Empathy and Active Listening

Apathetic or passive 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

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 armoured 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. 


Listening at times 

It’s not the chatter of people around us that is the most powerful distractor, but rather the chatter of our own minds. Utter concentration demands these inner voices be stilled. 

(Daniel Goleman) 

Sometimes attentive listening, sometimes distracted. It is a mechanism that creates bad listening. 

Distracted listening is extremely common, probably the most realistic state of average We listen; then something about someone else’s content ‘turns us on’ because it relates to our own interests; then we could ask a follow-up question; then someone else’s content changes, or something comes to mind, we jump from one thought to another, our head ‘goes away’, or we hear a sentence from someone else’s conversation that catches our attention; we get lost, we ‘walk away’ from the conversation, even though we are still physically there. The quickest way to apply bad listening “at times” is to listen with a media on, listen while typing on a keyboard or screen, listen with the TV on or with a monitor on, which we may consider “background” but is not background, as information comes out of it that sometimes catches us, and this is one of the worst listening ever, except for a few moments of “mental presence”.  

The effort of talking to someone who listens ‘in fits and starts’ is enormous, both physically and emotionally. After this review of bad listening, let’s move on to listening of a better nature highlighted on the scale. 

Effective listening. Selective, active, empathic and sympathetic listening 

When we think of effective listening, we think first of positive experiences, moments when we have felt heard with our hearts and not just our ears. 

But effective listening can have many nuances, which are worth exploring. It is essential to understand that listening becomes effective when it achieves its ends, and its ends are different depending on the relationship. In a phase of listening to a person who has experienced trauma, empathic listening will be important and indeed healing.  

But if we are listening to a person who is telling us about an accident in progress in which there are people still in danger, we will have to know how to switch to active and selective listening immediately, not a word more, not a word less. Fast, quick and incisive, getting what we need, to move on to action or swiftly pass the information on to others. And the information must be ‘clean’, otherwise we risk circulating ‘dirty’ and wrong information, and doing damage. 

The good listener is therefore not always “good, good, patient, nice and always says yes”, but rather, knows how to use the right listening mode for the purpose, knows how to understand the context, knows how to use multiple tools and ways, which can sometimes be quick and sharp, other times slow, soft and welcoming. 

Selective listening 

With selective listening we overcome the “red zone” of listening and enter into modes that can be really useful.  

Selective listening, although not empathic in intent, seeks very precise information, which can be both objective (things, people, times) and emotional (moods, feelings), with respect to a certain episode or theme being explored. Whoever wants to do active listening must know how to do selective listening, because in some moments it is essential to know how to “dismantle an episode”, in order to understand what to repeat or not to do again, and to know how to dismantle positive episodes, in order to understand the success factors that we managed to create, and how precisely the chains of events followed one another. 

Some listening techniques become fundamental here: 

  • Reflecting: acting as a mirror, reformulating what has been understood. It allows one to be more precise and opens up other content. 
  • Deflecting: Recognizing the input of themes that do not belong and managing to get them out of the conversation, dampening them and expelling them. 
  • Probing: Testing a piece of information with a related question, e.g. asking “since you told me he arrived late, when did he arrive?”. Useful for further investigation. 
  • Recap: Recap and re-launch. Recapitulate what has been collected so far and open “OK, we’ve reached the point where you turn up for the interview, they make you wait, you start to get nervous, you walk in and you don’t know what to say. Then what happened?” 
  • Contact: constant eye contact signals, nodding of the head, guttural and paralinguistic expressions (mmm, ah, oh), everything that is a “phatic” signal (phatic signals are those that say, in essence, “I’m here”, I am present, I am here for you). 

All these techniques will be discussed in more detail when we talk about “conversation analysis”, but it is good to know that they exist, and that active, selective or empathic listening uses precise techniques, not just the will to listen. In selective listening, we are extremely focused on understanding a specific thing, a specific question about what the other person is thinking, or a precise piece of information that we want to grasp.  

Everything else is of no interest to us.  

Our mental presence is switched on, sharp, but directed like a laser towards an information point, and not – as in empathic listening – welcoming towards whatever emerges. When material emerges that does not interest us, we bring the conversation back to the ‘focus’ we are interested in with questions (with topic shifting, or conversational refocusing). 

In terms of the efficiency and effectiveness of selective listening, our questions only become ‘diagnostic’ when they manage to cleanse the picture, leaving only what really interests us, so practicing it well requires technique and study. This also happens in daily life, and we need not worry about it. The question can be “what time will you be home?” and we can only be interested in one hour, and nothing else. Not the story of life. We have to worry instead if the intention is to listen actively and empathetically to an emotional and human experience, and only questions of clarification or monosyllabic answers come out. If we ask selective listening “where would you like to go on holiday”, the listening will focus only on the “where”, neglecting the “how”, the “subtle nature” of the type of holiday the other person would like to take. Practicing selective listening is not in itself wrong or right. It depends on the consistency between our underlying purpose and the type of questions that come up. We can assess it on the basis of the empathy factor – if our purpose is to create empathy, it can be used but it must be dosed very carefully. Empathy is a process that ‘welcomes’ rather than excludes and so selective listening is great for gathering data but very poor for really targeting emotions. 

Active listening 

A good listener is one who helps us overhear ourselves.
(Yahia Lababidi) 

When we practice active listening we are immersed in a special activity. We are giving interest, our time, our energy, to understand a person, their content, their intentions, and a piece of their story. People are generally wary of opening up and telling about themselves, their inner selves, even to themselves. Active listening offers a ‘life platform’ where the words of others and the thoughts of others can gently and progressively rest. 

Each opening is followed by a greater opening, until the ‘core’ of the person is revealed for what it is, in its splendour, in its pain, in its truth. Freed from masks and self-consciousness. 

Getting to the ‘human core’ of a person takes a long way, but it can be done. From the nothingness of empathic listening, every small step towards ‘sharing’ is always significant. 

The person who engages in listening, basically, wants to listen, considers it an important fact, to the point of putting the brakes on his or her thinking, omitting to say how he or she thinks, putting the brakes on ‘taking the turn of the conversation’ to make an argument or express opinions.  

Active listening focuses on listening. It does this with words, with questions, and also with the body. It uses bodily and para-verbal signals of participation in what is said, reformulations and recapitulations of perceived content, and other linguistic and non-verbal devices that serve to give the signal “what you say interests me, I am following you”. Active listening can be practiced for two major classes of interests, even opposite to each other. It can be done as an extreme act of love, a gift we give to a friend, or a moment of great humanity in which we take an interest in others.  

Or it can be an extremely strategic listening, a professional listening in which we need the information inside someone else’s mind. We may need it to help the other person, as in coaching or therapy, or we may need it to run an organization, or to make decisions, as in leadership. 

In any case, what we have in our minds is always enriched by listening to others. 

It is natural that more information emerges from active listening and the person can also expose emotional information, which is all the more profound the more the listener is committed to not judging, not judging, not interrupting, not ‘interpreting’. 

Active listening requires energy, commitment, a rested body, an alert and watchful mind. When we are in this mode, even a single nod of the eyebrow can give us valuable information. 

We can not be distracted for a moment that we’re screwed  

for the rest of our life!  

Micaela Ramazzotti – Anita 

Empathic listening 

Listening without bias or distraction is the greatest value you can pay another person. 

(Denis Waitley) 

Empathy is a superior and highly advanced state of human relationships. It means learning how to put yourself in someone’s shoes in order to feel what they feel. 

Empathy – per se – is neither positive nor negative: we can also use it to understand the way outlaws and killers think and to find out what their next move is going to be (strategic empathy). 

 In wider terms, when referring to everyday human and professional relationships, empathy is positive and rare. As Jeremy Rifkin points out: 

“empathic consciousness is based on the awareness that others – like us – are unique and mortal beings. We empathise with people because we recognise their fragile and limited nature, their vulnerability and their one and only life; we experience their existential aloneness, suffering and struggle to exist and evolve as if these feelings were ours. Our empathic embrace is our way to sympathise with the others and to celebrate their lives”.19  

Empathy is rare because it requires the subtle ability to “tune in” emotionally and to understand the hidden, emotional and personal levels of the interlocutor’s experience – rather than the numerical or objective data they expose. Empathy also uses metacommunication (meaning “communication about communication itself”): for instance, it fearlessly asks for the meaning of a word it does not understand or it explains useful ideas for the communication process itself – when the listener does not speak. 

Empathic listening is rare. We could say last time we found it was when a person listened to us for an entire hour, without talking about themselves – only listening to what we wanted to say (both information and emotions) and asking questions for a better understanding. If this has ever happened to you, it was probably during a coaching, counselling or therapy session. It rarely happens in daily life. 

Shorter periods of time – but with the same listening intensity – can be found in real friendship or with loyal partners at work, but the attention is not necessarily focused on one person – as it happens when talking about empathy. Besides, if specific courses to learn empathy are needed, it is because school, academic education and manuals tend to give information, rather than teaching how to listen. 

Just as the art of narrating exists – firmly codified through thousands of attempts and mistakes – the art of listening also exists, equally ancient and 

noble, which, however, as far as I know, 

has never been validated.  

(Primo Levi) 

The most difficult part of empathic listening is the suspension of judgement. If anyone says, “I hit my child” or “I threw the rubbish bag out the window”, it is impossible not to judge. Yet, “suspending the judgement” means precisely that – and not to “make judgement disappear”. Suspending it is fundamental in order to understand what, where, how and why certain things happens. If we did not do it, we would miss a large part of the information we could obtain. 

Sympathetic listening 

Sometimes, some fondness are so powerful that, when meeting for the first time, it feels like meeting again. 

 (Alfred de Musset) 

Sympathetic listening expresses affinity towards the speaker; it aims to both listen and show affection and delight during the interaction. Sympathetic listening is not necessarily better than empathic listening; it is just different. Here the priority is to give to the other person the feeling of pleasantness and closeness. Making the interlocutor understand that we are interested in what they say is fundamental – not only regarding the information itself, but also for the person expressing it. The act of listening becomes part of a relational game that has a seductive component; what we are interested in is not a passive data analysis, but we strongly admire and appreciate what has been said. Listening shows human warmth, delight and appreciation, with both verbal and non-verbal communication. Let’s consider a very practical aspect: sympathetic listening brings people closer and this is an excellent psychological strategy for a deeper and more accurate listening. 

“We usually consider as good listeners only those people 

who share our opinion.”  

François de La Rochefoucauld 

Sympathetic listening can be easily – and wrongly – defined “panderer listening”, but let ask ourselves whether we live in a society that is stingy with compliments. Our society is quick to judge and blame – and it is also stingy, even when we do something good. That is why sympathetic listening – whenever there is the right opportunity – is a precious gift. 

When we listen to a person and we sense something good, we should feel free to experience it, without being ashamed.  

“Does the song of the sea end at the shore or in the hearts of those who listen to it?”  

Khalil Gibran 

Throughout the manual various techniques, methods and strategies to practise active and deep listening, to reach hearts and minds, to gather information and to work effectively together will be described. 

Yet, whatever our intentions and abilities, there is one thing that cannot be taught, but only recommended: to be willing to listen.  

Levels of listening quality

© 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.