Empathy and Active Listening

Listening, empathy, emotions, conversational leadership

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 right is on sale in any language. Please contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani for information at the website


People do not listen, they just wait for their turn to talk. (Chuck Palahniuk)

Effective listening essentially has two meanings:

1) when listening has been useful to gather information and better understand the state of things, facts, and people;

2) when listening has been a pleasant, welcoming moment of relationship, in which we were able to act as an emotional container for the person.

When these two situations occur, we are experiencing effective listening. It is a quite rare situation. During a lifetime, no gold is as rare and as precious as someone who understands you. Some questions can be useful: Have you ever had the feeling that a person is not listening to you? That they do not want to hear you, or that they cannot hear you at all? Or have you ever felt that while you are talking, the other one is saying things halfway, not saying everything, holding something back?

Out of willingness, sometimes, or out of incapacity, or out of fear, who knows? Have you ever felt that persons you are talking, give a false idea of themselves, practising some form of “Impressions Management” (creating an artificial image of themselves)?

Have you ever intended to talk to someone in order to deepen a certain theme or situation, while the person continues to escape, run away, avoid? Have you ever felt the presence of a ‘core‘ behind a person’s talk, of content – ideas, opinions, projects – which is only observed in transparency, but does not emerge, no matter how hard the person tries to explain himself?

If you have ever experienced even one of these situations, you had been practising ‘listening beyond words‘, ‘heightened perception‘ and approached or approached the topics of active listening and empathy. Moreover, if there were interests at stake, you have experienced the importance of Conversational Leadership and the ability to direct the course of a conversation. In your own life, you have also experienced, how rare active listening is, and that being listened to is quite rare, compared to normal life where everything is rushing, and there is no time for anything.

Rather than blaming others for what they do or do not do, for whoever wants to, the main goal of this book is offering tools to improve your listening, whether at work or in everyday life, and practice quality listening, active listening, and empathic listening. The spirit of Virgil’s words, his invitation to always seek to understand, is the foundation that runs throughout this book: the underlying value that inspires us to practice active listening. You can be tired of everything, but not of understanding. (Virgil)

Listening is perception, and perceiving for us is normal, physiological.

You did it hundreds and thousands of times, even just observing people in how they are dressed or how they walk – inevitably. You did it whether you wanted to or not. As perception has become very superficial, so has listening. This is what matters, dishonourable because acute perception is a privileged path to truth.

Conversational leadership is the ability to restore the power of listening, to direct the conversation on the issues that interest us, or on the formats that we want to strategically activate (and listening is one of them). Why is leadership important for listening skills? Because leadership is a voluntary act, and in this volume, listening is considered a voluntary act, decided by the listener, not a random act likely to happen without paying attention. Human beings are endowed with natural listening skills, they use their hearing ability to understand sounds and words, because this is vital for their survival.

If we did not know how to listen, neither to sounds nor to intentions (e.g., aggressive, hostile, or friendly), we would already be extinct. It is believed that it takes courage to stand up and speak out, to have one is said. Well, very often it also takes courage to put our mind there, where we are now, to listen and look inside the soul and mind of a person. There is also courage in listening. Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. (Sir Winston Churchill)

Listen to emotions: emotions and communication

Emotions and communication are strongly related.

Emotions and communication

In addition to the verbal data (objects, subjects, verbs, adjectives, and other speech elements), we can always notice an emotional background in communication (the outer part of Plutchik’s wheel presented below). Sometimes this background becomes more intense, and we can almost ‘feel’ or ‘perceive’ better the emotional background than single words (area of intermediate emotions). When we enter the extreme emotions area, the intense ones are placed in the middle of the model, words become almost useless, because we are inundated by the emotion coming from the other, and this ends up overwhelming any content.

Plutchik’s Solid or Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions is one of the best representations of how emotions work. We must keep in mind that we are communicators too, so this system also applies when we are the ones talking.

Plutchick wheel of emotions

Inevitably, in a communicative exchange, we always have an underlying exchange of emotions.  Some people are particularly good and very quick at grasping their inner emotions, directing them, dominating them, making use of them as they wish. For example, speaking in public in front of thousands of people without feeling the slightest bit of anxiety.  On the other hand, other people fall victims of their emotions, may become victims of a love that is blind and deaf to all denials, and persevere in loving a person who does not love them, or who has never even shown any signs of love.

They may be afraid even thinking about the idea of speaking in public and fear it like the worst of poisons.  Each communicative situation (COMSIT) owns specific meanings and emotional undertones. COMSITs are specific frames or communicative moments that can be distinguished from each other, such as a dialogue between friends, or an argument, or giving explanations, and a thousand other possibilities in relationships.

In each COMSIT, different degrees of incommunicability and different types of emotions arise4.  What can we do then? The way, the only real way, is “to train oneself to emotions”. This way, it sounds like ‘training to live’, something intangible. And it is precisely this training in the intangible that makes ‘training in emotions’ an exercise in great emotional intelligence. Such as a refined gym of Experiential Coaching, for those who design active training exercises on emotions. 

This involves dealing with emotions in an ’emotional laboratory’ where they can be experienced and then ‘debriefed’ with the support of a trainer, coach, counsellor, or psychologist, depending on the type of intervention.  Working on corporate groups and not on clinical pathology situations, requires the Trainer and the Counsellor as main figures and reference. These “emotion workshops” must be engineered by using videos, images, letters, themed dialogues, and any kind of exercise involving emotions.  As Howell said about our ‘unconscious emotional incompetence’, at first, we may find it all a bit silly or we may be ‘clumsy’, but then we will ‘climb’ this peak, step by step, until we reach a strong emotional competence. 

This competence is necessary, the higher the career position is. Think of the need for emotional balance in a judge, or a surgeon, or a police officer, or in specific situations such as taking a penalty shot, or in difficult and extreme sports where emotions are everything, or almost everything.  Emotions are often mixed, a cross between different emotional states, as we see in this picture showing the primary, secondary, and tertiary links between emotion dyads in Plutchik’s model. 

mixed emotions

Links between emotional state produce different emotions in different emotional state (Mixed Emotions), our everyday actual emotional truth.

ascolto attivo ed empatia

© 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.

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