Emphatic Listening and Communication

Article translated by dott. Federica Vazquez, 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.    Data and emotions: the two basic ingredients of empathic listening 

When a sunrise or sunset no longer gives us excitement, 

means that the soul is sick.

 (Roberto Gervaso)

Empathy is defined in a thousand different ways. 

For our purpose, it is sufficient to focus, here and now, on the fact that empathy is a “state of mind”, a state of openness to listening, of predisposition to grasp the data and emotions that come from the other person, to “feel” them, coming to understand a situation with identification, to be aware of what lives, with the eyes and the heart of the person who is telling us. We will go into this concept in more detail later. We have already said it, but empathy, however deep, is not equivalent to sympathy.

Those who practice empathic listening must be very good at “grasping” and “feeling” but they must absolutely not fall into the trap of “confusing their own self with that of the other”. So, let’s stay for now on a technical aspect: the decomposition of listening into data and emotions. It is fundamental to distinguish “active listening”, of data, from listening to emotions. Listening to data and listening to emotions are two different processes. 

Sometimes co-present, and often they become two “tasks” or tasks that travel in parallel. But conceptually they are different. 

We always have “the whole” available to us while we listen, it is up to us to be able to grasp, to be able to distinguish, to be able to “appreciate” and be sensitive to even the most subtle nuances of the soul and emotion.

The two layers of listening can be seen as two rivers traveling parallel to each other. Two streams of information, rather than water, that we need to perceive, simultaneously.

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It is true that even an emotion is a form of “data”, but we must note, of course, that it is one thing to deal with qualitative data such as feeling pleasure, or being proud, or feeling sad or depressed, and another thing to note down information such as “London“, “Milan“, “50 km“, “10 kg”, “plane“, “train“, “100 Euro“, and other more tangible quantitative or qualitative information. We can say that scientifically we have a “data-point” (data point, certain information) every time we manage to extract a verifiable proposition. 

The statement “Before 5 p.m. David made a sale and was overjoyed” contains four data points

Listening closely resembles the process of “mining and separating” as it occurs in a deposit. Extracting material and separating it into stones on one side, and mud on the other. In listening, the materials are almost always joined, almost glued together, but we can learn to separate them. In the example written below it will be quite easy to do this.

Figure 7 – extracting data from a text passage (data-centered listening)

Davide and Lucia last night around 7:30 pm had an argument because there was some grass to remove from the garden and Paolo did it but he got tired, when he told Lucia, with pride, that he had cleaned a whole area of the lawn corresponding to the entrance, Lucia got angry because she felt inside that it was like a sort of accusation, a tone she didn’t like, as if he had said “you didn’t do it, I did it”.

Figure 8 – extraction of emotional states from the same textual passage

Paolo and Lucia last night around 7:30 p.m. had an argument because there was some grass to remove from the garden and Paolo did it but got tired of it, when he told Lucia, with pride, that he had cleaned a whole area of the lawn corresponding to the entrance, Lucia got angry because she felt inside that it was like a sort of accusation, a tone she didn’t like, as if he had said “you didn’t do it, I did it”.

When we move on to video excerpts, or real-time human interactions, we have to get even better at it, because emotions can be “hidden” behind micro-expressions, small involuntary facial cues, or can instead become very manifest and verbalized.

When we listen, we can pay attention to one, the other, or both. Being able to grasp both is surely better. Behind listening to emotions there is a vision of man as a creature that “feels” and not just as a creature that “reasons.”

When dealing with people, remember that we are not dealing with people with logic. 

We are dealing with creatures with emotions.

 (Dale Carnegie)

It may seem strange to underestimate the logical part of the human being, but we must realize that, according to neuroscience, only 2% of the mental calculation capabilities are available for conscious and rational reasoning, and the rest is divided between data necessary to run the “biological machine” heart, lungs, breathing, and millions of processes, and subconscious data, on which emotions are grafted, whether we want them to or not. Remember that even an emotion is to some extent a data, but it goes without saying that it is one thing to ask active questions starting from the sentence “I bought 4 kilos of fish” and another to do it to deepen the sentence “in this period I feel full of hope but also of remorse“.

Emotions are expressed both with words, but much more so through facial microexpressions, body signals, and voice state (paralinguistics), than through the verbal component. 

Words alone do not convey emotion if they are not accompanied by an appropriate context. The way they are said, much more so. But they are not usually “said.” They simply manifest themselves in non-verbal behavior, in facial expressions. And even if not said, they need to be “heard.”

The most important thing in communication is 

Listen to what isn’t being said.

 (Peter F. Drucker)

Listening to data or listening to emotions qualifies the difference between data-centered informational listening and psychologically oriented listening. Listening to data is not the same as picking up emotional states. In fact, we can apply psychological listening or technical-informational listening. An advanced negotiator and a high-level salesperson will be able to apply the correct level of listening, or both, depending on the situation, without entering into a predetermined, stereotypical, rigid listening state.

This is also true for a parent who wants to listen to a child about how they are doing in school, fixating on grades and data as if filling out an Excel spreadsheet, or trying to understand moods and relationships.

Learning to listen well is possible, with care, with practice, with passion and willingness, making mistakes, and always starting over.

Always be like the sea, which breaks against the rocks and always finds the strength to try again.

Jim Morrison

1. Empathy and empathic communication: the four levels of empathy in the ALM/HPM method 

…sometimes you talk to the world and the world doesn’t seem to hear… ….

other times the world is talking to us and we are somewhere else.

Daniele Trevisani

Empathy is that state of “mental presence,” where “I am here, with you,” alongside a human being we want to fully understand. 

As such, it has a possibility of limited duration, that of an interview, but its effect can last forever, as with any memory or experience. Empathy is based on the fact of strongly wanting to be present, a mental presence that takes in every nuance and detail of what is said, of the nonverbal, of the paralinguistic, trying to understand its meaning, until you get to understand the “story” of a person and his “salient episodes, positive and negative”. It can also come to a total understanding of a person’s “state of mind,” beyond any verbal etiquette, beyond any possibility of expression.

In the ALM (business development) and HPM (personal development) method, a special model of empathy is elaborated, with a typology initially exposed in the volume Intercultural Negotiation.

Fig. 1 – Types of empathy based on observation angles

  • Behavioralempathy: understanding behaviors and their causes, understanding the why of the behavior and the chains of related behaviors.
  • Emotional empathy: being able to perceive the emotions experienced by others, understand what emotions the subject feels (what emotion is in the circle), of what intensity, what emotional mix the interlocutor lives, how emotions are associated with people, objects, facts, internal or external situations that the other lives.
  • Relational empathy: understanding the map of the subject’s relationships and their affective values, understanding with whom the subject relates voluntarily or out of obligation, with whom he must relate in order to make decisions, work or live, what is his map of “significant others”, referents, interlocutors, “relevant others” and influencers that affect his decisions, with whom he gets along and who does not, who affects his professional (and in some cases personal) life.
  • Cognitive empathy (or cognitive prototypes): understanding the cognitive prototypes active at a given moment in time, the beliefs, values, ideologies, and mental structures that the subject possesses and attaches to.

Article translated by dott. Federica Vazquez, 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.

Other online material available in these sites:

Other available online resources

CIELS Institutional Website: https://www.ciels.it/

The Scale of Listening Levels

Article translated by dott. Federica Vazquez, 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.

2.1.Negative listening modes: when and how to give the worst of yourself by getting everything wrong in listening 

What is the difference between question and accusation?

An accusation is one that is not answered; a question is answered.

from the movie “The Marauders” by Steven C. Miller

A visual tool is very useful to understand immediately that there is a real “scale” in the levels of listening and in the quality of listening. From a critical listening to an empathic listening, the difference is considerable and tangible. This scale is shown in the next figure. In it, we see a progression towards improvement in listening levels as we move up the scale.

Let’s start with the decidedly negative levels: The negative elements of listening are the ones that make you feel bad when you experience them. They generate the feeling of not being understood, or neglected, or not considered for what is said or even as a person. They go against, in practice, a basic need of every human being: to be understood. A need as strong as the need for air.

To be at your worst in listening, it is enough to interrupt, judge, not listen, get distracted, listen while watching TV or typing on a smartphone, do not look at people, distort every possible interpretation, in short, a whole baggage of errors just mentioned here, which you can explore better below.

Perhaps one did not so much wish to be loved as to be understood. 
(George Orwell)

2.2.Shielded or distorted listening 

Screened listening blocks or amputates part of the data coming from the auditory channel and distorts it, as it does for the other channels: sight, touch, taste, smell. The outcome is not understanding, not paying attention, distorting the incoming data. Literally, understanding one thing for another. It happens when you are too tired to listen, or the listener is experiencing an emotional state that is not appropriate for quality listening (e.g. anger, frustration, euphoria, passion, and many other strong emotions) and there are internal states that stand in the way of quality listening.

You will have very often been on the other side, in the role of the person speaking, and not understood at all, or even completely misunderstood. Well, you now have a definite label for this condition.

2.3. Judgmental/aggressive listening 

Being misunderstood by those we love is the worst condition for living and facing life’s commitments every day. Misunderstanding weighs like a mountain and traces deep furrows on the soul.

 (Romano Battaglia)

Judgmental/aggressive listening is characterized by the fact that the receiver does not really listen but, gathers snippets of information and then immediately makes judgments and judgements. When it affects us, we can say that we are “putting up a wall” towards the other person, such that it doesn’t even matter what they say, how they say it, it’s all wrong “regardless”. What we can call a “negative reverberation” can either touch on “what you said on topic x is nonsense”, or go straight to the heart, attacking the person themselves and not their phrase “you are an egocentric and don’t understand anything”. 

This second form of offense is much more serious than the first because it involves the person in his or her totality: “you are”, and not in a delimited action “you do x and I don’t like that x”. Judgmental listening is done with words, but not only. It can also emerge from a very subtle grimace emitted in a non-verbal way, such as “turning up one’s nose” during an affirmation that one does not approve of, and it is not to be confused with emotional participation in what the other person is saying. Aggressive listening triggers the aggression-hate spiral. It is truly an enemy of human relationships and humanity more generally.

Peace cannot be maintained by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.

 (Albert Einstein)

2.4. Apathetic or passive listening 

That there are worse things than an absence. A distracted presence.

 (manuela_reich, Twitter)

Apathetic or passive listening is characterized by our or others’ “mental absence,” and is negative. Devoid of energy, tired, “dead”, switched off, distracted. It is an empty listening of signals, practiced by a person who is disinterested, or incapable of listening, often totally absorbed by his internal processes, by his inner reasoning, in which the words heard do not make a breach. Like throwing darts at an armored safe, those darts shatter and fall. Nothing really gets in. Communication and messages only touch these people, and to say that they will understand little of what is said is to give them a gift.

Article translated by dott. Federica Vazquez, 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.

Other online material available in these sites:

Other available online resources

CIELS Institutional Website: https://www.ciels.it/

Ch. 8 – Empathy and empathic listening techniques

Articolo tradotto dal libro “Parliamoci chiaro” estratto e pubblicato con il permesso dell’autore, Prof. Daniele Trevisani www.danieletrevisani.it www.comunicazioneaziendale.it –

Articolo redatto a cura di Dott.ssa Giada Bonsi, CIELS Padova

Ch. 8 – Empathy and empathic listening techniques

Listening is one of the most critical skills in negotiation and selling. The classic stereotype of the seller intent on “talking over the other”, on “winning the conversation”, on always having the last word, is wrong.

The empathic approach has the opposite idea: listening deeply to understand the mental map of our interlocutor, his belief system, and finding the psychological spaces to insert a proposal.

In the ALM method we distinguish some main types of empathy:

Based on observation angles:

  • Behavioural empathy: understanding behaviours and their causes, understanding the why of the behaviour and the chains of related behaviours.
  • Emotional empathy: being able to perceive the emotions experienced by others, understanding what emotions the subject feels (which emotion is in the circle), of what intensity, what emotional mix the interlocutor experiences, how emotions are associated with people, objects, facts, internal or external situations experienced by the other.
  • Relational empathy: understanding the map of the subject’s relationships and their affective values, understanding with whom the subject relates voluntarily or by obligation, with whom he has to relate in order to make decisions, work or live, what is his map of “significant others”, of referents, of interlocutors, of “relevant others” and influencers who affect his decisions, with whom he gets along and who does not, who affects his professional (and in some cases personal) life.
  • Cognitive empathy (or of the cognitive prototypes): understanding the cognitive prototypes active at a given moment in time, the beliefs, values, ideologies, mental structures that the subject possesses and to which he anchors.

Fonte: Articolo tradotto dal libro “Parliamoci chiaro” estratto e pubblicato con il permesso dell’autore, Prof. Daniele Trevisaniwww.danieletrevisani.itwww.comunicazioneaziendale.it –

Articolo redatto a cura di Dott.ssa Giada Bonsi, CIELS Padova