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Spidey-Senses: 3 lessons from Spiderman about Communication

Spidey-Senses: 3 lessons from Spiderman about Communication

In 2012, after working with Doctors Without Borders for a few years, we agreed it was time for me to learn French. My commitment was communication effectivenessfor the long-term and with French as a language skill, there would be more work opportunities.   The most effective way to learn a new language is immersion; a theory more familiarly known as sink or swim. My particular immersion program would start with a few months in a Paris classroom while living with a host family followed by a six-month field assignment in a small village in the Ivory Coast.

For the better part of a year I lived and breathed the French language. You know what? It worked. Other than some jumbled grammar and an accent that just won’t go away I learned to speak, read, and write enough French to understand and be understood. I also learned some cross-cultural hand gestures and noises that simulate verbs.

But more than French, what I really learned during this time was to use my spidey-senses.  Spidey-senses are one of the superpowers Spiderman got when his alter-ego, Peter Parker, was bitten by an irradiated spider. The spider’s venom caused numerous changes, one of which was a subconscious precognitive ability to sense danger: a "spider-sense."    From that point on, Spiderman/Peter Parker would experience a tingling feeling at the base of his skull alerting him whenever danger was close.

It turns out we all have spidey-senses and in fact, our spidey-senses are far more powerful than those of Spiderman. In addition to sensing when danger is near, ours can also be used to navigate the unknown, keep us true to our values and beliefs and allow for superhuman communication skills. Our problem is that we don’t normally use our spidey-senses. We forget we have them and when communicating we rely on a very small portion of our superpower abilities. And because we don’t practice using them, when we need our spidey-senses most, we fail to activate them.

From the moment my immersion began I found that somehow I was able to communicate despite not knowing the language. Something other than the senses I had relied on previously throughout my life was kicking in. I was more observant, using context to put things in perspective, and trusting the feelings that were coming up. I am convinced this happened because there was no choice. For survival’s sake I had to rely on my spidey-senses far more than my linguistic abilities to stay safe and remain a participant in the communities I lived in.

Following are the three key things I did do activate my spidey-senses. In case you have forgotten yours, perhaps this will help you activate them.

Communication starts with observation: Before communication there is observation. Are you truly aware of what is happening?   What is the context or situation you find yourself in? Will the space allow for communication? What distractions might prevent any communication? Can you sense tension in the room, either yours or someone else’s? Is your heart rate faster or slower than normal? What about the heart rate of the person you are about to communicate with? What happened prior to the conversation?

Take time to fully sense everything that is happening or has happened around you. Be honest with yourself about which perception glasses you are wearing at the moment. Trust me, you are wearing some. Have you already made a decision and know that discussion won’t change anything? Are your heels dug in? Are their heels dug it? Are you more interested in being right than being open to possibilities?

Blah, blah, blah: Over 80% of the words we use are superfluous. No formal study was done to come by this statistic; this is just what I have observed. The trick is recognizing the 20% that are not superfluous. I will agree that some of the 80% add flavor to communication and can even be enjoyable at times. They just are not critical. Do your own analysis. The next time you are in a conversation listen to the actual words being said and decide for yourself how many of the words are actually critical to the conversation.

When learning French, I learned to listen for key words and pay more attention to the non-verbal cues. My senses were tuned into behaviors, hand gestures, and eye movements. I was looking for anything out of the ordinary that would indicate something contrary or add to the words being said. It is a cliché only because it is a universally accepted truth: “actions speak louder than words.” Pay attention to the actions.

Trust your tummy:   Our hearts are one thing, our minds another and both are important. But my intuition resides in my tummy. The heart and mind only feed it information.   Take a breath before reacting and in that instant, sense, feel, listen, and acknowledge what your tummy is telling you. Slow down the conversation by asking more questions, gathering more information and learning more about the individual. Are things feeling right? Are you comfortable? Are they comfortable? It is your tummy, your intuition that will tell you how to respond, if it is ok to make an exception to the rule, to take a risk, to completely change the direction of the conversation, to acknowledge when you are wrong.

These are just three things that I learned from Spiderman. I do believe however there are many more superpowers we have in common with other superheroes that we have forgotten along the way. Tomorrow I am going to practice climbing buildings, just in case this was one of them.


For more “technical” information on spidey-senses:'s_powers_and_equipment

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Catherine has been working in and around the Human Resources field as a generalist since starting her career oh so many years ago. In the more recent years she worked with a non-profit organization that provided support services to children and families in crisis where she began to see firsthand that sometimes people just need help. Currently she is working with Medecins Sans Frontieres / Doctors Without Borders ( as an HR and Finance generalist. She travels to the countries that MSF sends her to and does her best to support the MSF staff as they provide the help that is so desperately needed in this world.

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