2. Communication and listening as encounter between worlds

Article translated by dott. Marco Recalenda, 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.

2.3. The relational approach. 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 Meanings[1] 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 thinking, his misfortunes, 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.)”[2]


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 speakerhalf 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.

2.4. Listening to the micro-signals of voice and words. From vocal stress to quality of pronunciation, to confidence and trustworthiness, to gait. Listening to the ‘whole’

Auditory listening comes through the vibrations of the vocal cords creating sounds, which we recognise as words.

When we are stressed, e.g., by telling a lie, or dealing with a subject that is overly sensitive to us, the body unconsciously activates the attack-escape system (sympathetic nervous system) – increasing the readiness of the muscles to spring into action. The vocal cords do not escape, and their vibration goes from a state of relaxation to a more tremulous voice (microtremors) which corresponds to a voice under stress.

This is to say that while we are listening, not only do ‘grammatical’ words come in, but my processing of what I hear takes place, and a form of judgement or evaluation is triggered, not only of the content (ethical or moral evaluation), but also of the speaker’s skills, or his state of stress. If an Italian person quotes a word in English, e.g., Bed & Breakfast, based on how well he pronounces even single words in English, I will understand how familiar he is with that language, how much he has studied it, and even whether he has lived there for a long time. This is augmented perception. Someone who talks about sales and uses the word Sales literally, verbatim – is telling us, unintentionally, that they have extremely poor English and probably do not have the awareness to make a big impression on someone who knows the language well.

People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spot blues. Murky darkness. In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them. 

(Markus Zusak)

If while the person is speaking, we hear a vocal tremor, we are practising advanced listening, listening to the components of vocal stress is an indicator of ongoing lies or emotional difficulties, we think the person is under stress.

Not only that, but we also listen more than words if we phone a person in the morning, and we hear a low timbre of voice, so we go as far as to ask, “oh sorry, did you just wake up?” even if the person answering the phone does not mention it at all. We pick it up from the voice, from its qualities. Our mirror neurons allow us to identify and feel what we perceive. The thought of what might be happening takes shape in our mind, based on what might have happened to us on similar occasions. This is also an advanced and active listening dynamic.

“The first step to understanding reality is to become aware of how it takes shape in our mind.”

Stefano Nasetti

But back to examples of content. If I talk about white fibres and red fibres (two different types of muscle fibres)[3],I assume that the other person understands me and has studied motor sciences or medicine or physiology.

And not only that. The quality of the exposition will tell me a lot about his cultural status, and the calmness with which he expounds will help me to understand if it is the first time or one of the many he talks about, and therefore if he is an expert in the field or not (and this without the person having either said or officially announced it).

And always looking at the ‘unspoken’, it is enough to see a person enter a bar or walk down the street and deduce from the type of walk, posture and body size and their proportions, a lot of data with respect to age, state of health, doing or not doing sports, and a lot of other information.

2.5. Meeting between worlds and personal ‘spheres

Really important encounters are planned by the souls long before the bodies see each other.

(Paulo Coelho)

Cultural and professional backgrounds, combined with our personal history, our state of mind, our values, make us unique “systems”.

Everyone is unique, a ‘sphere’ of meanings, energies, dreams, ambitions, tangible cells, and intangible thoughts.

Listening means getting closer to that sphere. Deep listening means entering that sphere.

The more you activate empathy, the more you enter the “core” of the person.

Each person can be likened metaphorically to an energy field, a field of light, which at some time meets other energy fields, other fields of light, finding or not finding possibilities for exchange, osmosis, transmission of signals, or remaining distant, impermeable.

 Eventually soulmates meet, for they have the same hiding place.

(Robert Brault)

If I assume that we will magically understand each other, I will not be doing quality listening. Listening means being ready to approach worlds we do not know, and not just letting words in through our ears.

We find ourselves in a world in which everyone is within their own ‘sphere’ – a set of thoughts, signals, words, values, – together referred to in the HPM method as the ‘Semiosphere’. Each of us lives in a ‘world’, in a sphere of words, concepts, ideologies and beliefs about the world and ourselves. Communication poses the challenge of passing messages between people from different backgrounds. Listening must always consider the possibility that the other person has a different culture from ours, even if it is only slightly different, which would imply the need to listen without preconceptions. Even the difference between a humanistic and a technical-engineering education can create a degree of incommunicability. Not understanding each other is more frequent than we think.

Every day we go around in a crowd, we run here and there, we almost touch each other but, there is truly little contact. All those missed encounters. All those missed opportunities. It is disturbing when you think about it. Maybe it is better not to think about it at all.

(Jonathan Coe)

Every professional or family background offers you a world of words that you use daily, until those words become your world. This world becomes your daily sphere, your sphere of words, your sphere of relationships, your sphere of high or low, strong, or weak energies.

At some moment, these spheres have occasion for contact, but the different backgrounds make understanding not automatic or obvious.

When this moment of contact occurs, the two ‘spheres’ can repel each other ‘by the skin’, like two balls of equal magnetic charge repel each other.

Attraction or repulsion occurs when archaic elements of the brain (archipallium) give us signals of displeasure or pleasantness, towards a face or smells that offer us signals of danger, or with signals that also come from body language, posture, smiles and facial expressions. If the signals are negative, they alert our alarm systems, they are certainly not conducive to listening, but if we know that they are being activated, we can go beyond those signals, listen, and perceive with greater awareness what is happening inside us.

Listening to a person who disturbs us is something we avoid as much as possible and reduce to the bare minimum, and we notice this even between people who love each other but have had a fight. There is no less talking, there is less listening.

Listening therefore means much more than hearing words, but observing movement, the body, gestures, facial expressions, objects, moods.

Miraculously (but it is not a miracle, but the effect of well analysable human mechanisms) the opposite can also happen, a magnetic-like attraction, a human contact where we can find an understanding with someone, a way to share something between our spheres of meaning. And almost always, in this case, listening will become an extremely pleasant process.

I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter.

(Winston Churchill)

[1] Pearce, W. B.; Pearce, K. “Extending the Theory of the Coordinated Management of Meaning (“CMM”) Through a Community Dialogue Process” . Communication Theory. 10: 2000.

Pearce, W. Barnett, Vernon E. Cronen, and Linda M. Harris. “Methodological considerations in building human communication theory.” Human communication theory: Comparative essays (1982): 1-41.

[2] Voce Intonazione, da Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation.

[3] Fibre muscolari a contrazione lenta o veloce  – Le fibre muscolari striate sono classificate in fibre a contrazione lenta (I tipo) e veloce (II tipo). Le fibre di I tipo sono responsabili del tono muscolare; esse presentano un colore più scuro e vengono chiamate anche fibre rosse, per la ricchezza di mioglobina, si contraggono più lentamente e hanno una resistenza maggiore all’esaurimento (sono i muscoli che prevalgono ad esempio in un maratoneta); quelle di II tipo, invece, sono più chiare (chiamate quindi fibre bianche), producono scatti potenti ed esauriscono l’energia rapidamente (sono la tipologia muscolare che coltiva un sollevatore di pesi, un artista marziale, o un pugile, ad esempio). La maggior parte dei muscoli scheletrici è composta da fibre di entrambi i tipi.

Le fibre di cui disponiamo non sono solo geneticamente determinate, ma si modificano con l’allenamento e in base al tipo specifico di allenamento.

Il potenziamento dell’uno o dell’altro tipo di fibre muscolari attraverso uno specifico allenamento permette lo sviluppo di qualità fisiche come la resistenza, l’elasticità muscolare, la velocità. In altre parole, è possibile determinare le tipologie di muscoli che vogliamo avere e le loro qualità principali.

Elaborato con modifiche da Microsoft ® Encarta ®. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation.


Article translated by dott. Marco Recalenda, 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.

Other online material available in these sites:
Sito Studio Trevisani Formazione Coaching Consulenza (Italian & English)
Sito Daniele Trevisani (Italian)
Website Dr. Daniele Trevisani (English)
Comunicazione Aziendale
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Medialab Research
Intercultural Negotiation (English)
Operational Negotiation (English)
Linkedin Profile Dr. Daniele Trevisani

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Pubblicazioni e libri dott. Daniele Trevisani (Books published)
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