Effective Communication for Highly Sensitive People (ie – Why We Need to SPIT IT OUT!)

High Sensitivity – The Best of Traits and the Worst of Traits…

Highly Sensitive People have a lot of goods to give. We tend to be empathic. We have the capacity of noticing subtlety. We laugh as often as we cry (which is impressive since we do a fair amount of both). We can hear the symphony in silence, and can taste the sweetness of sunshine.

And all that jazz…

We also tend to get overwhelmed in the midst of conflict, over-taxed just while waiting for a BART train or subway, and downright fussy after a night of poor sleep.

What can I say? You gotta take the good with the bad. We are a roller coaster ride.

But most of us have learned how to deal with the up and downswing of any multitude of experiences. We’ve spend a lifetime in our respective space-suits. We know what we need. At least…most of the time, we do. And those who are brave enough (and patient enough) to love us, often find its worth the effort to do the same.

No…it’s not our needs that are the problem. It’s not even, necessarily, the intensity of our experience and/or emotions. For us (and for those who know us) at any given moment…The challenge for HSP (whether we are enraptured or mortified) is in communicating effectively about our experiences and our needs.

Communication Styles:

I’m sure there are whole libraries devoted to a myriad of ways to describe a multitude of communication styles. For the purposes of this article, I’m just covering the basics. In general, there are four communication styles that people tend use at any given time.

Aggressive: An aggressive communicator sees their own needs as primary, and others needs as secondary. They tend to be impatient. Abrupt. Examples might look like:

  • What made you think that would work?
  • Why would I do that for you? 
  • Who do you think you are?

On the upside…they usually get their needs met. Setting boundaries is really not an issue for this type. The only trouble is that in negating the needs of others and belittling their point of view, it corrodes relationships.

NOTE: I have yet to meet a fellow highly sensitive person who has an aggressive communication style. But we sometimes seem to attract those who do.

Passive: A passive communicator is on the other extreme. They meet the needs of others even if it means neglecting their own needs. They tend to come off as vague. Unclear. Permissive. The concept of a “yes man” was crafted from and has its origins in this type of communication. Examples might look like.

  • I don’t know…what do you think?
  • Well I’m no expert, but…
  • Sure, I’ll take care of that for you (even if doing so comes at my own expense)

The upside with this group is that they are able to maintain relationships with others with relative ease. Who wouldn’t like a person who can meet their wants and needs on a whim? But the value of those relationships are watered down by inauthenticity. As a colleague of mine once said to me “If you never say ‘no’, your ‘yes’ means nothing.”

Passive-Aggressive: These folks are the wolves masquerading in the costumes of sheep. They say they will do a thing to please you, but then fail to follow up. They insult you, but use passive tone and language. Or it can be nonverbal aggression. These are the folks who are angry, but aren’t expressing it. For example, a passive-aggressive communicator might…

  • Say they are “fine” (even when their tone says otherwise)
  • Offer snide remarks in a non-aggressive tone
  • Sulk in silence rather than explain their needs

This group typically is a mixed bag. They keep appearances up that they are helpful and kind…even as they neglect to follow through on the very thing they said they would do. They do just enough to avoid conflict and get one’s needs met, but not enough to allow for healthy communication and growth.

NOTE: I would love to say this isn’t a problem for highly sensitive people. But it’s definitely a problem.

Assertive: This is the Gold Star of communication styles. Someone who is assertive is able to hold the needs of others alongside their own needs in equal measure. They say what they mean, and they say it non-defensively. They advocate for their own needs, but do so in a way that shows respect to those around them. Examples of how this might manifest could be:

  • I’m really struggling with something. I’d like to talk to you about it. Can we?
  • I wish I could help you, but unfortunately, I have already made plans.
  • Can you do me a huge favor? I’m having trouble getting all this done. If you have a moment, I could really use your help…

This group manages to get their needs met while also honoring the needs of others. If they can help, and say they will….they will. If they can’t help, they won’t say they can and dodge it later. They are clear about what they want and need for themselves, and clear about how and to what extent they can meet yours.

Challenges for Highly Sensitive People in Communicating

No one likes conflict. But highly sensitive people appear to be physically pained by it. We’ve got the brain scans to prove it. It lights up alarm bells that signify danger and threat. As a result, it can make it incredibly tempting to simply pacify others and avoid conflict altogether. The ingredients are there to produce a highly agreeable person…perhaps too agreeable.

And it may not just be highly sensitive people who fall prey to this. A study done in 2016 suggests that highly agreeable people (HSP or no) often exhibit specific brain patterns during conflict that push them to agree as if their life depended upon it.

What’s the danger,  here? Well…I’ll give myself as an example.

I’m a highly sensitive person. I appreciate having plenty of time to myself. I need peace and quiet. In my relationships, I need intimacy and connection. The best currency you can barter with for my love and affection is time. Physically, I need to keep my blood sugar balanced. I need to get enough sleep. I need time for audiobooks…and relationships with people who are willing to tolerate my love of said books. I need movement. A LOT of movement. If I’m not reading, writing, eating…I’m moving. Too much stillness and I feel stifled.

If any of those needs aren’t met, I feel it. In my bones.

Most of the time these needs are not that problematic. It’s not hard to satisfy my own needs for good food. I can cook. It’s not hard to pick up a book and read, or throw on a pair of tennis shoes and run. Finding people willing to love me…that took time. But I am fortunate enough to say that I have found people I care about deeply who know how to love me despite my quirks. Maybe even because of them.

Problems only come when my needs directly conflict with what I perceive the needs of those I love are. I want connection with my boyfriend…but he’s starving for some time alone. What do I do? I want to eat NOW….but I was supposed to go to dinner with friends. And they aren’t ready, yet. Should I wait? I want peace and quiet, but I’ve just been invited to attend a group gathering and they really want me to go.

On the one hand…I really want A. But my friends really want me to do B. What do I do?

What I’ve done in the past is either use passive communication and action (do what they want to keep the peace) OR passive aggressive communication and action (say I’m fine, but stew in anger…or say I will do a thing, but drop out at the last minute or forget to make it a priority).

I don’t imagine you’re surprised to discover that this strategy hasn’t been working. At least, it hasn’t been working very well. 

Repressing Anger Hurts EVERYONE.

My inability to communicate assertively harms me in a multitude of ways…including:

  • Repressed anger is associated with digestive complaints, heart disease, and depression (which makes sense. To depress is literally to push down).
  • Communicating unclearly disrupts work flow. I have a private coaching practice, I consult for a startup, and I teach classes. When I am not VERY clear about appointments, policies, or classroom expectations…I ultimately communicate to others that I don’t value myself and thus am all right when others follow suit.
  • Communicating passively (or passive aggressively) disrupts the flow of my relationships. Try as they might, my friends and family cannot actually read my mind and figure out what I need. And when I expect them to, it’s insulting. It creates far more problems than might have been created if I just SPIT IT OUT.

Experimenting with Assertive Communication. 

I get that this stuff doesn’t come easy. Saying, explicitly “I need X” can be frightening. What if what you want conflicts with what someone else wants? BUT – in the long run, it serves EVERYONE better.

So if you want to start communicating more effectively…try these tips:

  • Tell people you feel safe with. Maybe even say to them “Hey…I’m trying to learn how to communicate more assertively. This is something I struggle with. Would you do me a big favor and point it out to me any time that I seem to be vague or unclear with my opinions/needs?”
  • Practice saying no to things. Start small. And try saying no without qualifying it. “No, I’m sorry…I cant do that thing with you.” Don’t make up an excuse about why. Just try saying “no.”
  • Before voicing your needs allowed…maybe try writing it on paper. Even a journal. Before you get clear with others about your needs…you really need to be able to get clear on it for yourself. Sensitive people tend to communicate better in writing.
  • When you’re struggling to voice your needs to someone you care about, start by actually saying you are having a hard time. Maybe you can’t communicate your needs assertively, yet. But you can AT LEAST tell them, directly, that it’s hard for you. “Hey…I know you need me to be more clear…but this is something I have a hard time with. I really need you to give me a little space to think.”
  • If you want to dodge people on the phone and disconnect (but don’t want to come across as someone who is simply avoiding confrontation) set up an auto-text to people….or put in a voicemail message…that says “hey guys! This last week has been a little draining. So I decided to take a day off. I’ll check my messages and texts tomorrow, though : )

What are some examples of situations where you find it difficult to communicate what you need? How might your life be different if you were able to spit it out?

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