Ever notice how some people are extra-careful about choosing the right lighting for a room, deciding what tone to use when they speak, or trying to eliminate small errors in final reports? It turns out that people like that have different things going on in their brains. And there is a name for it: A Highly Sensitive Person. Such people bring unique value to the workplace when they are understood and can put this strength to best use.
What is a Highly Sensitive Person?
The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is a bundling of personality traits identified by Dr. Elaine Aaron beginning in 1991. The Highly Sensitive Person website, book, and related movies and workbooks teach people how to self-identify and manage their unique situation. Among other things, the highly sensitive person has the following traits:
- Easily overwhelmed by bright lights, strong smells, coarsefabrics, or sirens.
- Notice and enjoy fine scents, tastes, and sounds.
- Make a point of avoiding violent movies or TV.
- Make a point of organizing their lives to avoidoverwhelming situations.
- Have a “rich and complex inner life.”
Being highly sensitive is common, found in 15-20% of people, and is innate. A sensitive person’s outward behaviour is often confused with introversion, shyness, or being inhibited, each of which is a different thing. Often a sensitive person is told “don’t be so sensitive” in a manner that deems the trait abnormal and impacts their self-esteem. For this reason self-assessment, self-description, and self-determination are key to wellbeing.
Highly Sensitive People use several parts their brains quite differently, according to Andre Sólo in an article in Psychology Today from January 2019. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex connects emotions, values, and sensory processing. High sensitivity turns up the dial of this part of the brain, increasing emotional vividness such that some experiences have a much greater impact, subjectively.
The Human RightsImplications of Being Sensitive
These intense experiences are real – not imagined – in themind of the sensitive person. The perception that an experience is dramatic istrue-for-them, regardless of whether less sensitive people feel that way. Wedon’t get to collectively dictate the sensitivity norms of the group anddowngrade the significance of the individual. Rather, the proper collectiveview is that we all experience vividness in different ways and we need toaccommodate these differences. And that means there’s a little extra work inmaking things okay for the person who is sensitive.
Although there is not an explicit duty to accommodate underthe statutes, the challenge here is that we are considering how someone wasborn and whether they can choose to be any different. Since the HighlySensitive Person is in a genetic bind, it seems considerate to put in an effortto accommodate them. Indeed, if you’re thinking about how you would want to betreated if you were in their situation, you’re getting a feel for what thissensitivity is all about.
Amongst the things you can be sensitive to is the emotions of others. Highly SensitivePeople have more active mirror neuronsystems. Using your brain’s mirror neurons, Sólo describes that you“…[compare] the other person’s behaviour with times when you yourself behavedthat way – effectively ‘mirroring’ the other person to figure out what’s goingon for them.” This mirroring “allows us to feel empathy and compassion forothers”
This empathy takes us out of the realm of differences (often a euphemism forhaving a flaw) and into the possibility of superpowersthat can save the day. Consider the many ways in which having greater empathycan make things better. You can catch small insults, say “hey, be nice”, and ifyou were at fault you could patch things up with a considerate apology. Maybeyou can put together small pieces of information and realize that someone needshelp, and solve problems without people asking for help. And if you were selling something, you couldread who was not buying and who was a promising prospect.
HSP’s become more conscious in a social context, such thatother people pop up on their radar more significantly. For the HSP,
“Your brain is fine-tuned tonotice and interpret the behaviour of everyone around you. If someone is badnews, you know it. If someone is not going to treat you right, you see itcoming. And if a situation isn’t right for you, you know that, too.” (Sólo)
Greater awareness of the social context means sensitivepeople act as the canary in the minewho can give early warning that something is not right. It’s a double-edgedsword, as it can make a person warm, caring, and insightful. But in theworkforce, such people may need to also back away from labour relationsconflict, physical hazards, and corrosive leadership styles. But then, perhapsworkplaces need to universally strivefor harmonious labour relations, the minimization of physical hazards, and thecurtailment of bullying? Could it be that feedback from sensitive people putseveryone on track for greater effectiveness and wellbeing? Perhaps we could allincrease our willingness to be caring and insightful, to explore a rich innerworld, and organize our lives and workplaces to reduce abrasive and unpleasantsocial interactions.
It may be harder to assert that sensitivity is importantthan it is to assert the inverse. That is, that insensitivity isa liability, and behaviours that come from deliberateinsensitivity must be flagged as inappropriate. Thumbing noses at sensitivitycan be an early indication of sexism, bigotry, bullying, and abusive leadershipstyles. Sensitivity cannot be a small thing if its opposite is regarded as amajor problem. Therefore, compliance needs to make interventions on his veryimportant issue.
How To Get the MostOut Of Being a Sensitive Employee
Let’s return to the upside of the situation. Many people regard sensitivity as a great asset in the workplace. In a Forbes article from November 2016, Melody Wilding asserts that “…managers consistently rate people with higher sensitivity as the best performers in their organizations.” Wilding’s article, addressed to the sensitive person, describes five ways you can get the most out of this strength:
- Have confidencein your communication skills. Sensitivepeople are “attuned to subtle gestures and tone” which means you hear more thanjust the words that people are saying.
- Speak up ifothers have missed something. Sensitivepeople can spot things that don’t add up, picking up on overlooked risks orsubtle details about job candidates. These almost-overlooked tidbits will be new information, and businesses pay bigbucks for new information.
- Jump intoteamwork. The ability to stay attuned tothe team’s mood increases a sensitive person’s ability to identify the upsidesand downsides of team efforts. So yes, you can increase the flow of informationand nuance in team communications, which is great. However, this sensitivityalso makes it harder for the person to come down with an authoritativedecision, as you will need to bring the whole team along when arriving at afinal decision. There is a subtle sub-plot, that authoritarianism might not bethe best leadership style for you.
- Use yourcreativity to solve problems. Becausesensitive people have rich inner worlds, “this can lead to fascinatingbreakthroughs, innovative solutions to problems and a unique sense of clarity…”I don’t think it’s the sensitivity itself that causes creativity. Rather, it’sa three-step process: hang back, listen to yourself, produce intuitive outputs.Sensitive people are far more experienced at this. That means their creativityis a strength that can be leveraged by the larger organization.
- Prepare forstimulating situations. As a survivaltechnique, sensitive people need to think-ahead how they will respond to toughquestions and difficult situations. If they wing it and things take a turn forthe worse, sensation overload can cause them to be overwhelmed, freeze, or drawa blank. As with creativity, it’s another three-step process. Sensitivityincreases the personal consequences of poor planning, so they must plan, and their planned responsesare better as a result. Desperation provokes the intrinsic motivation todevelop planning skill. It’s a dystopian sci-fi future-of-work kind of skillsgrowth… adapt or be savaged.
Wilding’s recommendations are compelling because they give the sense of how someone with a unique trait needs to not just survive but also leverage their superpower for best outcomes. Being “the best you” means you need to identify what’s different about you, choose to be the real you, and figure out how you’re going to rock it in a way that others may not anticipate or understand:
“As a highly sensitive person whoexperiences strong emotions, you might feel like you’re carrying a heavy loadat times, especially at work. But the truth is you likely have a huge amount ofuntapped value to share with your co-workers, clients and in your career as awhole. It’s time to start viewing your sensitivity for what it is: yourgreatest strength.”