Empathy and Active Listening

The power of listening 

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

Knowing how to grasp emotional resonances, towards “sensitive listening” 

The power of listening, we will say at once, is above all the ability to see beyond words. Seeing the other person’s cards to play better and not in the dark. Listening, the real kind, the kind that “half-opens” communication and the communicator to look inside, is an extremely powerful weapon. It unmasks lies and falsehoods, it prevents mental fog from entering conversations, because it can recognise it. 

It is so easy to tell lies to those who do not know how to listen well, to those who let themselves be carried away by rhetoric and status, and who do not get to the bottom of the message to grasp its truth. 

Attentive listening is the anti-persuasive weapon par excellence, just as distracted listening is a slave to status and roles and is the main way to get subliminal messages into your head that persuade you without you realising it. Listening takes over when negotiating with internal and external customers, with stakeholders (the various stakeholders that revolve around the life of a person or a company), it manifests itself in the family, between couples, between parents and children, between friends, with people of the same and different cultures. 

The power of listening is equal to that of playing cards by being able to see your opponent’s cards. We read people better, we read situations better. We see better. 

It can be used to cure (Carl Rogers, in his Client-Centred Therapy, makes it the central tool for psychotherapeutic healing14) or to persuade (study of a target audience and strategic empathy), to plan, as in project management, to fully understand a person’s desires and objectives and “what is in their head”, and to make wiser group decisions without anyone feeling excluded or unheard.  

Even difficult decisions and decisions in critical conditions use the power of listening. Because listening, except in an interrogation, is a state of mind of spaciousness for the words of others, for the emotions of others, for the stories of others. 

Anger and intolerance are the enemies of right understanding. 

 (Mahatma Gandhi) 

Certainly, we can say that people who can listen have a competitive advantage over others. They can grasp more information, they can perceive more, they can enter neural connections with other minds, they can have the option to listen or not, to their liking, while those who do not know how to listen have only one option: not to listen, or to listen very badly, and as Malcolm X specified, “those who listen to nothing will fall for anything.”  

In every conversation, a listening phase takes place, there is always a ‘part’ of us listening, whether we are aware of it or not, and implicit ‘manoeuvring’ takes place.  

Who speaks first? Who listens to whom? For how long? With what purposes? Implicit purposes? Explicit purposes? And what perceptions will the other have? What formats does this conversation have, beyond the individual words? Is it a ‘plea’, is it a ‘self-celebration’, is it an ‘attack on the cruel world’? 

What do we understand about a person when we have listened to them well? We understand how they think and their state of mind, right down to their personality. And having understood those, we have understood 90% of the person. 

Emotional resonances are ‘echoes of emotions’ that seem to come from afar but bring new content to a different level and enrich the listening experience. There are at least ten ways of saying “everything is fine” when faced with the question “How are you today?”, and those ten different nuances come from the emotional resonances that reverberate in the person and are associated with the words. Try it to believe it. It is possible to practice ‘hearing’ emotional resonances, to get as close as possible to the truth of things. While traditional listening focuses on words, empathic listening focuses more on capturing emotions. The other person’s emotions have a vibration, a reverberation, ours too, and a real moment of resonance is created. 

When I understand that emotions are resonating in the other person, we are in sensitive listening. When I start to take an interest, to try to understand what kind of emotions are resonating, we are entering empathic listening. 

Each of the main publications I have written15, each line, contains possible worlds of interpretation. To feel that there is a flow, to decide that you want to decode a text, a word, a sentence, a conversation, is to be able to listen with the heart and not only with the mind. 

In physics, this phenomenon is called an ‘interference pattern between two singular sources’, and what physicists call interference, to us may instead be richness and sensitivity. In the arts, the pattern is called vesica piscis or almond, a symbol of ogive shape obtained from two circles of the same radius, intersecting in such a way that the centre of each circle lies on the circumference of the other. 

The name literally means fish bladder in Latin. For us, it becomes important because it represents the “entrance” into the door of other people’s emotions, the basis of all empathic listening. Empathic listening is about: 

  • The nature of emotions (What emotion do I feel when I listen?);  
  • The multiplicity of emotions (How many emotions do I feel? Which ones are included?);  
  • the strength of the emotions (How strong are the emotions I feel in the other person: peripheral, intermediate, central?), and  
  • what moves them (What could be the reason for the emotional state I feel in the other person?).  

This is just a beginning of empathic listening, which we can call “sensitive listening”. Moving on to empathic listening then requires specific questions, specific rephrasing, and an appropriate context. But let us stick to sensitive listening. 

A family member tells us “I would like to change job”. But he does not say it with enthusiasm, we grasp an emotional resonance of sadness, melancholy. 

If we are in the empathic phase, we will ask questions, we will try to understand, for example, if this search is motivated by dissatisfaction with the current job, and if so, what causes it.  

We will also come to understand what the person is looking for in a new job, whether he/she wants to travel or not, what characteristics his/her ideal job should have, and whether the person feels mentally up to it – as a personal power (self-efficacy) – to start a real job search. We will have, basically, helped that person, starting from an emotional resonance. 

Our awareness of how quality listening works, the ability to activate active listening, and above all the full awareness of all its enormous nuances and emotional variables, will influence our lives. Listening already affects us today, in every negotiation and in our professional lives, and even in our wider existence as human beings, from birth to our last breath. Listening is with us, always. Whether we want it to be or not. We listen to our emotional resonances as we talk. We make great discoveries. 

Listening also enters companies, into consultative sales relationships. A strong helping relationship, centred on listening to the client, is the basis of any honest, authentic, sincere, and professional consultative sales methodology. It is no wonder that, in the absence of the ability to listen, many sales situations can be described as “putting on the memorized song” and talking over the client’s head, regardless of what they really need. 

At the heart of any true consultancy process, be it medical, professional, technical, or human, is listening, the ability to bring out data and situations that help to make a useful, contributory, effective proposal.  

When we hear or perceive something that resonates within us, we have listened. 


If what I say resonates with you, it’s merely because we’re branches of the same tree. 

 (William Butler Yeats) 


Seeking resonance and listening also applies to strategic professionals. In the case of sales, the listening technique is transformed into real coaching of the customer, who is helped to make progress and improvements thanks to our active listening actions. Active listening is always the “mother of all reflections”. It does not change much if we move towards examining the listening skills of a doctor towards a patient.  

How many times have you felt you were listened to fully, thoroughly, and without rushing to conclusions?  

The technical times of health care do not always make this possible, but the problem is that – even if there were time – doctors do not “know how to do it”, they are not equipped, nor have they been trained during their studies, with the ability to listen in depth that is needed. And I can say this, having taught Doctor-Patient Communication in numerous Master courses for doctors16. Their first discovery, with practical listening exercises, about not being able to listen, often shocked them. 

Companies, on the other hand, often think they are “listening” to us by making us fill in questionnaires or using automatic responders, which certainly does not help to create an empathetic bond with the customer. 

With questionnaires and online forms, so distant, so cold, it is difficult to create the emotional resonance that only active listening can create. 

Listening also comes into play in leadership, because it is one thing to give orders to people without knowing what impact and adherence we will find, and quite another to give instructions, deliveries or delegations having a noticeably clear imagine of how people think and what they may or may not accept or see as feasible. 

If listening were a river, we would have a simple listening, which is limited to looking at the water passively and distractedly, and an empathic listening “beyond words”, which goes to observe with attention also the different colours and nuances of the water flow, the banks, the inlets, the vegetation surrounding it, the subtle eddies of the water, a boat, a transported log, and the speed of the current, and all the possible flow of signals we see in the environment. 

To offer a first contribution of method, let us now examine a first visual scale of listening levels, useful to fix some points from the beginning. A scale for listening levels is necessarily a reduction, compared to the complexity of such a vast and enormous phenomenon. And yet, if this reduction helps us to make progress in training, then it is welcome. This scale can help us defend ourselves against aggressive listening or activate empathic listening. The choice is ours. 

Because the important thing is to have the option and to be able to choose. 

© 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.

This article about the Power of Listening is about

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