Listening, empathy, emotions, conversational leadership

Article 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.

1.2.        Howell’s climb. Steps towards fluidity

If you were born with wings, I don’t see why you should crawl

if you were born with wings, I don’t see why you shouldn’t try to use them

if you are not born with wings, but you really want them, they will grow

until you don’t even notice you’re using them.

and you will fly high in the sky, free.

As highlighted in “Il Coraggio delle Emozioni”[1], Howell’s studies[2] summarise the human being’s climb towards higher level competences, well exposed in Howell’s Staircase model.

This climb also applies to emotional and empathic listening skills. The different statuses can be extended to the field of training, Coaching or counselling. Let’s see their nature:

Picture 3 – Schematic visualisation of the Staircase of Competences

  1. unconscious incompetence: what I don’t know, elements or gaps that escape my consciousness, my self-awareness;
  2. conscious incompetence: gaps of which I have become aware; becoming aware of a previously unknown lack of skills can be emotionally painful but it’s a necessary stage for learning;
  3. conscious competences: what I know I know; execution is possible but a conscious attention must still be paid to the mechanisms, to the process at hand;
  4. unconscious competences: what I do without having to think about it. The execution takes place without having to think consciously, it uses psycho-motor and/or linguistic patterns already acquired, and this is why it requires a small or limited effort. It is based on a strong mastery of the mechanisms in action. It highlights the presence of mastery in skills, an internalised, definitively acquired ability;
  5. super-competences: the level of maximum mastery combined with an extreme technique training and personal skills that are out of the ordinary, which differentiates a key-performer, a star performer, from others, although they are good. It also includes intuition, bodily intelligence, multiple intelligences that converge to form the world’s best pilots, the world’s best musicians, the world’s best surgeons, the world’s best dancers, and any other kind of person who excels beyond the norm in his or her field.

Howell’s model was originally designed to study a ranking of states of intercultural empathy. Howell intended to study the different levels of a person’s ability to adapt them to a different cultural context (overcoming the difficulties that come with settling in a non-native country): when can I move well and smoothly within a culture, having incorporated and understood it completely?

This question was the starting point, but the model was then taken up by many as a general scheme of learning degrees in every field, sport, management, education.

William Howell and Stella Ting-Toomey also subsequently introduced a fifth category, Unconscious Super-Competence, to highlight those who, in a process of adaptation, manage to develop skills that are clearly above average, exceptional, above the limit.

The validity of this scale is wide, it concerns all kinds of learning in life. It helps us to ask where we are, or where we have stopped, and, above all, invites us to reflect on the fact that there is room for improvement everywhere and at all times. Also in learning to manage our emotions and develop empathy.

1.3.        Knowing how to ‘read’ people. A return to our ancestral sensibilities

In our DNA there is an inherent part of us that is interested in what others say. If only for personal interest.

One of our main ancestral preoccupations is to understand whether or not a person is dangerous to us, based on the communication signals we receive. Another very concrete preoccupation of a more everyday nature is to understand whether or not a person is credible, whether or not we can give them credit, based on how he/she communicates, the communication channels he/she uses, the signs and signals he/she emits[3].

Knowing how to read a person in an instant means grasping what, in that ‘frame’ of time, a second, or a few minutes, the person is ’emitting’ about him/herself. And so we will be able to capture words, but also and above all emotional states, states of mind, by reading faces, reading the body, listening to the non-voice, the timbre, the vocality, even before the words.

Even from a photo you can tell something. You can also ‘listen’ to a photo, yes. Or a painting, or a piece of music, or a landscape.

Of a person, at work, we might trust what is written on his or her business card, but we insist on looking also at his or her posture, straight or curved back, chin and sad or proud eyes, to understand if he or she is proud of that card is handing to you, or if it is a burden for him or her.

Let’s even say that we are curious by nature, because survival requires knowing things, understanding who is hostile or friendly, and knowing how to do it in a fraction of a second, like the real hunters/gatherers we were, by looking, observing eyes, movements, intentions.

Instinctively smelling situations before ‘understanding them rationally’.

This is part of that Unconscious Intelligence, a form of intelligence that in this book we are adding to the many Multiple Intelligences we have, mental and bodily resources so well exposed by Howard Gardner[4].

Freud has already spoken of unconscious intelligence (calling it ‘Unbewussten Verständnis’, or ‘unconscious understanding‘), but without highlighting it as a resource available to all of us, and the philosopher Schelling (1775-1854) speaks of it even earlier,[5] identifying it as an ‘intelligence of nature’, but once again without considering it for what it may be, our most precious resource. But we want to do it. Gardner showed how the phenomenon of ‘intelligence’ can be broken down into a varied series of distinct human abilities, therefore of different intelligences: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, personal and Interpersonal[6], adding later, the Intra-personal one related to knowing oneself.

Close to Inter-personal Intelligence, we add in this volume the category of Unconscious Intelligence, which we consider here as a real skill, a trainable competence for active listening, deriving from a stronger connection and training in the dialogue between the Neocortex (a recent part of the brain development), and other ancient areas such as the reptilian brain and the pre-mammalian brain, areas very able to pick up subtle and instinctive information.

And here we are: on the animal side of man, on his ‘reading the gaze’, on his ‘listening also to the unspoken’.

Knowing how to read people, their purposes, requires a return to ancestral skills, when attraction was signalled with eyes to other eyes, and not with a social profile. Now, more than ever, it is time to learn how to read people again. Because, on the one hand, we are losing the ability to recognise ‘bad guys’ or enemies, and on the other hand, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater and perhaps we say NO to someone who can do us no harm and may even bring us value.

[1] “Il coraggio delle emozioni. Energie per la vita, la comunicazione e la crescita personale“, di Daniele Trevisani, Franco Angeli editore, 2015

[2] Howell, William S. (1982). The empathic communicator. University of Minnesota: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

[3] Weigold, Michael & Trevisani, Daniele (1993). Mass Media, image and persuasion: The indirect effect of communication channels on source credibility and message acceptance. Paper presented at the Annual meeting of the Association For Education In Journalism And Mass Communication, Kansas City, MO, USA, (1993, August).

[4] Howard Gardner (1983), Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Edition Hachette UK, 2011.

[5] Friedrich Schelling, Vom Ich als Prinzip der Philosophie oder über das Unbedingte im menschlichen Wissen (The self as the principle of Philosophy or the foundation of human knowledge), 1795

Friedrich Schelling, Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur (Ideas for a philosophy of nature), 1797

[6] Howard Gardner (2010), Formae mentis. Saggio sulla pluralità dell’intelligenza. Feltrinelli, Milano.


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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1. Speak clearly and use positive communication. The 4 Distances Model

Articolo tradotto dal libro “Parliamoci chiaro”, estratto e pubblicato con il permesso dell’autore Prof. Daniele Trevisani, – Articolo redatto a cura di: dott.ssa Laura Pilli, CIELS Padova

… if you do not accept a life of mediocricity, a mediocre communication, among empty, dull lives, masks and shadows, you will find your way… because you will seek it every day as a flower seeks the light.

Daniele Trevisani

What is a positive conversation? It is a form of meeting from which we come out happy. And not so much for what we brought home, but for how we felt, for what we managed to build, for that positive future of which that piece of conversation became a piece, and for the pleasure that piece of life itself gave us.

On the other hand, a negative conversation is full of misunderstandings, bad emotional states, greyness. It is ‘communicative entropy’ (confusion about the meanings and purposes of communication), and it produces a drain on our most precious strengths and resources: personal energies, emotions, time.

Today’s words are often ‘sick’, they have lost the deep and strong meaning they used to have. Abused and forced, they went off.

The word ‘Love’ has many meanings; we say we love ice cream, a pair of jeans or a particular movie. We have abused that word and now we have to heal it: words can get sick and can lose their original meaning; we have to detoxify them and bring them back to health.

Thich Nhat Hanh[1]

An healthy, well-functioning communication succeeds in getting messages across with words, gestures, symbols, and succeeds in getting the original meaning across ‘cleanly’, without misunderstanding. A sick communication, on the other hand, causes the original message to arrive ‘distorted’, amputated, modified, even opposed to the sender’s intentions. From here to the arrival of misunderstanding, conflict, between people, groups and even nations, it is a short step.

We need a model to guide us through the meanders of what goes on in a conversation, which is difficult but not impossible, and the Four Distances Model is designed to do that.

Decide to ‘take charge’ of your own communication skills, and work on them, is a courageous, noble act, worthy of people with a strong moral character.

“When a man decides to do something, he must go all the way but he must also take responsibility for what he does. Whatever he does, he must first know why he does it, and then he must go ahead with his actions without doubt or remorse. In a world where death is chasing us, there is no time for regrets or doubts. There is only time for decisions.”

Carlos Castaneda, “Teachings of Don Juan”

“To build” something positive with communication is not obvious, very often one word, one look, is enough to build, and another is enough to destroy or damage.

Communication is an act that can generate a wonderful, positive, happy experience of great sharing beyond all forms of separation and barriers. But it is an achievement.

Those who ‘pretend’ that differences between people do not exist or do not matter are hiding the reality of the situation. Much better to consider this reality and treat it for what it is, with courage.

A fundamental point to be clarified immediately is that communication is not a message “thrown into space” that will never be answered, but a form of continuous interaction, a real conversation in which senders and receivers are always active. Hundreds and thousands of micro-communications take place between them, each of which may be clear or may lead to confusion, misunderstandings or negative emotional states.

To start a positive communication, therefore, we have to take care of the individual communication ‘frames’, just as someone takes care of a delicate flower in a greenhouse, flower after flower, plant after plant.

Each of us has his or her own interests, needs, requirements, and these ooze and seep into our every interaction. The human communication is a tool, and sometimes it is the only tool we have, to get the resources for our survival, or to get what we want in life, to achieve goals, and to rejoice for the results that communication can bring us.

Take away a man’s ability to communicate, and he will become a stone.

But as we all know, it is not enough to communicate “just to do”, it is not enough to ask in order to receive. Those who think that everything will come automatically, that everyone will always say yes and agree, perhaps have in mind a communication model in which a master commands and the slaves silently execute. A condition of communicative submission that has a little room in our hearts.

In the real life, the possibility of enslavement is fortunately increasingly remote, though not eradicated. The probability that it is necessary to be clear, or persuasive, or to communicate clearly and assertively, is much more concrete and real, especially in business and family environments.

Also because slavery today takes subtle and new forms, such as living in emotionally toxic climates without being able to get out of them, or psychological dependence on people we would like to do without, and the inability to be clear and convincing about our rights, and in the projects we work on. For this reason, it is good to take advantage of the methods we will learn about here.

Communication only ever makes sense when it is done to increase happiness, satisfaction, pleasure, positivity, and helps us to identify them, and not to fuel division, conflict, disease.

It is a first big step towards self-knowledge to be able to recognise what makes you happy.
(Lucille Ball)

In communication, the possibility of a misunderstanding, disagreement, communication difficulty or problem is always real and concrete. On the contrary, we are certain that communications can give rise to misunderstandings and conflicts, even serious ones, precisely because they take place in conditions of cultural differences, even slight ones, or in any case of diversity between people, and this, if attention and sensitivity are not paid, will happen.

Talking clearly is therefore also an invitation to confront the psychological and communicative distances that can exist between us and other people, in order to find that ‘effective relational distance’ in which we can communicate well, with respect for ourselves and others. The Four Distances Model helps us precisely to understand what the four major “traps” can be, the types of relational distance we can encounter in communication, but also, and consequently, the drivers of positive communication and strategies to communicate better.

Every time we interact with a person who is even slightly different from us, a few years older than us, a different geographical origin, a different school attended, a different education, a different emotional state, we are in the presence of a certain degree of diversity and this imposes on us the need to adjust our communication. If there are strong ethnic, religious and cultural differences in the underlying ideologies, it becomes even more difficult.

The differences between communicators do not end there. There can be strong differences in the emotional states that I experience and the other person experiences, different personality types that interact with each other and sometimes embrace and make sparks. While communicating, we have diversities in mood, in emotions, in how we feel even physically, diversities and barriers that interact with each other, complicating everything.

Rather than a ‘simple communication’, with even a moderate amount of diversity between people, we should speak and think in terms of ‘strategic communication’.

In a communication that becomes strategic, the concept of “Information Operations” or “Info-Ops” makes its way in, a concept of military derivation, but which gives a good picture of the situation: information and communications, in conditions of diversity, have an aim, they work better if they are planned, if they are architected, and when there is a certain attitude of attention, sensitivity and planning, at least to how to make sure that the message can be accepted by the cultural and ideological filters of those who receive it, and not blocked immediately.

Strategic communication requires models. Models that help to analyse communication, models for constructing messages, models for refined listening and understanding.

Acknowledging that diversities exist and require courage. To want, despite this diversity, to try to build something together is an act of courage.

Courage cannot be counterfeited; it is a virtue that escapes hypocrisy.
(Honoré de Balzac)

To deny diversity between people, and cultural differences on the basis of good ideologies, is instead a great act of intellectual falsehood.

Behind communication there is a huge amount of misunderstanding, miscommunication and misinterpretation, both in the issuing and in the listening phase.

There is not yet a ‘model of incommunicability’ that examines and clarifies this rising tide of unintentional and intentional leaks, communication errors and gaffes, and helps to recognise them, and a step in this direction is the purpose of this volume.

It is an even more urgent purpose because this globalised world puts us face to face with the challenge of a constantly globalised communication, between people thousands of kilometres apart, but also people who are physically close, but culturally and emotionally light years apart.

If we do not accept this reality as a fact, we will never include in our analyses the real elusive factor: the latent diversity between people, the cultural differences and distances between people, and how these factors impact on communication, turning it into – on the one hand – a smooth and pleasant communication, producing agreement and understanding – on the opposite side an unpleasant, conflictual, difficult to digest communication, and its outcomes: disagreement, misunderstanding, incommunicability, mutual hatred and conflict.


Dr. Daniele Trevisani

– Master of Arts in Mass Communication, University of Florida (USA)

– Fulbright Scholar, Intercultural Communication, American University of Washington, DC (USA)

– Certified Advanced Coach by STEP™

– Certified Counselor by STEP™

– Certified Coaching Supervisor by STEP™

– Certified Counseling Supervisor by STEP™

– Master Trainer HPM™ Human Potential Method

– Master Trainer ALM™ Business Coaching Method

– Master Trainer 4DM™ Intercultural Communication Method

[1] Thich Nhat Hanh (2014). Sono qui per te. Per una relazione d’amore duratura e consapevole. Terra Nuova Edizioni, p. 76