Article translated by dott. ssa Eleonora Brusamento Spinelli, 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“, Franco Angeli Edizioni, 2019”), written by Daniele Trevisani, published by Franco Angeli, Milan.
Picture. 2 – Types of empathy in the ALM method
1.1. Positive and destructive elements of empathy
It is astonishing how elements that seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens, how confusions that seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard.
Empathy is either destroyed or fostered by specific communicative behaviours and attitudes.
|Fostering empathy||Destroying empathy|
|Curiosity, passion, motivation to listen||Disinterest, listening for duty; lack of motivation|
|Real listening participation, without fiction||Pretending a listening role only for professional duty|
|Acting as a “discoverer”, like a truffle or gemstones hunter. Let’s see what’s going to happen today!||Bureaucratic plastered approach. Even today, not today, another meeting, that is so boring|
|Re-formulation of contents|
Recap – re-capitulate “histories” and “topics”
|Judgement on contents, comments Endless flow without the security to understand the topic or the sense of the conversation|
|Plural approaches to question (open, close, clarifying, focusing, and generalizing questions) Flexible questions related to the variation of a session or its context||Monotonous questions, statical questions, questions that are too anchored to a dogmatic scheme or school|
|Focus on emotional experience, emotional listening||Exclusive focus on facts|
|Verbal or non-verbal signals of attention, “phatic” signals (contact signals) es, yeah, well, ok, I see your point…||Body language expressing disinterest, apathy, boredom, or desire to be somewhere else…|
|Paralinguistic signals of attention, encouragement to express oneself, “phatic” signals (signals expressing participation and attention)||Poor evidence of interest and concern to the flow of thought. Lack or scarcity of ‘phatic’ signals and mental contact.|
“Empathy between people is like water in the desert: you rarely encounter it, but when you do, it calms you down and regenerates you.”
1.4 “Being there” in relationship: separating listening from “expression” activities and generating the “empathic flow”.
Few delights can equal the presence of one whom we trust utterly.
In empathy, ‘being there’ is important. To ‘be there’, it is essential not to confuse between listening and expression. Listening communication, and the quality of listening, includes the need to perform a clear separation on a mental level, the activities of paying attention to the communication of others, understanding it (incoming communication) from the activities of expressing our messages (outgoing communication).
We are referring to a ‘flow’, an empathic one, a two-way flow between two people during an empathic communication. There is something magical about this kind of flow sometimes. To be clear, the content of this flow in terms of words, sentences, facial expressions and any other ‘communicative content’ is expressed by the speaker, but the listener expresses an equally powerful, even more powerful flow, the flow of attention and mental presence. Two opening flows of acceptance, which create a unique and special moment of human sharing. If you happen to hear yourself say “I have never felt as much understanding as in this conversation, thank you very much” you probably performed a high empathy rate.
Picture 9 – Separation of the expression flow from empathic flow
When we know how to separate these two flows properly, first on a mental level, then on a physical and behavioural level, we will know how to give presence, avoiding intruding on the empathic flow with inappropriate communications. When it is ‘our turn’, we will always be empathic, ‘connected’ and relevant.
People also leave presence in a place even when they are no longer there.
1.5 Ten rules to quality empathic listening. Ten rules always to apply.
Most quarrels amplify a misunderstanding.
During the listening phases necessarily:
- do not interrupt while other persons are talking;
- do not judge them prematurely; do not express judgements that could block their expressive flow;
- summarize what you understood (so, if I understood well, it happened that…), re-formulate critical points (ok, he doesn’t answer to the phone, and you feel really bad, I see), to paraphrase (so, as I understood, is it…?)
- do not get distracted, do not think about anything else, do nothing else but listening (except for taking notes if necessary), use your thoughts to listen, do not wander;
- do not correct the other person while he/she is stating something, even when you disagree, keep listening;
- do not try to overpower her/him;
- do not try to dominate her/him;
- do not try to teach or impart truths; restrain the temptation to interfere with the expression flow and correct something assumed as incorrect;
- do not speak about ourselves;
- show interest and participation through verbal signals and body language;
Particularly interesting attitudes may be:
- genuine interest and curiosity towards the other: the desire to know and explore another one’s mind; activating human and professional curiosity;
- inner silence: creating a state of emotional stillness (free from negative emotions and prejudices), in order to listen and respect the other person’s rhythms;
- mentally preparing oneself for the ‘whole’: being able to support even ‘heavy’ psychic material (fears, traumas, dramas, personal tragedies, dreams, disturbed states of mind) that the other person expresses, or when they emerge in the process, being able to explore them while keeping the ‘focus’ on mental and emotional balance and not overwhelmed by what is being heard (technique of Controlled Emotional Distancing – CED).
It is remarkable quoting Carl Rogers, psychologist, and founder of Counseling, the person that most of all has influenced the same concept of empathy:
“Our first reaction to most of the statements which we hear from other people is an immediate evaluation, or judgment, rather than an understanding of it. When someone expresses some feeling or attitude or belief, our tendency is, almost immediately, to feel “That’s right”; or “That’s stupid”; “That’s abnormal”; “That’s unreasonable”; “That’s incorrect”; “That’s not nice”. I believe this is because understanding is risky. If I let myself really understand another person, I might be changed by that understanding.”
“What the statement means to him” is the true meaning of any empathy operation, understanding the emotional connection, the motive seen from within. It is a technique. Then it matters little whether that technique is applied to a criminal to understand their next gestures and moves, or to a person suffering from anxiety, or to help a young person find his way in the future, a sportsman wins his next race, or a team in which we are trying to produce the state of ‘flow for maximum performance.
Article translated by dott. ssa Eleonora Brusamento Spinelli, 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, Franco Angeli Edizioni, 2019”), written by Daniele Trevisani, published by Franco Angeli, Milan.
-Dott. Trevisani D., Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace, Franco Angeli Edizioni, 2019
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