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Precious people: dealing with hypersensitivity and defensiveness

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If you’re a people manager it’s likely that you have been, or will at some point be, faced with the challenge of dealing with precious people. The draining influence of an overly sensitive or defensive person on both time and energy can be immense. Addressing the impacts of these people matters not only to their own success and your sanity, but also to the engagement and performance of the rest of your team.

As tempting as it may at times be to simply ignore people who constantly complain or over react, the only way to overcome the issue is to tackle it head on. Shifting the headspace, attitudes and actions of people who are hypersensitive and defensive is a critical priority for any leader and one that can only be achieved through hands on coaching.

Influencing Change

Begin by expecting people to demonstrate emotional intelligence. Make it matter that people are self-aware and have the ability to regulate their emotions and conduct. Show respect and regard for how people feel, but expect also that they take responsibility for how they choose to think, feel and behave; including when times are tough or not to their liking.

Sensitive people need to feel heard and understood. Having empathy and listening is critical to earning their trust and in turn being in a position to influence their development. To influence anyone you need to appreciate how he or she thinks and feels. Understanding people will better enable you to challenge the beliefs and assumptions fuelling their concerns. Be empathetic while at the same time challenging people to choose more productive thoughts and emotions.

When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.
– Stephen Covey

Communication is key!

Engage in honest conversations with people about the impacts of their behaviour. Work with them to determine how they can best go about overcoming their issues. Set clear behavior goals, reiterating your expectation that they take responsibility for developing their ability to take on board feedback, respond to challenge and interact with colleagues more effectively. Encourage them to speak about any concerns going through their mind before they become blown out of proportion.

Give positive feedback and encouragement when possible and appropriate. Reinforcing productive emotions and behaviours is as important as challenging those that are not. Typically, sensitive people need validation from their boss and colleagues to feel confident in their work and relationships. Building confidence and a strong sense of belonging are essential to enabling people to let go of the insecurities that cause them to behave the way they do.

Be fair but firm

Challenge exaggerated reactions. Point out when emotional responses such as crying, complaining or arguing are making it hard for you to get your message through. Ask that they set those reactions aside so that you are able to have a meaningful and productive conversation. Help them to understand that the way they are choosing to feel is undermining their judgement and ultimately their ability to succeed.

Act with Conviction. Reach decisions you feel are appropriate and be prepared to explain your reasoning if questioned. Shut down repeated complaints that have already been responded to. Respectfully point out you have already considered and responded to their concern and now you expect them to move on.

Be proactive and preempt how certain people on your team may react in various circumstances. Take steps to influence their thinking and emotions to events and situations that you anticipate will arise. This is especially important as you work to drive changes through your team or organisation. Give ample warning of change, allay fears before they grow and invite people to contribute their ideas to avoid outcomes that worry them.

The ability to respond with emotional intelligence and constructive behaviour is a reasonable expectation to have of anyone in the workplace. Holding people accountable to thinking and behaving in ways that enable success is both fair and necessary. Creating a workplace environment in which the best possible outcomes are achieved through open, healthy, robust debate depends on it.

About the Author:

Karen Gately is a leadership and people-management specialist and a founder of Ryan Gately. She is the author of The People Manager’s Toolkit: A Practical guide to getting the best from people (Wiley). To register for a free breakfast seminar on Having Tough Conversations on 20th of May in Melbourne contact info@ryangately.com.au. For more information visit www.karengately.com.au or www.ryangately.com.au