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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.

A question of voice, words, and content 

During any human interaction, there are moments of rapprochement and estrangement between people. Listening, when well done, is certainly a moment of relational rapprochement. 

Words take on meaning only based on an agreement between the parties, otherwise they would just be empty sounds. The theory of the Coordinated Management of Meanings5 highlights precisely that the word with its set of shared meanings is the result of a work of coordination between the many possible meanings. For the listener, being reassured about the meaning of the primary words we are using is crucial. 

If an entire discourse, for example, revolves around the theme of Corporate Training, it is not a bad idea to actively ask “What is your conception of Corporate Training?” and compare it with your own. 

In this way we will know if there are any divergences of meaning (semantic divergences) that might hinder our understanding. 

 

To judge a man, one must at least know the secret of his thought, of his misfortunes, of his emotions. (Honoré de Balzac) 

 

There are distances, relational distances, no less important than physical distances. Listening is the most powerful mechanism we have for reducing relational distances between human beings. 

Incommunicability, on the other hand, is an enemy both of communication between people and of human mechanisms such as being friends, getting along, doing things together and having fun. It also affects relations in companies, between companies, between nations and even between whole cultures and global areas. 

I give a brief initial example of good listening skills, made, not by chance, by a friend who is also a psychotherapist and counsellor, to whom I tell by phone the joy of starting this book:  

  • Daniele “You know Lorenzo, it’s coming out really well, today I was in the library with all the windows open, crisp air, and I wrote really well, the book is starting to take shape, I can feel it flowing”. 
  • Lorenzo: “I’m glad to hear you are so lively”. 

As can be seen, the active listening of my colleague and friend Dr. Lorenzo Manfredini does not even concern himself with the content (he could have asked, for example, which chapter I was on), but “reflects” a very special kind of listening, that of my mood, perceived above all by the paralinguistic system (tone of voice, timbre, speed of speech, intonation), even more than by the words themselves (verbal component, the words I used). 

Intonation is one of the ‘prosodic elements’ of language. It  is composed of the tone and modulation of the voice during the articulation of a word or sentence. Prosody is the part of linguistics that studies the intonation, rhythm, duration, and accent of spoken language. Prosodic information, such as intonation, is full of meanings, for example, it tells us something about the health and fitness of the speaker, the energy in circulation, the mood. An example of augmented listening is listening to intonation: 

 

“The rising and falling tone or the use of a particular chant are ‘paralinguistic’ elements of communication, which add to the meaning conveyed by words. This level of communication can never be eliminated from vocal communication, not even from artificially produced communication, which in fact often appears mechanical to us precisely because of its ‘flat’ intonation. Paralinguistic communication mainly conveys information about the identity of the speaker (gender, geographical origin, etc.) and about the relationships that the sender intends to establish with the recipient (play, joke, command, question, etc.)”. 6   

 

And that is exactly what the friend did, connecting to the relationship of “sharing happiness” which was my primary communicative intent. 

Listening to the underlying communicative intent, and not just the words, is an example of listening beyond words, and augmented perception. 

This is to say that advanced active listening can enter our every moment, our every day, it requires skills, and it is not just about the words, but rather and above all about the communicative intent that a person expresses, usually doing so in a totally undeclared way. 

If we had been in a project in which this transmission of messages was connected to a deadline, the question could have been about what page I was on in relation to the deadline; the communicative intent could have been about a practical need to understand if we were late, and that would have been the appropriate question, but as this was not the case, a far superior, advanced, active listening competence emerged. 

 

“Speech belongs half to the speaker, half to the listener.”  

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne 

 

Whenever we listen deeply, in some way, we are connecting to the inner worlds of people, we are getting closer to the ‘core’ of the individual, to their ‘moods’, their personality, their history, and not just facts and figures. Then, and only then, can we begin to grasp its infinite nuances, and begin to understand it. 

© 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.

A telephone does not only emit radiation, but also information about its owner. Only yesterday, near an ice-cream parlour, I found an abandoned phone. It took only 50 cents of a second, an instantaneous perception, to realise that it belonged to a little girl, based on the pink butterfly sticker, the writing on the cover, and other small details, without even opening it. 

I took it to the ice-cream parlour, saying that a little girl had probably forgotten it and would come looking for it. Chance of error? Less than 1%.  

People use, in other words, a system of holistic communication and holistic listening, they judge and reconstruct based on a few ‘trigger’ signals, and the probability of a perception close to reality is quite high. Especially if we know the ‘sign system’ or semiotic environment in which we are moving. 

Understanding and governing this system of signs, when we emit them, and when we listen to them, is a fundamental component of advanced listening and perception. 

 

Holistic communication and holistic listening 

 

Holistic communication answers many more questions than ‘what do I say with my voice’. 

The people they are in contact with extract meanings from the most disparate elements, such as: 

  • what music you listen to, 
  • how congruent your favourite music genre is with the identities that others perceive of you, 
  • your general appearance, 
  • your haircut and its care (shades, gels, hair accessories), 
  • tattoos, their size, type, symbolism, 
  • tone of voice, 
  •  vocal stress, 
  • clothing, e.g. the degree of ‘casual’ vs ‘professional’, 
  • adherence or non-adherence to the ‘dress code’ that the social situation would like to impose (e.g. not wearing a tie in a formal interview is a form of ‘independence’ message), 
  • the body, muscular tones, body shapes, postures, 
  • what ‘your environments’ communicate, what is on the wall, how your home is furnished. The communication of environments, like any other form of holistic communication, becomes an ’emanation of the Self’, 
  • the watch you have, its type, “adventure” watch filled with features, barometer, altimeter, depth gauge, compass, etc., vs. classic watch with hands. Plastic, gold or steel? 
  • the glasses, their shape and brand, the fact that they are – by shape and frame – “tactical” or “understated”? Indicators of ‘understatement’ (wanting to be noticed little) or ‘overstatement’ (wanting to be noticed for an object)? 
  • what films you watch, what programmes you prefer, what social media you use, how you appear on your social profiles if someone who does not know you or someone who does know you observes you, 
  • the “informational mental infiltrations” or “memetic infiltrations” that we possess, e.g. knowing a piece of news that occupies our mental ram without having intentionally learned it, knowing that “George Clooney slipped on a motorbike in Sardinia but was not hurt” without ever having gone looking for that news (tells us that you have frequented public environments, such as a bar), 
  • the strength and conviction with which you express a message, 
  • your skin, its condition, the marks it has and doesn’t have, the degree of care, the ‘word of the body’. 
  • The ‘names’ you give to things or animals or objects, dense with connotative meanings that reverberate your way of being and your personality and apply it to the objects, animals and things around you. 

 

Holistic communication therefore includes listening to ourselves, and leads us to an increased awareness of the enormous variety of means, channels and tools that emit messages. 

It serves us to be more aware of all the tools we have and sometimes do not use, or the sources from which perception comes, listening to others, and to the things that tell the story of who we are. 

© 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.