Precious people in the workplace: dealing with hypersensitivity and defensiveness

By Karen Gately.

We’ve all met them. The overly emotional colleague who is all too easily offended and overreacts to the smallest of issues; the hypercritical colleague who finds fault in everything; those who argue points simply to prove themselves right; those who personalise every issue, constantly complain and become upset when things don’t go their way. These people can be exhausting and sap us of vital energy.

If you’re a people leader, you’ve probably been, or will at some point be, faced with the challenge of managing precious people. As tempting as it can be simply to ignore them, addressing the effects 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.

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.

Whether you’re the precious person’s manager or colleague, there are steps you can take to have a positive influence on their thinking and behaviour. While there is no magic wand that will easily shift a ‘poor-me’ or defensive mindset, honest feedback delivered with respect and sensitivity is essential.

‘Holding the mirror up’ can go a long way towards waking people up to the influence they are having on their own happiness and success.

Essential steps we can all take include these:

  • Have empathy and listen to understand

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

Stephen Covey

 

Typically, sensitive people need to feel heard and understood. Having empathy and listening are critical to earning their trust and in turn influencing their behaviour.

Begin by furthering your understanding of not only what they feel, but also why. The simple reality is, to have a positive impact on anyone’s behaviour, first you need to appreciate how he or she thinks and feels.

Understanding people will better enable you to earn their trust and ultimately influence their approach. Ask questions that will help you gain insight into the beliefs and assumptions fuelling their concerns or motivating their behaviour. Have compassion, but remain objective.

  • Set boundaries

Reflect on the hypersensitive people in your life. How much time and energy do you spend on people who never seem to follow through to fix the issues they complain about? Do you find yourself listening to the concerns of those who seem determined to believe in a pessimistic view of their world?

If allowed to, precious people will drain us of energy to fuel their seemingly never-ending need for negativity and drama. It’s up to you to protect your energy reserves by limiting the time and attention you give them. Don’t fall into the trap of fixing the problems of a ‘drama queen’ for them.  They will draw on your talents and energy for as long as you allow them to.

Set clear boundaries about the conversations you will or won’t engage in. Excuse yourself from negative discussions about other people, pointless issues or overdramatised points of view. Set an example of professionalism and emotional intelligence and people are less likely to share their dramas with you.

  • Have expectations

Healthy workplace cultures require that we listen to, care for and support our colleagues to cope with the challenges they encounter at work. What matters as well, however, is that we expect people to help themselves and strive to move past the trivial things that make them unhappy.

Begin by expecting people to take responsibility for how they feel and affect others around them. Show respect and consideration, but also expect people to take ownership of how they are choosing to think, feel and behave.

 

Leaders: Begin by expecting people to demonstrate emotional intelligence. Make it matter that people are self-aware and able to regulate their emotions and conduct. Show respect and regard for how people feel, but also expect them to take responsibility for how they respond and grow.

Be proactive and pre-empt how certain people on your team may react in various circumstances.  Take steps to influence their thinking and emotions over 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.

Have tough-love conversations

Engage in honest conversations with people about the effects of their behaviour on you, others and their own reality. Be upfront while at the same time sensitive in your approach. Understand the influence you will have is, in part, dependent on the depth of trust in your relationship. To influence the way anyone thinks, feels or acts, first they need to be willing to let you.

For example: John, I can appreciate why you would find that situation frustrating, I really can. My honest observation is, however, when you get as upset as you were today, people become uncomfortable and stop listening to you. The way you are responding to resistance to your ideas is influencing people to behave in the very ways you don’t want them to.

Talk to precious people about how they can best go about overcoming their issues. Encourage them to speak about any concerns going through their mind before they become blown out of proportion. Challenge people to choose to think differently when unfounded beliefs and assumptions fuel their concerns. Help people to see alternative perspectives and options they can choose to focus on or believe in.

For example: John, it’s possible that people are pushing back because they have concerns about what the change will mean for them. While perhaps some people don’t respect your experience, it’s entirely likely that others simply don’t have the information they need to allay fears.  Have you spoken to people about their concerns?

Respectfully challenge exaggerated reactions. Point out when emotional responses such as crying, complaining or arguing are making it hard for them to maintain perspective. Ask that they set those reactions aside, so you can have a meaningful and productive conversation.

Help people to understand that the way they’re choosing to feel is undermining their judgement and ultimately their ability to succeed. Be empathetic while encouraging people to choose more productive thoughts and emotions.

For example: John, I appreciate this situation is very upsetting for you. The reality is, however, none of us can control other people, events and circumstances. What we can control is how we choose to respond. Investing energy in being angry or upset is only undermining you and your success. If you want to work through this, then you’re going to need to shift your thinking and control your emotions. 

 

Leaders: Set clear behaviour goals, reiterating your expectation that people take responsibility for developing their ability to take on board feedback, respond to challenges and interact with colleagues more effectively.

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.

  • Give positive feedback

Typically, sensitive people need validation from their manager 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. Give positive feedback and encouragement when possible and appropriate. Reinforcing productive emotions and behaviour is as important as challenging those that are not.

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). For more information, visit www.ryangately.com.au.

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