Sensitivity Tips for Dummies

Posted April 28, 2011 in Communication, Latest News & Insights

About 15 years ago, a colleague and I attended a tradeshow on workplace training (we were scouting competitors). One of the vendors was hawking a personality assessment that pinpointed whether you were a “Type A”, B, C or D person (yes… apparently there is more than Type A).  Based on your input, you received a ranking from 1 to 15 on a set of items like inquisitiveness, communication, competitiveness, etc etc.  One of the items was “Sensitivity”.  I scored 2 out of 15.  Needless to say (as with most times we get self-assessment results that we don’t like), I was outraged.  I’d always felt that I was a fairly caring person who was empathetic to the plights of others.  But here’s what the interpreter said to me…

Interpreter Guy:  “It’s 3 p.m. and your assistant is working on finalizing a crucial document that has to get out the door by 4:30 p.m.  She comes into your office and tells you that her child’s school just called and she has to go and pick him up straight away.  What’s your immediate reaction?”

Low Sensitivity Me: “Well, I would think about who we could get to finish up the report so that she could get out of there to get her son.”

IG: “Exactly. That’s a great low sensitivity answer.”  At which point he turned to my colleague (who had scored 9 or 10 out of 15 on the sensitivity scale) and said “What would you do?”

High Sensitivity Colleague (who, for the record, was a guy):  “I’d ask her what was wrong with her son.”

Ooops.  My big aha from all this (and all of you high sensitivity people can stop rolling your eyes right now) was that sensitivity to people’s emotional states and empathy for said states are two very different things.  I know… “d’uh”.  But obviously this was a huge blindspot for me.  Since then, I have endeavoured to get better at being more sensitive to others.  But I have to say… (and my husband would probably validate it) it doesn’t come easy.  I guess it’s just not how I’m wired (how’s that for a stereotype buster?  Aren’t women supposed to be wired for sensitivity).

I used to work with someone who felt that increasing your “sensitivity” to others wasn’t worth the effort… she felt that you were either wired that way or weren’t.  After being at it for 15+ years now, I tend to disagree.  If you’re like me and want to improve your sensitivity or empathy towards others, here’s some ideas from my own attempts:

  1. Start paying a lot of attention to your listening and observation skills… most leaders I know are really good talkers.  Great leaders are really good listeners.  Focusing on shifting my behaviour from talking a lot and listening a little to listening more and talking less has really helped me tune in more to how what I’m saying is “landing” on other people;
  2. Suck it up and get out of your own comfort zone… I’m happy to tackle work problems and talk about work stuff.  I generally avoid anything that is too personal (read emotional) in nature, so even when I see that people are upset about something, I used to try to plough through to keep things focused on business.  Now I check-in more to see how they’re feeling.  And it’s actually not that difficult or uncomfortable.
  3. Take a coaching course… and I don’t mean a business type performance coaching course.  I mean a real coaching program that will teach you skills to listen at a deeper and higher level.
  4. Take an improv class… if a bonafide coaching program is just way to warm and fuzzy for you, try improv.  It’s all about listening and communicating and definitely helped me get out of my own agenda and think about others.
  5. Marry someone sensitive… talk about an ongoing great learning opportunity for you.  For them… ? Maybe not so much.

I think being insensitive to how your messages or behaviours are impacting others is one of things that can really reduce your overall impact as a leader.  And, it’s something that’s “fixable” if you work at it.  And, if you want to be a great leader… you’ll want to work at it, right? What do you other insensitive dummies think about that?

Happy leading!


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