Individuals vary widely in their level of emotional sensitivity, ranging from being stoic to being easily hurt. While neither extreme is conducive to open communication, the individual who is emotionally sensitive can push you to hold back your true feelings. Over time, you find yourself mincing your words or walking on eggshells because you fear the other person's emotional reaction. Unfortunately, this can change the dynamic between the two of you because you are withholding your feelings. Learning how to deal with a sensitive person can improve your ability to be honest in a way that is effective but also tactful.
React with assertion and not aggression. Being assertive, according to the Mayo Clinic, allows you to continue to express your feelings while still respecting emotional boundaries. Assertive communication is achieved by using statements that are prefaced by the pronoun "I" instead of "you." (For example, "I feel frustrated when ...") In addition, maintain your own emotional stability. Individuals who are easily hurt may be more vulnerable to overt expressions of emotions such as yelling. Dealing with someone who is emotionally sensitive doesn't mean you have to avoid expressing strong feelings, but it may require that you don't become emotionally volatile in the process.
Acknowledge and validate problems, not the emotional reactions. The most effective way to communicate is to care without becoming consumed. Acknowledge problems, differences of opinion and other sources of conflict, without reacting to an expression of hurt feelings that is disproportionate to the conflict. In these cases, the other person is using an out-of-proportion expression of hurt to deflect, defer or otherwise attain control of your attention and of the situation. Keep in mind that there is nothing wrong with someone feeling hurt. However, pay attention to whether the depth of the expression actually fits the problem before reacting.
Discuss your friend's behaviors. You may feel a sense of anger or resentment because the other person tends to get hurt almost as soon as you begin to communicate even the most innocuous subject. Discussing how your friend behaves can allow you to explain how this leads to barriers to an honest relationship. Discussing a potentially sensitive subject in an effective manner, explains the Centre for Clinical Interventions in its online publication "Assertive Communication," is best accomplished without exaggerating the facts, by listening to the person's response and by speaking without judgment.
Assure your friend that she is not in danger of rejection or judgment by you. Communicating and being assertive when dealing with a highly sensitive person does not mean you are rejecting or judging her. You are not reinforcing the other person's high level of emotional sensitivity either. Instead, you are helping to address concerns about her fear of judgment or rejection. Although this approach is assertive and not aggressive, it may be met with emotional resistance. If this does occur, allow your friend to voice her concerns, and then provide her with assurance that the friendship is not in jeopardy.
Identify what you need to do to reduce or resolve the effects of your friend's heightened sensitivity on you and the relationship. According to the University of Maryland health center, being assertive in communicating a problem comes with the responsibility of negotiating a win-win outcome. Maintain the understanding that the person is engaging in behaviors for a genuine reason and that those behaviors help her cope in some way. At the same time, you also have the right to not be unduly affected by her behavior. In the end, a mutually negotiated outcome may not be perfect, but it should be something both of you can agree is acceptable.
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Types of Communication Behavior
- Dr. Dennis O'Grady: How Do You Criticize a Sensitive Person?
- Wright State University: Communicating Constructively
- The Mayo Clinic: Stress Management: Being Assertive: Reduce Stress, Communicate Better
- Centre for Clinical Interventions: Assertive Communication
- University of Maryland: FSAP - Effective Communication
Maura Banar has been a professional writer since 2001 and is a psychotherapist. Her work has appeared in "Imagination, Cognition and Personality" and "Dreaming: The Journal of the International Association for the Study of Dreams." Banar received her Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Buffalo State College and her Master of Arts in mental health counseling from Medaille College.