbal level, it is important to consider that many cultures restrain non-verbal expression of emotions (e.g. Asian culture), but this is also a communicative stereotype – it has a probabilistic value and does not provide certainty. 

In short, the main techniques for effective listening are: 

  • curiosity and interest; 
  • paraphrase: the listener repeats what they understood (that does not mean agreeing with what the person is saying); 
  • summary and recap: rephrasing what the interlocutor said in order to gather information; 
  • targeted questions (conversational refocusing) in order to clarify unclear parts of the speech; 
  • avoiding personal questions until a solid relationship has been established; 
  • offering the speaker the opportunity to figure out whether what they understood is correct, accurate or, on the other side, twisted and incomplete; 
  • listening not only words, but also feelings and non-verbal signals in order to assess feeling and moods; 
  • checking for correct understanding of both feelings and content and not ignoring the latter; 
  • do not tell people how they should feel or what they should think (during the listening phase, it is essential to just draw information, without teaching or judging). 

One must not judge men as we judge a painting or a statue, to a first and unique look; there is an interiority and a soul that must be deepened. 

(Jean de La Bruyère) 

 

These attitudes are essential and they determine the quality of the listening phase. Yet, regarding business listening phases, they should not be confused with the goals of a whole negotiation (that includes listening and propositional phases and statements – which sometimes are harsh or assertive). 

During a negotiation, modifying what other people think (cognitive and persuasive restructuring) or how they feel (emotional action) is possible – this is one of the strategic goals –, but this goal can be pursued only once the negotiator has succeeded in actively listening, using empathy in order to understand the situation in which they are working. 

Listening is not only a technique, but it is also expression and connotation of a state of attraction and love – that can also be just an idea, not necessarily a person. Stopping listening means that something between that idea and us broke and we have to choose between mending that relationship by listening again, or letting it go forever. 

“Love ends when listening does.” 

Enrico Maria Secci

© 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.

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.

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.

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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

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 right is on sale in any language. Please contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani for information at the website www.danieletrevisani.com

_____________

People do not listen, they just wait for their turn to talk. (Chuck Palahniuk)

Effective listening essentially has two meanings:

1) when listening has been useful to gather information and better understand the state of things, facts, and people;

2) when listening has been a pleasant, welcoming moment of relationship, in which we were able to act as an emotional container for the person.

When these two situations occur, we are experiencing effective listening. It is a quite rare situation. During a lifetime, no gold is as rare and as precious as someone who understands you. Some questions can be useful: Have you ever had the feeling that a person is not listening to you? That they do not want to hear you, or that they cannot hear you at all? Or have you ever felt that while you are talking, the other one is saying things halfway, not saying everything, holding something back?

Out of willingness, sometimes, or out of incapacity, or out of fear, who knows? Have you ever felt that persons you are talking, give a false idea of themselves, practising some form of “Impressions Management” (creating an artificial image of themselves)?

Have you ever intended to talk to someone in order to deepen a certain theme or situation, while the person continues to escape, run away, avoid? Have you ever felt the presence of a ‘core‘ behind a person’s talk, of content – ideas, opinions, projects – which is only observed in transparency, but does not emerge, no matter how hard the person tries to explain himself?

If you have ever experienced even one of these situations, you had been practising ‘listening beyond words‘, ‘heightened perception‘ and approached or approached the topics of active listening and empathy. Moreover, if there were interests at stake, you have experienced the importance of Conversational Leadership and the ability to direct the course of a conversation. In your own life, you have also experienced, how rare active listening is, and that being listened to is quite rare, compared to normal life where everything is rushing, and there is no time for anything.

Rather than blaming others for what they do or do not do, for whoever wants to, the main goal of this book is offering tools to improve your listening, whether at work or in everyday life, and practice quality listening, active listening, and empathic listening. The spirit of Virgil’s words, his invitation to always seek to understand, is the foundation that runs throughout this book: the underlying value that inspires us to practice active listening. You can be tired of everything, but not of understanding. (Virgil)

Listening is perception, and perceiving for us is normal, physiological.

You did it hundreds and thousands of times, even just observing people in how they are dressed or how they walk – inevitably. You did it whether you wanted to or not. As perception has become very superficial, so has listening. This is what matters, dishonourable because acute perception is a privileged path to truth.

Conversational leadership is the ability to restore the power of listening, to direct the conversation on the issues that interest us, or on the formats that we want to strategically activate (and listening is one of them). Why is leadership important for listening skills? Because leadership is a voluntary act, and in this volume, listening is considered a voluntary act, decided by the listener, not a random act likely to happen without paying attention. Human beings are endowed with natural listening skills, they use their hearing ability to understand sounds and words, because this is vital for their survival.

If we did not know how to listen, neither to sounds nor to intentions (e.g., aggressive, hostile, or friendly), we would already be extinct. It is believed that it takes courage to stand up and speak out, to have one is said. Well, very often it also takes courage to put our mind there, where we are now, to listen and look inside the soul and mind of a person. There is also courage in listening. Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. (Sir Winston Churchill)

Listen to emotions: emotions and communication

Emotions and communication are strongly related.

Emotions and communication

In addition to the verbal data (objects, subjects, verbs, adjectives, and other speech elements), we can always notice an emotional background in communication (the outer part of Plutchik’s wheel presented below). Sometimes this background becomes more intense, and we can almost ‘feel’ or ‘perceive’ better the emotional background than single words (area of intermediate emotions). When we enter the extreme emotions area, the intense ones are placed in the middle of the model, words become almost useless, because we are inundated by the emotion coming from the other, and this ends up overwhelming any content.

Plutchik’s Solid or Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions is one of the best representations of how emotions work. We must keep in mind that we are communicators too, so this system also applies when we are the ones talking.

Plutchick wheel of emotions

Inevitably, in a communicative exchange, we always have an underlying exchange of emotions.  Some people are particularly good and very quick at grasping their inner emotions, directing them, dominating them, making use of them as they wish. For example, speaking in public in front of thousands of people without feeling the slightest bit of anxiety.  On the other hand, other people fall victims of their emotions, may become victims of a love that is blind and deaf to all denials, and persevere in loving a person who does not love them, or who has never even shown any signs of love.

They may be afraid even thinking about the idea of speaking in public and fear it like the worst of poisons.  Each communicative situation (COMSIT) owns specific meanings and emotional undertones. COMSITs are specific frames or communicative moments that can be distinguished from each other, such as a dialogue between friends, or an argument, or giving explanations, and a thousand other possibilities in relationships.

In each COMSIT, different degrees of incommunicability and different types of emotions arise4.  What can we do then? The way, the only real way, is “to train oneself to emotions”. This way, it sounds like ‘training to live’, something intangible. And it is precisely this training in the intangible that makes ‘training in emotions’ an exercise in great emotional intelligence. Such as a refined gym of Experiential Coaching, for those who design active training exercises on emotions. 

This involves dealing with emotions in an ’emotional laboratory’ where they can be experienced and then ‘debriefed’ with the support of a trainer, coach, counsellor, or psychologist, depending on the type of intervention.  Working on corporate groups and not on clinical pathology situations, requires the Trainer and the Counsellor as main figures and reference. These “emotion workshops” must be engineered by using videos, images, letters, themed dialogues, and any kind of exercise involving emotions.  As Howell said about our ‘unconscious emotional incompetence’, at first, we may find it all a bit silly or we may be ‘clumsy’, but then we will ‘climb’ this peak, step by step, until we reach a strong emotional competence. 

This competence is necessary, the higher the career position is. Think of the need for emotional balance in a judge, or a surgeon, or a police officer, or in specific situations such as taking a penalty shot, or in difficult and extreme sports where emotions are everything, or almost everything.  Emotions are often mixed, a cross between different emotional states, as we see in this picture showing the primary, secondary, and tertiary links between emotion dyads in Plutchik’s model. 

mixed emotions

Links between emotional state produce different emotions in different emotional state (Mixed Emotions), our everyday actual emotional truth.

ascolto attivo ed empatia

© 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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