Article translated by dott. Tommaso Pasqualini, 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.
1.4. Knowing how to pick up signals
There is an urgent need to return to our ancestral sensibilities. We urgently need to restore our ability to perceive correctly, even before logically evaluating data alone. To do this, we must know how to use listening in a special way, making it an “augmented perception” of any signal that enters our sphere:
1. Verbal auditory signals. what did Titius just say at the other table?
2. Paralinguistic auditory signals. Can I hear a person’s vocal stress?
3. Tactile-tactile signals (did someone just sit in this chair? Is it warm?), or “what does this handshake tell me about you?”
4. Kinesthetic-visual signals: how is the team today? Understand it in stride, in posture. Understand it even in the locker room. Do they seem calm or agitated? Demotivated or motivated?
5. Olfactory Signals: What is this new smell I smell in my newly purchased car, have I ever paid attention to it? Am I aware that it is an engineered smell, or do I think it is a result of chance?
6. Emotional Signals: how am I in the moment, how is my anxiety, my joy, my heart, my dreaming, my living in relationship with others and myself? E… How is the person in front of me? How is she breathing, what is she feeling?
7. Body signs: what job might the second from the right on that table be doing, based on the type of muscles and how he is dressed and the marks I notice on his skin?
8. Holistic signals: who is the most dangerous or dissonant person in this train car or bar, is there someone who might be dangerous? Based on what do I notice?
The signals are many. Signs of love, signs of hate, signs of indifference, signs of fear, signs of disgust, signs of friendship. If only we knew how to catch them all….
But as soon as we realize that the discourse does not touch our vital interests, we turn around and continue in our distracted way.
Distraction is an evil of the age.
The “rage of the times” and the rush have brought listening to absolute lows in the history of Western civilization.
Smartphones and other electronic devices have replaced people, and so we have become good at “listening” to the signals of electronic devices, recognizing a beep from a beeep, manipulating a phone or a touch screen, but less good at looking into the eyes of a person who is speaking to us live and grasping their nuances, tone of voice, gaze, head nods, and understanding what they are feeling, and whether or not they are lying.
Throughout the book there will be dozens and dozens of useful tools to re-learn the art and technique of “reading people” – which means practicing a “listening beyond words”. The important thing is that the spark is ignited in us. The spark of ancestral DNA. The spark of curiosity.
The fury of the times has accustomed students to quizzes, multiple-choice tests, computerized exams, and the oral exam is slowly disappearing from the landscape of academic training because it “takes too long”. Thus, we no longer learn to “tune in to the Prof. and his interests that we may have heard in class,” because it has become unnecessary.
Even in groups of boys and girls, sitting at a table in a pizzeria, one can notice a constant “doing” but with one’s smartphone, and an almost physical absence of where people really are, with rare, very rare conversations between participants, often superficial.
It’s never easy to listen. Sometimes it’s more comfortable to act deaf, turn on the Walkman, and isolate yourself from everyone. It is so easy to replace listening with emails, texts and chats, and in this way we deprive ourselves of faces, glances and hugs.
1.5. From pressing towards being persuasive to rediscovering quality listening
In our society, a sort of “pressing” towards being hyper-communicative and persuasive, quick-quick-wins, but never towards listening, remains strong and pulsating. The time to slow down in order to reason, reflect, the time needed to generate quality and not just quantity, disappears. Yet paradoxically, even in companies – where quality is rightly idolized and rewarded – despite this, people among themselves never really and thoroughly listen to each other, sometimes even in a meeting. Not to mention conversations between bosses and employees. We are all invited to “speak well,” but less so to “listen well.” Listening also includes “listening to things.” Bridges talk, ships talk, cars talk, if only you know how to listen to their languages, if only you know where and what to watch for, if only you walk by with an eye, ear, and hands trained to catch emergencies, dissonances, and problems.
And if you feel like it.
– Listen to the ship.
– What’s there to listen to?
– Just listen to it.
from the movie “Pandorum – The Parallel Universe”.
We are pushed to be incisive, for example to pass a job interview, or in a public speaking course where we study the mechanisms to get an applause, or in advertising, the strategies to communicate to targets and persuade. But it is always “one-way” communication. It is never true listening.
Listening is a holistic process. You can listen to a person, you can listen to a waterfall, you can listen to a river. And that has to do with fundamental issues like safety. Never, ever, would anyone think of “listening to a bridge,” or a ship, or an airplane.
The other side of the communication coin, knowing how to listen, how to perceive, has disappeared. Incorporated by a world that “goes too fast” to afford the luxury of stopping to listen. Yet, without listening, we die. You don’t pick up on danger signals, you don’t grasp the nature of subtle messages.
Before it dies or gives way, a structure gives many signals, the case of the 300-meter viaduct that fell in Genoa being an example.
During a period of my life of some years, when I was in charge of coaching Cruise Ship Commanders, with 5,000 people on board, and a staggering burden of responsibility on my back, I used to make the commanders and vice-commanders perform a special exercise, I used to say “Now lie down on the ground and listen to the ship”. “Close your eyes. Listen to the ship.” At first they were stunned, but then after a few minutes an enormous number of signals emerged, the perception became more acute, from the known vibrations to those they had never heard, from the noise of a pump they had never heard (yet it had always been there), to the ability to do a “holistic listening” of the ship, roll, pitch, including the men, the crews, their real conversations and emotional states in maneuver.
The “listening to the machine” part is called in my method “Structural Listening”, the “man” part is called “Listening to Emotional Climates, or “Listening to Emotional Aquariums” when applied to Team Leadership situations.
It is time to give dignity and method back to the “hidden part of communication” that is precisely listening, whether it is actively listening to a structure, or empathically to a family member, a worker, a supplier, or to better understand the data of a work project, to better connect to the emotions of others, to understand one’s own crew and team in what emotional condition they are in, to know how to intervene when necessary.
1.6. Listening beyond words. 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.
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 signaling), 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.
Listening is absolutely not limited to wanting to understand the suffering of others (a theme that touches on psychotherapy, counseling, 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.
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