Empathy and Active Listening

Data and Emotions: The Two Basic Ingredients of Empathic 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

When a sunrise or sunset no longer gives us excitement,  

means that the soul is sick. 

 (Roberto Gervaso) 


Empathy is defined in a thousand different ways.  

For our purpose, it is sufficient to focus, here and now, on the fact that empathy is a “state of mind”, a state of openness to listening, of predisposition to grasp the data and emotions that come from the other person, to “feel” them, coming to understand a situation with identification, to be aware of what lives, with the eyes and the heart of the person who is telling us. We will go into this concept in more detail later. We have already said it, but empathy, however deep, is not equivalent to sympathy. 

Those who practice empathic listening must be very good at “grasping” and “feeling” but they must absolutely not fall into the trap of “confusing their own self with that of the other”. So, let’s stay for now on a technical aspect: the decomposition of listening into data and emotions. It is fundamental to distinguish “active listening”, of data, from listening to emotions. Listening to data and listening to emotions are two different processes.  

Sometimes co-present, and often they become two “tasks” or tasks that travel in parallel. But conceptually they are different.  

We always have “the whole” available to us while we listen, it is up to us to be able to grasp, to be able to distinguish, to be able to “appreciate” and be sensitive to even the most subtle nuances of the soul and emotion. 

The two layers of listening can be seen as two rivers traveling parallel to each other. Two streams of information, rather than water, that we need to perceive, simultaneously. 

It is true that even an emotion is a form of “data”, but we must note, of course, that it is one thing to deal with qualitative data such as feeling pleasure, or being proud, or feeling sad or depressed, and another thing to note down information such as “London“, “Milan“, “50 km“, “10 kg”, “plane“, “train“, “100 Euro“, and other more tangible quantitative or qualitative information. We can say that scientifically we have a “data-point” (data point, certain information) every time we manage to extract a verifiable proposition.  

The statement “Before 5 p.m. David made a sale and was overjoyed” contains four data points 

Listening closely resembles the process of “mining and separating” as it occurs in a deposit. Extracting material and separating it into stones on one side, and mud on the other. In listening, the materials are almost always joined, almost glued together, but we can learn to separate them. In the example written below it will be quite easy to do this. 

When we move on to video excerpts, or real-time human interactions, we have to get even better at it, because emotions can be “hidden” behind micro-expressions, small involuntary facial cues, or can instead become very manifest and verbalized. 

When we listen, we can pay attention to one, the other, or both. Being able to grasp both is surely better. Behind listening to emotions there is a vision of man as a creature that “feels” and not just as a creature that “reasons.” 


When dealing with people, remember that we are not dealing with people with logic.  

We are dealing with creatures with emotions. 

 (Dale Carnegie) 


It may seem strange to underestimate the logical part of the human being, but we must realize that, according to neuroscience, only 2% of the mental calculation capabilities are available for conscious and rational reasoning, and the rest is divided between data necessary to run the “biological machine” heart, lungs, breathing, and millions of processes, and subconscious data, on which emotions are grafted, whether we want them to or not. Remember that even an emotion is to some extent a data, but it goes without saying that it is one thing to ask active questions starting from the sentence “I bought 4 kilos of fish” and another to do it to deepen the sentence “in this period I feel full of hope but also of remorse“. 

Emotions are expressed both with words, but much more so through facial microexpressions, body signals, and voice state (paralinguistics), than through the verbal component.  

Words alone do not convey emotion if they are not accompanied by an appropriate context. The way they are said, much more so. But they are not usually “said.” They simply manifest themselves in non-verbal behavior, in facial expressions. And even if not said, they need to be “heard.” 


The most important thing in communication is  

Listen to what isn’t being said. 

 (Peter F. Drucker) 


Listening to data or listening to emotions qualifies the difference between data-centered informational listening and psychologically oriented listening. Listening to data is not the same as picking up emotional states. In fact, we can apply psychological listening or technical-informational listening. An advanced negotiator and a high-level salesperson will be able to apply the correct level of listening, or both, depending on the situation, without entering into a predetermined, stereotypical, rigid listening state. 

This is also true for a parent who wants to listen to a child about how they are doing in school, fixating on grades and data as if filling out an Excel spreadsheet, or trying to understand moods and relationships. 

Learning to listen well is possible, with care, with practice, with passion and willingness, making mistakes, and always starting over. 


Always be like the sea, which breaks against the rocks and always finds the strength to try again. 

Jim Morrison 

© 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.