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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Consonanze e Dissonanze fra Stili Linguistici e Non-verbali

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 “Intercultural Negotiation. Communication Beyond Cultural Barriers” (original title: “Negoziazione interculturale. Comunicare oltre le barriere culturali. Dalle relazioni interne sino alle trattative internazionali”), written by Daniele Trevisani, published by Franco Angeli, Milan.

Segnali Non-verbali Negativi dell’Interlocutore

La comunicazione non verbale può rinforzare il messaggio verbale o risultare dissonante con lo stesso. Ascoltare attentamente e annuire possono indicare interesse in maniera più pronunciata rispetto a un’affermazione verbale. Dire “sono interessato” a parole ed esprimere noia o disgusto con azioni corporee produce un segnale di dissonanza e crea sospetti o irritamento. La coerenza (organicità) fra parole e azioni:

  • aumenta la percezione dell’onestà del soggetto;
  • denota affidabilità;
  • mostra interesse;
  • indica che siamo in controllo della situazione;
  • origina un senso di sicurezza e di solidità del contesto;

Al contrario, l’incoerenza:

  • crea un senso di diffidenza;
  • produce sentimenti di mancata autenticità;
  • genera dubbi e sospetti sulla falsità dei contenuti verbali sentiti.

Ogni stile linguistico (a livello interpersonale) è associato a una precisa modulazione dello stile non-verbale. Infatti possiamo avere:

  • situazioni di rinforzo comunicativo (lo stile non-verbale rinforza quello verbale);
  • situazioni di dissonanza o di inconsistenza fra il verbale e il non-verbale (la comunicazione non-verbale procede su un registro diverso dalla comunicazione verbale).

LA dissonanza riguarda ogni sistema semiotico, ogni segno possibile portatore di significato. Un’azienda che si ritiene importante e non ha un sito web, o ha un sito amatoriale, esprime un’immagine di dissonanza, così come un negoziatore che si dimentica di portare strumenti essenziali con se (cataloghi, calcolatrici e ogni altro strumento ovvio).

I segnali non-verbali possono indicare che l’interlocutore sta seguendo il dialogo con un atteggiamento positivo o negativo. In genere, le reazioni negative sono caratterizzate da:

  • angolazioni del corpo: spalle ritratte, distanziamento;
  • volto: teso, dimostra rabbia;
  • voce: tono negativo, silenzi improvvisi;
  • mani: movimenti di rifiuto o di disappunto, movimenti tesi;
  • braccia: tese, incrociate;
  • gambe: incrociate o distanti angolate.

Esercizi di consonanza e di dissonanza fra gli stili comunicativi verbali e non.

Inizia un dialogo su un tema qualsiasi (es. dov’è meglio passare le vacanze) ed esprimi, solo attraverso la postura corporea, i seguenti significati:

  • non ti sopporto, mi provochi noia;
  • mi sei simpatico;
  • la mia testa è da un’altra parte, faccio fatica a seguirti, sono distratto;
  • ho dubbi sulla tua onestà.

Seconda fase dell’esercizio. Modula gli stili introducendo alcune variazioni:

  • espressioni verbale: di “non ti sopporto, mi provochi noia”, insieme a rinforzi non-verbali (es.: stringi i denti, stringi i pugni);
  • espressione verbale: “non ti sopporto, mi provochi noia”, insieme a dissonanza non-verbale (es. sorridi amabilmente);

Segui lo schema mostrato:

  • espressione verbale: “mi sei simpatico”, insieme a rinforzi non-verbali;
  • espressione verbale: “mi sei simpatico”, con dissonanza nel non-verbale;
  • espressione verbale: “la mia testa è da un’altra parte, faccio fatica a seguirti, sono distratto”, insieme a rinforzi non-verbali;
  • espressione verbale: “la mia testa è da un’altra parte, faccio fatica a seguirti, sono distratto”, con dissonanza non-verbale;
  • espressione verbale: “ho dubbi sulla tua onestà”, insieme a rinforzi non-verbali;
  • espressione verbale: “ho dubbi sulla tua onestà”, con dissonanza non-verbale.
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