How to Handle Hypersensitive People In the Workplace

hypersensitiveHi there! Here’s a joke. A magician called a volunteer from his audience and handed the woman a large mallet.

“When I say the word,” said the magician, “I want you to strike my forehead as hard as you can with that mallet.”

The magician gave the cue, and the woman dutifully struck him right between the eyes. Six months later, the magician awoke from his coma, leapt out of his hospital bed, and shouted, “TA-DA!”

I like that joke because it’s silly. People either laugh or they just don’t get it. I’ve not yet met anyone who took offense, but I’m certain that eventually someone will be horribly, tragically offended by it.

It’s one of the most common complaints I hear about society in general, and the workplace in particular: People are too sensitive. No one has a sense of humor anymore. I’m sick of being politically correct!

Hypersensitivity is unsettling because you never know when it is going to strike. One moment you’re telling an innocent magician joke. Next thing you know, you’re backed into a corner and defending yourself against accusations of brutish incivility.

In a world full of HR departments, other people’s hypersensitivities can get us into genuine trouble. It seems we must all be vigilant against saying something that might be misinterpreted or taken out of context. Hypersensitivity sometimes leaves good people fighting for their jobs. But we shouldn’t live in fear. It is possible to handle hypersensitive people with finesse.

Before we continue, let’s define terms. I’ll use hypersensitive to describe emotional fragility. Sometimes it’s born of limited coping skills. Sometimes it functions to manipulate and control others. Sometimes an otherwise resilient person is hypersensitive because they’re simply having a bad day.

I’m not referring to what has become known as high sensitivity, which refers to a stunted ability to filter environmental stimuli like light, sound, and even other people’s moods. High sensitivity is a biological predisposition traceable to brain structures like the reticular activating system. It has little to do with emotional sturdiness. Despite what you might read elsewhere, high sensitivity and hypersensitivity don’t go hand-in-hand. (I’ve written more about the differences over at Psychology Today.)

OK then. Let’s talk about helping those poor, hypersensitive souls survive their day without ruining ours. Welcome to Five-Step Hypersensitivity Training!

Step 1. Check the Facts

The first step in responding to accusations of insensitivity is to check the facts. Take an honest appraisal of the words or behavior in question. Did you do something objectively offensive, or merely subjectively so? What would a majority of reasonable people think?

Context matters in this appraisal. The magician joke would be in poor taste at a brain injury support group, but it might be perfectly fitting among ER workers for whom gallows humor is an important coping mechanism. (Humor has strange rules.)

The “80 percent rule” is a handy way to factor out subjective judgement. If four out of five reasonable, objective people judge the magician joke to be offensive given the context, then it’s time to apologize.

If so, avoid the smarmy, corporate-sounding non-apology: “I’m sorry you found my words to be inappropriate.” That’s not an apology because the focus is on their behavior, not ours.

If, on the other hand, if there’s general agreement that the joke was innocuous, then you still have the option of apologizing and getting on with life. Of course, you might not want to apologize. There are plenty of good reasons not to. In that case, you’ll need a strategy for dealing with the offended party. The next step can be the most challenging.

Step 2. Empathize (Seriously. Without Sounding Sarcastic or Insincere.)

So someone has taken offense at our beautifully-delivered, objectively innocuous magician joke. Like it or not, they’re hurting and they expect us to take away the pain.

Empathy is a powerful tool in a situation like this, even though it is difficult to summon when we feel that the other party is being unreasonable. Empathizing is easier if you remember that you don’t have to agree with their pain in order to acknowledge that it exists.

This isn’t just airy pop-psychology. Empathy creates tactical advantages. It buys time; it helps us avoid inflammatory responses like “lighten up;” and it allows us to gather useful information about what’s happening on their end.

In fact, curiosity is one of the easiest ways to display empathy. You can start with a question like:

“Is everything OK?”

The goal is to get them talking so that you can appraise the situation. You might discover that they are having a truly rotten day. If so, you’ll be glad you didn’t meet force with force.

During this phase of the conversation, we are giving away a bit of power by allowing the person to talk. This can feel counterintuitive, but it does wonders for de-escalating heightened emotions. Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t set some terms for the conversation. Here’s a more strategic opening question:

“What was it that offended you about what I said?”

This approach highlights the fact that they chose to be offended, and it undermines the implicit assertion that you are the bad guy. It whispers, this is your problem, not mine, but I’m willing to be reasonable about it.

Step 3. Don’t Make Their Emotions the Central Issue

Injured, hypersensitive people are compelled to make their feelings the centerpiece of the discussion. Suppose the magician joke offended someone whose sister once suffered a brain injury. They feel that the joke hits a little too close to home, and you should know better than to mock the suffering of others.

It’s tempting to try to soothe the person by explaining that you were unaware of their history, or to go on the offensive by explaining that all jokes have the potential to offend someone.

By definition, the hypersensitive person has difficulty moving beyond painful feelings. When we fall into the trap of trying to soothe or defend, we’re placing their emotions center stage. Don’t dwell there. There is rarely a satisfying conclusion. It’s useful to acknowledge emotions, but don’t argue. Instead, steer the conversation toward rational options.

Step 4. Offer Pragmatic, Rational Options

So far, we’ve used the 80 percent rule and we’ve empathized with the offended person. Now it’s time to shift the conversation from the past to the future, and from feelings to logic.

Again, we can use the counterintuitive strategy of giving power to the offended person. We’ll offer a summarizing statement and a question designed to get them moving forward. Continuing with the previous example, we might say something like:

“I’m sorry to hear about your sister. I can certainly see how reminders would be painful. How should we go forward from here?”

If the person remains stuck in their emotions, we can give them a gentle nudge by presenting specific options of our choosing:

“How about this. In the future, I’ll be mindful of this piece of your history. Does that sound reasonable?”

The trick is remain empathetic and avoid being drawn into our own frustration. It’s easy to sound patronizing if we are insincere in our attempt to find a solution.

Step 5. Know When to Back Away

If your efforts are going nowhere, or making things worse, then it’s time to take a break. It’s easy to remain stuck in a counterproductive argument when we’re trying to soothe the other person or relieve our own anxiety. Ironically, people often inflame arguments because they’re trying to relieve tension.

Stepping away is as simple as stating the need and specifying a time when you’ll return to the conversation:

“I need to take a break. Can we continue this conversation in an hour?”

One last bit of advice when dealing with the chronically hypersensitive, especially in the workplace—and especially with people who have a history of punishing others for hurting their feelings: document anything related to accusations that you have behaved offensively. Find a secure place to write, preferably away from the workplace, and record dates, times, locations, names, situations, and exact quotes.

Stick to the facts, and save the editorializing for your friends and your diary. Hopefully you’ll never need it, but sometimes people are presumed guilty until proven innocent where feelings are involved.

By now, you might be thinking, Why should I do all this work? Why can’t I just tell the person to grow up?

The extra work is worthwhile if it’s going to make your life easier. You are free to point out the irrational nature of their response, and it might be useful message for them to hear. I only ask that you weigh the consequences first. It might be unfair, but the chronically offended wield great power in our otherwise comfortable society.

Say, did I ever tell you the one about the magician and the nun? On second thought, maybe I’ll save that for another day.


Surviving Aggressive People: Practical Violence Prevention Skills for the Workplace and the StreetPsst! Are you interested in more hands-on techniques for managing difficult folks? Check out my book, Surviving Aggressive People.