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  • Writer's pictureBradley Denis McDevitt

Why Active Listening is a Superpower

Our attention spans are the shortest they've ever been, and we struggle to maintain our interest if images aren't moving and sound isn't thrilling. People report higher levels of distraction and depression than ever before. Therapists are booked solid. What can we do to increase the levels of resilience and emotional intelligence in ourselves and our world?

Simon Sinek, the author of Start With Why, has expressed his wish that everyone would learn to be a better listener. By listening closely and intently, we show that we are invested in others. This simple skill does two things: it signals worth to the speaker, and it changes the internal state of the listener. (More on the latter in a second.)

Sometimes we don't want to listen. We're busy, and we need to get work done. An employee or co-worker may come to us with a problem, a struggle, or even an anecdote from their weekend. They are asking for connection, for understanding and for acceptance. When we are present with ourselves, we can observe our impatience and see our stress standing up and asking for its own attention. "My problems are more important than this person." "I don't have time to listen to this." Those moments present an opportunity to stop and decide to move forward with presence and intention.

What changes to us when we listen? The listening process involves four stages: receiving, understanding, evaluating, and responding. Our listening brain is wired to do exactly what active listening discourages: evaluate input, predict outcomes, make judgments and perform triage. So when we engage with empathy and genuine interest, we stand apart from evaluation, prediction, judgement, or action. We simply create a space in which the speaker can speak. Sounds simple, but, as anyone who has been accosted on the way to a meeting can attest, it most certainly is not.

So what can we do to being to learn this skill?

  • First, and most importantly, is to decide on its importance. Without this fairly basic step, we will likely continue to resent the intrusions to our flow. We must learn to value others.

  • Second, we need to resist the urge to fix the problem. Listening is its own action and often is all a person needs to move on. We can offer, even ask if there is anything we can do to help, but just sitting in a receptive place, and giving someone the gift of our attention, these days especially, is itself an enormous help.

  • Finally, we must be sure we are staying in touch with our own needs. If we are late for a meeting, or have a deadline, we can make sure that the person asking for our time understands that while we want to make space for them, now just isnt' the time. The immediate follow up question is, "can we come back to this?" "I really want to make space for this conversation." "It is important to me that I be available for you." Even that kind of communication shows an amplifed listening. It is an acknowledgement of someone's need, and respects both of you in the moment.

These are difficult skills to acquire in our world where the emphasis is often on independent, performance-driven models that favor head-down gumption and tight-lipped work ethics. One-to-one coaching can help with this. Good coaches are exceptional listeners and demonstrate this skill daily. For more information on what a good coach can do for your listening skills, visit

Bradley Denis, MA is a personal development and performance coach based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with over thirty years experience working with individuals, teams, and communities. Book a free, 30-minute session to learn more about how he can help you or your team.

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