Sensitivity, the invisible superpower

superhero-2503808_1280. Creative commons from Pixabay.

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, coarse fabrics, 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 avoid overwhelming 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 Rights Implications of Being Sensitive

These intense experiences are real – not imagined – in the mind of the sensitive person. The perception that an experience is dramatic is true-for-them, regardless of whether less sensitive people feel that way. We don’t get to collectively dictate the sensitivity norms of the group and downgrade the significance of the individual. Rather, the proper collective view is that we all experience vividness in different ways and we need to accommodate these differences. And that means there’s a little extra work in making things okay for the person who is sensitive.

Although there is not an explicit duty to accommodate under the statutes, the challenge here is that we are considering how someone was born and whether they can choose to be any different. Since the Highly Sensitive Person is in a genetic bind, it seems considerate to put in an effort to accommodate them. Indeed, if you’re thinking about how you would want to be treated if you were in their situation, you’re getting a feel for what this sensitivity is all about.

Amongst the things you can be sensitive to is the emotions of others. Highly SensitivePeople have more active mirror neutron systems. Using your brain’s mirror neurons, Sólo describes that you“…[compare] the other person’s behaviour with times when you yourself behaved that way – effectively ‘mirroring’ the other person to figure out what’s going on for them.” This mirroring “allows us to feel empathy and compassion for others.”

This empathy takes us out of the realm of differences (often a euphemism for having a flaw) and into the possibility of superpowers that can save the day. Consider the many ways in which having greater empathy can make things better. You can catch small insults, say “hey, be nice”, and if you were at fault you could patch things up with a considerate apology. Maybe you can put together small pieces of information and realize that someone needs help, and solve problems without people asking for help.  And if you were selling something, you could read who was not buying and who was a promising prospect.

HSP’s become more conscious in a social context, such that other people pop up on their radar more significantly.  For the HSP,

“Your brain is fine-tuned to notice and interpret the behaviour of everyone around you. If someone is bad news, you know it. If someone is not going to treat you right, you see it coming. And if a situation isn’t right for you, you know that, too.” (Sólo)

Greater awareness of the social context means sensitive people act as the canary in the mine who can give early warning that something is not right. It’s a double-edged sword, as it can make a person warm, caring, and insightful. But in the workforce, such people may need to also back away from labour relations conflict, physical hazards, and corrosive leadership styles. But then, perhaps workplaces need to universally strive for harmonious labour relations, the minimization of physical hazards, and the curtailment of bullying? Could it be that feedback from sensitive people puts everyone on track for greater effectiveness and wellbeing? Perhaps we could all increase our willingness to be caring and insightful, to explore a rich inner world, and organize our lives and workplaces to reduce abrasive and unpleasant social interactions.

It may be harder to assert that sensitivity is important than it is to assert the inverse. That is, that insensitivity is a liability, and behaviours that come from deliberate insensitivity must be flagged as inappropriate. Thumbing noses at sensitivity can be an early indication of sexism, bigotry, bullying, and abusive leadership styles. Sensitivity cannot be a small thing if its opposite is regarded as a major problem. Therefore, compliance needs to make interventions on his very important issue. 

How To Get the Most Out 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 confidence in your communication skills. Sensitive people are “attuned to subtle gestures and tone” which means you hear more than just the words that people are saying.
  • Speak up if others have missed something. Sensitive people can spot things that don’t add up, picking up on overlooked risks or subtle details about job candidates. These almost-overlooked tidbits will be new information, and businesses pay big bucks for new information. 
  • Jump into teamwork. The ability to stay attuned to the team’s mood increases a sensitive person’s ability to identify the upsides and downsides of team efforts. So yes, you can increase the flow of information and nuance in team communications, which is great. However, this sensitivity also makes it harder for the person to come down with an authoritative decision, as you will need to bring the whole team along when arriving at a final decision. There is a subtle sub-plot, that authoritarianism might not be the best leadership style for you.
  • Use your creativity to solve problems. Because sensitive people have rich inner worlds, “this can lead to fascinating breakthroughs, innovative solutions to problems and a unique sense of clarity…” I don’t think it’s the sensitivity itself that causes creativity. Rather, it’s a three-step process: hang back, listen to yourself, produce intuitive outputs. Sensitive people are far more experienced at this. That means their creativity is a strength that can be leveraged by the larger organization.
  • Prepare for stimulating situations. As a survival technique, sensitive people need to think-ahead how they will respond to tough questions and difficult situations. If they wing it and things take a turn for the worse, sensation overload can cause them to be overwhelmed, freeze, or draw a blank. As with creativity, it’s another three-step process. Sensitivity increases the personal consequences of poor planning, so they must plan, and their planned responses are better as a result. Desperation provokes the intrinsic motivation to develop planning skill. It’s a dystopian sci-fi future-of-work kind of skills growth… 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 who experiences strong emotions, you might feel like you’re carrying a heavy load at times, especially at work. But the truth is you likely have a huge amount of untapped value to share with your co-workers, clients and in your career as a whole. It’s time to start viewing your sensitivity for what it is: your greatest strength.”

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