Empathy and Active Listening

Listening Beyond Words

Copyright by Dr. Daniele Trevisani. Article extracted with author’s permission from the book “Ascolto attivo ed Empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace” (translated title: “Active Listening and Empathy: The Secretes of Effective Communication”. The book’s rights are on sale in any language. Please contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani for information at the website

Paths to empathic listening

It is one thing to know the right path, another to take it. 

Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) 

from the movie “Matrix” by Andy Wachowski 

We all know that listening is important, but few do it, and of those few, even fewer are those trained in empathy, which means “trained” to technically develop empathy and empathic listening. Sometimes it takes knowing how to do it methodically, and not just by natural aptitude. 

If you happen to have a person “feeling you by the skin of their teeth,” and you “feel by the skin of your teeth” that they are understanding, you are experiencing a moment of listening beyond words. Magical moments. Listening is absolutely beyond words. Listening is everything that enters us and to which we attribute meaning. Listening then, becomes perception, and it can become “heightened perception” if we enhance it. We can even come to understand more about a person than he understands about himself, because listening, practiced from the outside, is able to grasp elements that a person constantly experiences, but of which he is not aware.  

It’s like walking around all your life with a sign behind your back. Everyone sees it but you. Personality is like that sign. 

Equally hidden are the deeper beliefs. For those peripheral ones, preferences, what you like or dislike, can be picked up from details, with a simple observation of the raising of your nose muscles (as when you smell something unwelcome), and are rarely verbalized in public. Yet, careful nonverbal listening will pick them up.  

When we observe all of this and not just the words, we are practicing “listening beyond the words,” augmented perception. 

Augmented perception means “knowing how to read people“, knowing how to pick up on signals, words, unspoken phrases, gestures, symbols, hints. 

He knew how to listen, and he knew how to read.  

Not books, they are all good, he knew how to read people. 

 (Alessandro Baricco) 

Augmented perception can even go so far as to enhance the sensory systems themselves, making a trained person able to listen for changes in vocal stress (lie or embarrassment signalling), something that typically only specific software can do.  

Augmented perception can lead you to pick up on facial micro-expressions lasting less than 1/10th of a second, so brief, yet so significant, such as the raising of an eyebrow muscle, or a lip muscle, an indicator of interest, or surprise, or alarm. And there is no doubt that when we are sharper in grasping, in perceiving, in listening, we become different people, ourselves. We change within. 

Listening can then be defined as “empathic” when we have really managed to “get inside a person’s head”, understand how they think, understand how they reason, grasp the nuances of their thinking, and understand why they think the way they do, “from inside” their belief system, convictions and emotions.  

This concerns not only simple matters, but also something that seems very strange to us, something arcane that with empathic listening we can understand, because we have managed to grasp the internal logic that the person is using. 

Listening is one of the phases of a “conversation”, of a dialogue, of a relationship. Often, it is the most important. And the most neglected. Listening is an act of gift, understanding a person is a form of gift, and it can turn into a strategic act (for example, in a negotiation) but basically and in daily life, it can be considered a great gift. 

I call religious the one who understands the suffering of others. 

 (Mahatma Gandhi) 

Listening is absolutely not limited to wanting to understand the suffering of others (a theme that touches on psychotherapy, counselling, and helping relationships), but can also enter into increasing the performance of athletes, athletes, managers, businesses and teams, when listening is used as a primary weapon in good performance coaching. 

Empathy, then, also becomes a powerful weapon for overcoming the biggest challenges in our lives, or those of a client. 

© Article translated from the book “Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace“. copyright Dr. Daniele Trevisani Intercultural Negotiation Training and Coaching, published with the author’s permission. The Book’s rights are on sale and are available. If you are interested in publishing the book in any language, or seek Intercultural Negotiation Training, Coaching, Mentoring and Consulting, please feel free to contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani.