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The Highly Sensitive Person at Work

The highly sensitive person

I am a highly sensitive person (HSP), one of the estimated 20% of humans on the planet who are HSP. It can be both a gift and a curse and is often misunderstood by loved ones and people at work and even by ourselves.

What makes someone a highly sensitive person?

According to international expert Alane Freund, there are four main characteristics:

  • Deep processing of information—which can make us amazing analysts and creative problem solvers or judgmental perfectionists!
  • Overwhelm—a brain which is more reactive to stimulation—people, sounds, emotions
  • Strong emotion and heightened empathy
  • Noticing/sensing everything—details, smells, noise

For most of my life, I was told I was “too” sensitive, that I “overreacted”, that I was “too” emotional. When I found out I was an HSP, and, indeed, I fit every facet of the description, it was quite a relief. I stopped feeling as wrong or bad and started learning how to appreciate and manage my sensitivity. It makes some situations more difficult for me, but it is also part of what makes me a highly effective coach, consultant, and trainer.

The highly sensitive person at work

If an average of one out of five people in a workplace is HSP, how does this impact communication and conflict at work?

Hardwiring, baseline, and swing

In their excellent book, Thanks for the Feedback, Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone talk about a number of variables that impact how we give and receive feedback. Hardwiring is our neurobiological fallback position. Baseline—our own general sense of self and well-being, separate from immediate events, and Swing—how deeply feedback or events affect us and how long that lasts are two variables that deeply affect how we receive feedback. For some of us, negative information is amplified and positive information is diminished. Although Heen and Stone don’t mention highly sensitive people, it is easy to see that this sensitivity would deeply impact baseline and swing and how we interpret feedback.

People at work have different backgrounds and levels of sensitivity. How can knowing this improve communication and increase harmony at work?

Listen and be curious instead of assuming

I’ve written a number of blog posts about how compassionate listening, being curious about others, and looking out for the different stories you and the other person might be perceiving about the same situation, expand the space for understanding and better communication.  You can learn that people from different cultures see things differently and sometimes follow different rules, that members of minorities may be dealing with endless micro aggressions, which means casual comments may land very differently for them. You can replace your hard judgments with more openness and wondering. This same expansion applies equally well to interacting with highly sensitive people.

You can review the signs of HSP and wonder if that is what is going on with this person. You can try more gentleness in your communication, knowing everything you say and do may be amplified for them. And if that improves your communication and lessens conflict, you’ll know you’re on the right track.

If you know or are starting to suspect you are a highly sensitive person, this awareness can help you understand yourself and your responses. It can also help you realize that a difficult person may not be trying to do something mean to you; they simply aren’t highly sensitive and don’t understand the impact their words or actions have on you. And, that as a leader, some people may need communication that is stronger and more direct than is natural for you.

With awareness, we can all help create a productive, harmonious workplace in which differences are valued for the richness and effectiveness they can bring.


Lorraine Segal

After surviving the 50's and 60's, as well as twenty years in toxic academia as a tenured professor, Lorraine Segal was inspired to started her own business, Conflict Remedy (, happily teaching, coaching, blogging and consulting around workplace conflict transformation. She is addicted to reading novels and enjoys walking and… MORE

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