Active listening techniques

Ascolto attivo ed empatia: I segreti di una comunicazione efficace di [Daniele Trevisani]
Article translated by dott. Federica Franca, 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.

1.8. In-depth analysis of active listening techniques and empathy

Active listening is linked to paralinguistic and non-verbal communication and it includes:

  • verbal active listening techniques;
  • paralinguistic active listening techniques;
  • non-verbal active listening techniques.

These techniques will be examined in the following paragraphs.

Let’s underline now an essential aspect of empathy:

  1. the person who is talking must be aware that they will not be judged. They also should not be ashamed of what they are feeling or saying, no matter how odd or serious things are – from their point of view; empathy is a special area in the space-time continuum – a person can say everything they want, without facing any negative consequences;
  2. the person who is talking must be aware that they can start making some progress and moving forward only when they have accepted themselves as they are, not matter what they did or what they thought, whether they like it or not.

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am,

then I can change”.

Carl Rogers

1.9. Verbal active listening techniques

Verbal listening techniques focus on the use of all those words that express attention and willingness to understand.

  • Open questions: who, where, when, how, why, with whom, how long and other questions that broaden and clarify the conversation.
  • Closed or clarifying questions: they verify parts of the speech through “yes–no questions”, or other general answers (“a lot/a little”, “before/after”). “It happened just before meeting Angela” “How long before it happened? One hour? One day?” or “Are you happy with your car?”
  • Mirror technique (reflection of content): repetition of sentences – or parts of sentences – the speaker said, without modifying or altering them. The mirror technique comes from the empathic listening methodologies used in the Rogerian1 therapeutic interview. It is a psychotherapeutic technique that allows the speakers to deepen their thoughts – and to express themselves. “So, you are telling me that…”
  • Paraphrase: use of “as if”. Trying to understand what has been said by using metaphors or examples that are useful to figure out whether we really understood the deep meaning of what the other person is saying. “You are telling me that it seems like they poured water into your jug without realising it was already full, am I right?”
  • Factual and historical overview, summary: repetition of what has been said by summarising the main points of the “story”. “If I got that right, what happened could be summed up by saying that…”
  • Verbal encouragement: e.g. “good”, “interesting”, “yes”, “okay”.

1.10. Paralinguistic active listening techniques

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.

1.11. 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

[1] Rogers C.R. (1961), On becoming a Person, Houghton Mifflin, Boston; Id. (1951), Client-Centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications, and Theory, Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Fonte: Dott. Trevisani D., Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace, Franco Angeli Edizioni, 2016, Milano.

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Riepilogo quinta lezione del Professore Dott. Daniele Trevisani (25 marzo 2021)

Dr. Daniele Trevisani – Formazione Aziendale Ricerca Coaching home

Presso Campus Ciels Padova, Laurea Magistrale in Comunicazione Strategica LM-94

Corso di Negoziazione, vedi

Parole chiave

  • Empatia comportamentale
  • Empatia relazionale
  • Empatia cognitiva
  • Empatia emozionale
  • Evocazione semantica
  • Leadership emozionale
  • Metacomunicazione
  • Reframing cognitivo
  • Ghost costumer
  • Intelligenza emotiva
  • Goal setting

Concetti fondamentali trattati

  1. Evocazioni semantiche: richiami a mondi percettivi che si innescano tramite l’utilizzo di determinate parole e gesti;
  2. Metacomunicazione: parlare del linguaggio, spiegando ed illustrando il codice comunicativo che si sta utilizzando in quel momento;
  3. Intelligenza emotiva: capacità di comprendere quale stato emotivo stiamo vivendo, conoscendo e sapendo etichettare le proprie emozioni.

Sintesi del mio apprendimento

  1. Ho imparato l’importanza della leadership emozionale, ovvero il saper gestire e dirigere le proprie emozioni;
  2. Ho capito che il reframing cognitivo, ovvero spiegare ed esplicitare alla controparte i termini e il codice comunicativo che stiamo utilizzando, è fondamentale per la buona riuscita di una qualsiasi negoziazione;
  3. Ho compreso quanto sia essenziale stabilire gli obiettivi che si intendono raggiungere (goal setting).


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The Scale of Listening Levels

Ascolto attivo ed empatia: I segreti di una comunicazione efficace di [Daniele Trevisani]
Article translated by dott.ssa Federica Franca, 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.

2.9 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”.[1]

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.

2.10. 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.

Fig. 4 – Levels of listening quality


[1]  Jeremy Rifkin (2011). La civiltà dell’empatia. La corsa verso la coscienza globale nel mondo in crisi. Milano, Mondadori, p. 532 [Eng: “The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis. N.d.T.]

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