Empathy & Sympathy

Article translated by dott.ssa Pilli Laura, 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.

1.6 Empathy and listening are good for those who practice them, and for those who receive them: Some evidence from the research

Give your absence to who does not value your presence.
(Oscar Wilde)

Empathy is a value and it generates value. Therefore, it is good to see what some of the indications from the world of research have to say about this. Empathy, practising it well, requires a well-functioning mind[1]. This means for us, that the empathic communicator has to take care of himself, his health, the state of his mind, e.g. he/she must be rested, don’t abuse substances, eat and exercise – in short, we are dealing with athletes of communication and athletes of the mind.

Of course, it can be argued that some psychotherapists manage to be extremely good at active listening and empathic even at the age of 80, or with a sick body, but let us not forget how much experience is supporting them, and therefore, let us do our personal homework diligently to find our best shape and have a body-mind that supports and helps us.

Taking care of oneself helps empathy. Having personal, physical, bodily, mental, motivational energy helps empathy. If you don’t have energy, you will never really listen to anyone in depth.

Other evidence: when the subject of active and empathic listening is a distress[2], having a methodological school behind you, for example humanistic psychology, Bioenergetic Counseling, or others, is a helpful factor, because you are no longer alone in listening, you are only alone physically, but the presence of the ‘school’ helps you to proceed well. However much good will you have, having a school behind you gives structure, helps, supports morally.

The ‘school’ can also be an association, club or group of people where people meet and discuss about methods and work, cases or models, and this discussion is of enormous professional enrichment. Whether it is a circle of leaders, a circle of Counselors, a training school, moments of “unwinding and realignment” like those of supervision are fundamental, even in the non-clinical context. Indeed, think how much better it can be in a company to have interviews with employees by a leader, knowing they have a Mentor and then being able to discuss them with a supervisor, rather than leaving them in the dark.

Finally, an important reflection. Empathy is a concept that is interpreted in literature in many, sometimes incompatible ways[3].

The substantial distinction is between two extremes, an emotional type of empathy, which is primarily experience-centred, i.e. based on feeling and reflecting the feelings of the speaker, and a cognitive type of empathy, based on reflecting and understanding the reasoning of the speaker.

Our vision is that empathy is a concrete form of mental presence in communication, a conversation in which the End State (point of arrival) to understand a person in their full physical, bodily, intellectual and emotional nuances.

In our method, therefore, empathy must be both emotional and cognitive. It means being able to understand a situation or a piece of life from the point of view of the person who is experiencing it, and this requires shedding light on both emotional components (understanding emotions and their nuances) and reasoning (understanding values, beliefs, actions, structured thoughts). Only the union of the two components can lead to true empathy, at least as far as empathic listening is concerned.

The empathic ‘way of being’, which means constantly living with attention and sensitivity to the emotions of others, is a different matter, but this is outside the scope of the technique of active and empathic listening and is certainly not to be condemned, but neither is it to be forced.

I think it is right to leave it up to the free will of each person how to lead their lives. Certainly, however, when we enter into an active or empathic listening session, being able to tap into this sensitivity is needed.

1.7. Difference between empathy and sympathy

Empathy and sympathy must be distinguished. Empathy means to understand. For example in the company, to understand why a customer postpones a purchase or wants a low-priced product, why a customer arrives late for an appointment, whether it is because of strategy or real impediment, or why a customer tells us about a certain specific problem, what is behind it. Sympathy, on the other hand, means appreciating, sharing, agreeing. Selling requires the application of empathy and not necessarily sympathy. The same applies to a coaching, a counselling or a leadership interview.

Active listening and empathy should not be confused with acceptance of others’ contents or values. A decalogue of active listening is not to be confused with blind acceptance of other people’s content. These are merely methods of allowing other people’s thoughts to flow as freely as possible in order to gain openness and useful information.

The phase of inner judgement on what we hear, which is inevitable during negotiation, must be ‘relegated’ to our internal processing, held for later stages of negotiation, and must not interfere with the listening phase.

When our aim is to listen, we must listen.

To do this we will have to:

  • suspend our judgment;
  • give signals of assent and presence (contact signals, phatic signals);
  • try to stay connected to the flow of the discourse;
  • ask questions whenever an aspect seems worthy of investigation;
  • avoid ‘anticipating’ (e.g.: I am sure that you…) and avoid making statements that are ‘stances’;
  • simply rephrase the key points of what the other person said;
  • do not interrupt inappropriately.

We should reserve our judgement or make clarifications only after having listened in depth and inside an appropriate negotiation frame. The aim of empathic techniques is to encourage the flow of other people’s thoughts, and to collect as many ‘information nuggets‘ as possible that the interlocutor can give. Empathy, if well applied, produces “empathic flow“, a flow of data, factual, sentimental, experiential information, of enormous usefulness to the negotiator.

The opposite behaviour (judging, correcting, affirming, blocking) breaks the empathic flow, and risks stopping the collection of valuable information prematurely.

Few people think, but they all want to judge.
(King Frederick the Great)

There is a moment when the negotiator has to stop the flow of the other person’s discourse (turning point) but in general it is good to let it flow, until one has really understood who one is dealing with and what the real objectives are, and all other necessary information. Empathic techniques are also helpful in curbing the premature tendency towards informational self-disclosure: the giving of information, the inappropriate or premature leaking of data about ourselves. Giving the customer information and data that could be counterproductive has a boomerang effect. Any information must be given with extreme caution.

The empathic attitude is extremely useful in focusing the negotiator’s mental energies on listening to the other person and curbing our own inappropriate interference.

Let us also remember another point. Listening is a gift. Giving the gift of listening, today, in a materialistic world, is among the most precious gifts one can give, provided that the person who has to be listened interests us and we want to give this gift. Human time is precious and limited, and listening well, takes time. For this reason, dedicating a moment of life to someone full of quality listening, and doing it with passion, must be done for work, or for love.

“Loving means above all listening”

[1] Neumann D1, Zupan B. Empathic Responses to Affective Film Clips Following Brain Injury and the Association with Emotion Recognition Accuracy. In:  Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2018 Aug 21. pii: S0003-9993(18)30938-9. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2018.07.431.

[2] Guan K, Kim RE, Rodas NV, Brown TE, Gamarra JM, Krull JL, Chorpita BF,. Emergent Life Events: An In-Depth Investigation of Characteristics and Provider Responses during Youth Evidence-Based Treatment. In: J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol. 2018 Aug 24:1-16. doi: 10.1080/15374416.2018.1496441.

[3] Dohrenwend AM. Defining Empathy to Better Teach, Measure, and Understand its Impact. In: Acad Med. 2018 Aug 21. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000002427.


Article translated by dott.ssa Pilli Laura, 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.

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