Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are those who “feel too much” and “too deeply (emotionally)” than the average person. They experience acute physical, mental, and emotional responses to external (social, environmental) or internal (intra-personal) stimuli. Highly Sensitive People are neurologically different from others and have many gifts, but their intense reactions to people and situations often cause confusion, conflict and greater emotional turmoil. In order to foster positive and constructive relationships with a HSP, the less sensitive person, or the person who is less extreme in their responses to various stimuli, must utilize special communication strategies.
Here are 6 of the most helpful strategies:
- Pause for processing. HSPs deeply process internal and external information and the stress of this can be overwhelming. This will look like they are struggling to express themselves. Give attentive silence and avoid interrupting them or feeding them the words you think they are looking for. When they are done talking, tell back how you understand what they said. Conversely, ask them to tell back what you have said to be sure they have understood you and captured your message accurately.
- Notice and gently suggest alternative behaviors. How you point out weaknesses and shortfalls can make or break relationships. Avoid a voice tone that is condescending, patronizing, too loud or parent-like. Say instead, “I noticed that…” or “Are you aware that…” or “Another approach might be to…” These words carry much less blame and shame.
- Timing. Pick the right time to give feedback. If you or they are tired, rushed or upset, it’s likely that your feedback will be less appreciated. No one needs to hear that they did 25 things wrong all at once, and this is especially disturbing for HSPs. Pick the top 1-2 to address at one sitting. Engage in a problem-solving discussion that keeps the emotion from escalating. Notice when they are getting overwhelmed and take a break. They may need more time to process a mistake and a solution than you do.
- Praise and encourage authentically. Be modest and honest in your praise; many HSP shudder when given a compliment, even a well-deserved one. To keep stress low for both of you, try not to get overly excited about their successes or lack of progress. If emotions aren’t kept in check, your highly sensitive friend will lose face if they disappoint you.
- Invite questions. Positive, inspiriting talk and a supportive attitude make you more approachable for questions. They may be hesitant to bother you when they become bogged down with a problem. Let your open door policy (with its boundaries) be known. You may be the “safe” sounding-board they’re looking for. Don’t criticize.
- Don’t rescue them from distress unless absolutely necessary. HSPs learn from their mistakes, but with more pain. If you rescue them too often, they may never acquire the thick skin needed to get through life. Your constant rescuing might actually hinder their growth.
Do you need more help communicating with a highly sensitive employee or co-worker? Contact me at [email protected].
Marlee, my 11 year old niece, sent me a picture of her science project on the solar system. As I looked for a way to describe the wide range of styles for managing conflict, her picture offered a perfect metaphor.
Imagine the sun being CONFLICT, the good and the bad. It is hot, powerful, intense and we depend on it for survival. The Mercury and Venus types among us, closest to the sun, are very cozy with conflict – they thrive on it. They are the prosecutors and debaters. Armed with strong verbal skills, they are quick, persuasive, and hard-driving critical thinkers. Conflict huggers, comparable to Mercury and Venus, pursue drama in their lives and love to “stir the pot.”
Earth types feel the heat, but do not fear conflict. They line up their facts and listen intently to adversity. Earth types are able negotiators too. They appreciate how different perspectives promote creativity and personal growth. Alert to flare–ups and other signs of conflict, Earthlings snuff out sparks of conflict before they become dangerous.
Martians, farther away from the sun than Earth, are not as proficient with conflict. They stuff their emotions and try to get along so as to diffuse disagreements. They prefer to mediate rather than meet conflict head on. Some have passive-aggressive tendencies− the unpredictable volatility makes others want to tread carefully near their orbit. This is a trait one might associate with the orbit of a “red” planet.
Then, in our solar system, as in real life, there is a BIG gap. We come upon Jupiter, a large slow moving planet. Jupiter types avoid external conflict; it has enough turmoil on its own turf. They will approach conflict reluctantly because they are awkward with it. They deflect conflict with bravado, an over-bearing presence and feigned optimism (Hey, what conflict? We’re all good here, right?) Jupiter types may stonewall, engage behind the scenes, or step in clumsily if the Earth/Mars folks can’t get the job done.
Saturn, with its many moons to distract it from conflict will, along with the Neptune types, please, appease and keep their opinions private.
Uranus-types, very far from the sun but still in its orbit, call in sick, put off performance reviews, and hate meetings. They will do anything and everything to avoid confrontation.
Pluto (a ball of ice considered to be a “dwarf planet” rather than a full-fledged planet) has an eccentric orbit compared to the other eight planets. Folks who cling to this sort of path freeze in social situations and prefer to be reclusive. They isolate themselves and find interactions of any sort, including confrontation, highly reprehensible.
Where do you stand in the solar system of conflict? Perhaps your job or family situation requires a more flexible orbit that wavers between Venus and Jupiter?
Is it possible to change? Nature says “yes!” If the Sun and Earth were the only bodies in the solar system, Earth’s orbit would have a constant shape and orientation in space. However, because the planets exert a pull on each other, orbits change slightly over time, even Pluto’s!
It is helpful to know your style and the styles of those around you. If you can exert some gentle pull, if you can demonstrate a positive change in the way you manage conflict, others may move with you, slightly over time.
If you want to get your ideas out quickly, put them on paper. Research shows that you’ll process your thoughts and remember more when you draw or write them down. I’m not a fan of GAGs (Gadgets, Apps, Gimmicks) because by the time you find and launch a note-taking app you could have instantly secured your thought on paper. Besides, if you use a phone or computer to take notes, it’s easy to get distracted by other GAGs on your desktop.
The same goes for using a paper calendar vs. an electronic calendar. Many of my hi-tech clients swear by the week-at-a-glance paper calendar book as a way to block off hunks of time and create a vista view of the week. (See www.ata glance.com)
When reading something you care to remember, you’ll deep-process more of what you read if you annotate in pencil or write a note on a stickie. After you finish the book, skim through your annotations or collect your stickies to review those highlights. It’s so satisfying to remember what you read so you can have an intelligent conversation on the topic well after you put the book down. Keep your stickies together and put them in an envelope with the title on the front. It’s interesting, several months later, to open that envelope and refresh that information.
Be like Sheryl Sandberg, Richard Branson and Indra Nooyi and have paper and pen ready to jot down thoughts and brainstorm ideas anywhere you’d find yourself hanging out —by your bed, poolside, TV room etc. Keep a moleskin in your pocket or purse to write down ideas when you’re standing in line or getting a haircut. And, if by any chance that little piece of paper is swept off by a gust of wind, you’ll have a better chance of remembering what you wrote if you wrote it!
Beware of “Yes” and the Soft No’s
Listening to yourself is one of the hallmarks of a mindful listener, and the most difficult aspect to master. If you are like me, you probably say “Yes” or give a Soft No a bit too often. There are many reasons to control for the reflexive “Yes” and the Soft No’s. They steal our time away from the things we want to do and should do. We end up resenting the people we reluctantly said “Yes” to − they become the bad guys. You may have a kind heart and extend your goodness a bit too often. But if you can’t follow through, your kindness backfires and you disappoint those you intended to help. If you’re a parent, replying “Yes” or giving a Soft No when you can’t follow through makes you look weak and untrustworthy. When you say “Yes” to a work project that is well over your head and you don’t produce, you’re perceived as unreliable. We all know what “Yes” sounds like, but Soft No’s are less obvious. Soft No’s are sticky. The indecisive response can make the person who wants your “Yes” pursue you relentlessly. Here are some of the most common Soft No’s we utter:
- I’ll think about it
- Not right now
- Call me in a few weeks
- I’m too busy right now
- I’m on vacation
My suggestion to you this month is to catch yourself before you agree directly or indirectly to requests that you’re not 100% sure about. If it’s uncomfortable for you to say “No, thank you,” practice saying it aloud several times until it is as easy as saying “Yes.” Notice how “No, thank you,” lifts the weight of undesirable obligations, reduces resentment towards others, frees up your time, and lets you focus on what you truly want to say “Yes” to.
Did you know that the audio version of the Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction is now available at Audible.com? Start listening in a more mindful way today!
Start Something Magical
Have you ever tossed a stone in a pond and counted the ripples? Did you know that the ripple effect continues well beyond what the eye can see. Inspiriting words can do the same. How often do you experience excellent customer service, someone’s cool T-shirt or a very courteous child and think, Wow, I’d love to tell them what I’m thinking right now, but you don’t? For the introverts among us, or for those who think that compliments to strangers are imposing, I urge you to reconsider. A compliment is more welcome to the recipient than you think. It is a very simple and magical way to set off a positive chain of events in the world.
I rather enjoy flexing my magical powers and seeing how a genuine compliment lights up a face. I’ll wager that my comment triggers a shot of serotonin and dopamine in the brain of the complimentee! For example, this morning I thanked a very cheery and helpful Panera server (within earshot of the manager) for his “refreshing attitude and exceptional service.” The server’s step picked up even more as he helped the next customer, and the next.
Later that day at work, I got another chance. A very quiet and sullen patient, who regularly visits oneof our psychiatrists, arrived wearing a strikingly beautiful coat. I remarked on her stunning taste and asked her how she found it. Her face lit up and stayed lit up as she entered her doctor’s office. The psychiatrist, unaware of the compliment I paid her, noticed his patient glowing and standing up straight. He couldn’t figure out why she made an appointment to increase her anti-depressant medication!
How can you create a ripple effect? Start small. Note some outstanding feature that other people seem to ignore: Thank a cop who’s guarding the bank. Give a “thumbs up” to the son helping his grandparent with a heavy load. Tell the teenager who bagged your groceries that they did an excellent job. Lifting up someone spirits makes you feel good too. The power of that compliment can transform someone for hours and perhaps days. And, like the ripple in the pond, we have no way of knowing how many other lives will be touched by that one act.