“Don’t be so sensitive.” It’s a phrase that’s often thrown around as a jab or criticism.
Many of my coaching clients have been told that they need to “grow a thicker skin” and quit “wearing their heart on their sleeve.”
If you are a highly sensitive person (HSP), then you may also be used to these kinds of critiques. You are likely someone who thinks, feels, and experiences the world more deeply. You’re highly attuned to subtleties in your environment, as well as others’ emotions.
Personally, I’m also an HSP, and my life was similarly peppered with insecurity and judgment from others (and even myself). I grew up feeling like an oddball and came to believe that I was defective. I frequently pushed myself to the brink of burnout trying to live up to other people’s expectations, along with the impossibly high expectations I create for myself.
If you recognize parts of yourself in these statement, you may also be an HSP. Maybe at one time or another you have also come to perceive yourself as weak, attributing it to the way you’re “wired.” What’s worse is that instead of embracing your sensitivity, maybe you’ve hid it as a survival mechanism to fit in with others. But if you’ve ever tried this, then you know firsthand that it usually doesn’t work. When you reject your true nature, you create a war within yourself.
While HSPs may be “different,” their brand of neurodiversity is a gift, not a defect. The truth is that the trait of high sensitivity, if leveraged correctly, can be your greatest strength and professional asset.
High sensitivity as an advantage
One in five people have inherited a special set of genes that leads to having a highly attuned central nervous system. Psychologist Elaine Aron, who first discovered the trait of high sensitivity, has suggested that it evolved as a “survival strategy” to stay free from harm in prehistoric times. Taking time to pause as well as observe—two hallmark actions of of highly sensitive people—helped these individuals make wiser decisions by picking up on environmental cues and noticing details less-sensitive people did not.
While we may no longer need to avoid dangers in the wild, high sensitivity is still an invaluable trait: Managers consistently rate people with higher sensitivity as their top contributors. This is most likely because HSPs are thoughtful, conscientious, empathetic, and dedicated; all of which makes them ideal employees and leaders. Moreover, studies have also shown that because of their unique wiring, sensitive people have more active mental circuitry and neurochemicals in areas related to attention, action planning, decision-making, and empathy.
As work becomes increasingly automated, the need for highly sensitive professionals—and their strengths of natural intuition and creativity—have never been more crucial. These skills are also less technical competencies, which cannot be easily replicated by technology.
How to tap into your strength of sensitivity in the workplace
Choose a diplomatic approach
As a highly sensitive person, you think longer and more deliberately before taking action. While this may mean you skew toward overthinking, you’re also more thoughtful. In a business context, that translates into being able to balance different people’s perspectives and tactfully communicate, even in moments of heightened conflict.
Here are some ways you can put your planful nature to use for you:
- Choose your words carefully and adapt your communication style to each person.
- Use your powers of observation to listen more than and before you speak.
- Take time to anticipate questions and objections and come prepared with an outline of your thoughts and response.
Speak up when others have missed something
Another asset of high sensitivity is catching subtleties and nuances others miss. This is because the HSP brain not only takes in more information, but also processes and synthesizes that information in a more complex way. That means you’re likely the one who sees gaps in a plan or who spots new opportunities before others. You may also be applauded for the way you explore creative angles and paths on the way to a solution.
Asserting yourself in the workplace may not be your natural default, so here are few ways to get your voice heard:
- Make it a point to be one of the first people to speak up in meetings. Early speakers are generally seen as more confident and competent.
- Practice the art of interrupting with phrases like, “before we move on, I’d like to add…” or “let me jump in here and share…”
- If fear seizes you in the moment, don’t be afraid to follow up. Stand out by circling back with senior leadership, for example, to offer new or additional insights.
Keep a pulse on morale
Research shows that HSPs have more active mirror neurons (which helps them empathize and understand other people’s behavior). This is why you may find that you can sense people’s moods long before they say a word, as well as absorb their emotions as if they were your own.
Many of my coaching clients find they have a talent for anticipating people’s emotional needs in the workplace—such as knowing when their team is burned out, sensing if a certain individual needs more support, or reading between the lines to determine when a client or boss is unsatisfied.
Leverage your off-the-charts emotional intelligence to boost morale and psychological safety by:
- Start off meetings on a positive note. For example, have each team member share a win or recent highlight.
- Make an effort to deeply understand your team. For myself, I have each of my clients create a “me manual,” or a guide that explains their personality, strengths, weaknesses, and work preferences. Share it with your team and have them create their own.
- Schedule “office hours.” Set aside a few hours a week where employees can drop in for as-needed coaching, questions, and support.
As a highly sensitive person who experiences strong emotions, you might feel like you’re carrying a heavy load, especially in the workplace. But the truth is you likely have a huge amount of untapped value to share with your coworkers, clients, and in your career as a whole. Therefore, embrace being an HSP, since it’s likely you bring many for all the positives you bring to the table.
Melody Wilding, LMSW, is an executive coach and author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work.