Listening, empathy, emotions, conversational leadership

Article extracted with the author’s permission from the book “Active Listening and Empathy. The Secrets for Effective Communication” (original title: “Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace”), written by Daniele Trevisani, published by Franco Angeli, Milan.

1.2.        Howell’s climb. Steps towards fluidity

If you were born with wings, I don’t see why you should crawl

if you were born with wings, I don’t see why you shouldn’t try to use them

if you are not born with wings, but you really want them, they will grow

until you don’t even notice you’re using them.

and you will fly high in the sky, free.

As highlighted in “Il Coraggio delle Emozioni”[1], Howell’s studies[2] summarise the human being’s climb towards higher level competences, well exposed in Howell’s Staircase model.

This climb also applies to emotional and empathic listening skills. The different statuses can be extended to the field of training, Coaching or counselling. Let’s see their nature:

Picture 3 – Schematic visualisation of the Staircase of Competences

  1. unconscious incompetence: what I don’t know, elements or gaps that escape my consciousness, my self-awareness;
  2. conscious incompetence: gaps of which I have become aware; becoming aware of a previously unknown lack of skills can be emotionally painful but it’s a necessary stage for learning;
  3. conscious competences: what I know I know; execution is possible but a conscious attention must still be paid to the mechanisms, to the process at hand;
  4. unconscious competences: what I do without having to think about it. The execution takes place without having to think consciously, it uses psycho-motor and/or linguistic patterns already acquired, and this is why it requires a small or limited effort. It is based on a strong mastery of the mechanisms in action. It highlights the presence of mastery in skills, an internalised, definitively acquired ability;
  5. super-competences: the level of maximum mastery combined with an extreme technique training and personal skills that are out of the ordinary, which differentiates a key-performer, a star performer, from others, although they are good. It also includes intuition, bodily intelligence, multiple intelligences that converge to form the world’s best pilots, the world’s best musicians, the world’s best surgeons, the world’s best dancers, and any other kind of person who excels beyond the norm in his or her field.

Howell’s model was originally designed to study a ranking of states of intercultural empathy. Howell intended to study the different levels of a person’s ability to adapt them to a different cultural context (overcoming the difficulties that come with settling in a non-native country): when can I move well and smoothly within a culture, having incorporated and understood it completely?

This question was the starting point, but the model was then taken up by many as a general scheme of learning degrees in every field, sport, management, education.

William Howell and Stella Ting-Toomey also subsequently introduced a fifth category, Unconscious Super-Competence, to highlight those who, in a process of adaptation, manage to develop skills that are clearly above average, exceptional, above the limit.

The validity of this scale is wide, it concerns all kinds of learning in life. It helps us to ask where we are, or where we have stopped, and, above all, invites us to reflect on the fact that there is room for improvement everywhere and at all times. Also in learning to manage our emotions and develop empathy.

1.3.        Knowing how to ‘read’ people. A return to our ancestral sensibilities

In our DNA there is an inherent part of us that is interested in what others say. If only for personal interest.

One of our main ancestral preoccupations is to understand whether or not a person is dangerous to us, based on the communication signals we receive. Another very concrete preoccupation of a more everyday nature is to understand whether or not a person is credible, whether or not we can give them credit, based on how he/she communicates, the communication channels he/she uses, the signs and signals he/she emits[3].

Knowing how to read a person in an instant means grasping what, in that ‘frame’ of time, a second, or a few minutes, the person is ’emitting’ about him/herself. And so we will be able to capture words, but also and above all emotional states, states of mind, by reading faces, reading the body, listening to the non-voice, the timbre, the vocality, even before the words.

Even from a photo you can tell something. You can also ‘listen’ to a photo, yes. Or a painting, or a piece of music, or a landscape.

Of a person, at work, we might trust what is written on his or her business card, but we insist on looking also at his or her posture, straight or curved back, chin and sad or proud eyes, to understand if he or she is proud of that card is handing to you, or if it is a burden for him or her.

Let’s even say that we are curious by nature, because survival requires knowing things, understanding who is hostile or friendly, and knowing how to do it in a fraction of a second, like the real hunters/gatherers we were, by looking, observing eyes, movements, intentions.

Instinctively smelling situations before ‘understanding them rationally’.

This is part of that Unconscious Intelligence, a form of intelligence that in this book we are adding to the many Multiple Intelligences we have, mental and bodily resources so well exposed by Howard Gardner[4].

Freud has already spoken of unconscious intelligence (calling it ‘Unbewussten Verständnis’, or ‘unconscious understanding‘), but without highlighting it as a resource available to all of us, and the philosopher Schelling (1775-1854) speaks of it even earlier,[5] identifying it as an ‘intelligence of nature’, but once again without considering it for what it may be, our most precious resource. But we want to do it. Gardner showed how the phenomenon of ‘intelligence’ can be broken down into a varied series of distinct human abilities, therefore of different intelligences: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, personal and Interpersonal[6], adding later, the Intra-personal one related to knowing oneself.

Close to Inter-personal Intelligence, we add in this volume the category of Unconscious Intelligence, which we consider here as a real skill, a trainable competence for active listening, deriving from a stronger connection and training in the dialogue between the Neocortex (a recent part of the brain development), and other ancient areas such as the reptilian brain and the pre-mammalian brain, areas very able to pick up subtle and instinctive information.

And here we are: on the animal side of man, on his ‘reading the gaze’, on his ‘listening also to the unspoken’.

Knowing how to read people, their purposes, requires a return to ancestral skills, when attraction was signalled with eyes to other eyes, and not with a social profile. Now, more than ever, it is time to learn how to read people again. Because, on the one hand, we are losing the ability to recognise ‘bad guys’ or enemies, and on the other hand, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater and perhaps we say NO to someone who can do us no harm and may even bring us value.

[1] “Il coraggio delle emozioni. Energie per la vita, la comunicazione e la crescita personale“, di Daniele Trevisani, Franco Angeli editore, 2015

[2] Howell, William S. (1982). The empathic communicator. University of Minnesota: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

[3] Weigold, Michael & Trevisani, Daniele (1993). Mass Media, image and persuasion: The indirect effect of communication channels on source credibility and message acceptance. Paper presented at the Annual meeting of the Association For Education In Journalism And Mass Communication, Kansas City, MO, USA, (1993, August).

[4] Howard Gardner (1983), Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Edition Hachette UK, 2011.

[5] Friedrich Schelling, Vom Ich als Prinzip der Philosophie oder über das Unbedingte im menschlichen Wissen (The self as the principle of Philosophy or the foundation of human knowledge), 1795

Friedrich Schelling, Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur (Ideas for a philosophy of nature), 1797

[6] Howard Gardner (2010), Formae mentis. Saggio sulla pluralità dell’intelligenza. Feltrinelli, Milano.


Article translated by dott.ssa Pilli Laura, CIELS Advanced Degree in Strategic Communication (“Laurea Magistrale in Comunicazione Strategica”), extracted with the author’s permission from the book “Active Listening and Empathy. The Secrets for Effective Communication” (original title: “Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace”), written by Daniele Trevisani, published by Franco Angeli, Milan.

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