Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: August 2013
Last May, while I was teaching at the University of Bamberg in the business department, I was asked how an employer or manager would recognize an HSP without giving them the HSP Self-Test. You can’t just ask, they pointed out, because many employees would be cautious about identifying themselves as highly sensitive, fearing it will be in their record and be seen as a weakness by someone else, even if the people in my course would only want to know in order to make best use of them.
I think I can sense an HSP just by being around him or her for a few minutes. Sometimes I imagine I can spot them in a line. But I have a lot of practice. The trouble is, I don’t know exactly how I do it, or even how accurate I am. There’s a look in the eyes, sometimes a certain posture and certainly differences in how they express themselves over a few minutes. But as one of these students joked, “How do we notice these subtle differences if we aren’t HSPs?”
I realize that you, being an HSP, are probably better than these mostly non-HSP students at recognizing your fellows. But even I can’t always tell, and sometimes it really is nice to know. One woman at Kripalu showed me her solution, a business-card-sized handout that said on the front (as I recall), “Are you highly sensitive? I am.” On the back were a number of the self-test questions (not a problem if you are not publishing the self-test to sell on online). That’s one nice way to find your fellow HSPs.
Try a Brief Description
Most HSPs recognize themselves in a description of the trait, so of course an easy way to discover who is highly sensitive is to describe it to them very briefly. Employers and managers can discuss it in a meeting or seminar where people can choose whether to identify themselves as highly sensitive. But you can encourage them to do so, pointing out that they will enjoy knowing other HSPs in their workplace and that it will greatly help non-HSPs understand them better.**
A good sound bite might be, “Have you ever heard of the trait of high sensitivity? About 20% of people are born with it. It’s completely normal. Basically it’s just a preference to process one’s experiences more deeply. You know, think about things more than other people do.”
You can stop here and wait for questions, or go on. “They (“we” is better though) also notice things others miss, and have stronger emotional reactions, both positive and negative. Noticing so much, feeling so much, and thinking about everything so much naturally means that they also get more easily overwhelmed, so that they need more down time and are more bothered by things like noise or having too much to do at once.”
If you aren’t ready to broach the subject with them, you can draw conclusions by thinking about them in terms of DOES (all of these were in the sound bite above). These clues are mainly for the workplace, as they were written for employers, but that’s where it may be most difficult to ask about another’s sensitivity, even a coworker’s:
Depth of processing. Does this person often come up with unusual, creative ideas? Is this person unusually conscientious (aware of consequences of failing to do things well)? Does this person prefer to decide things slowly, mull things over? Are his or her decisions often right? You might also ask if this person has thought about the long term goals of their part of the organization, or why something did or didn’t work. If the person feels safe to comment honestly, and many HSPs will be cautious about this, you will probably hear a surprisingly long, detailed answer.
Easily Overstimulated. Have you noticed that this person is more easily stressed by noise, chaotic situations, deadlines, or working in groups (true more for introverted HSPs)? Seeks quiet spots? Prefers to work alone or at home? You might ask if the person would benefit from a quieter working environment or more flexible deadlines. Outside the workplace, does this person hesitate to make plans or turn down invitations? It could be because he or she just needs more downtime.
Emotionally reactive. Does this person react strongly to feedback, both positive and negative–perhaps over compensate and, for example, rewrite an entire report when only some of it needed changing? Has she or he ever cried in a meeting? Does this person have considerable empathy for others, or know more than most about other workers’ personal problems? Does this person, compared to others, worry more about how someone is reacting to a negative event, give more positive feedback, and generally attend to group morale? Does he or she become angry, curious, sad, anxious, or joyful sooner than others? You might also ask directly how they feel about something.
Sensitive to subtle stimuli. Does this person seem to notice things that others don’t? Does he or she arrange work spaces with special care, such as adjusting the lighting? Comment on others’ dress or small changes in the environment or weather? You might say you are looking for people who notice details, and for fun ask the person something like the color of the chairs in the meeting room.
Other Subtle Stuff
You will still wish to validate your hunch, so perhaps a few direct questions could be asked without raising alarm. Try “I feel xx–do you too?” “I hate noisy places. How about you?” “I can’t stand it when people don’t think ahead. (Are rude. Are late.) Does that bother you?” You would think everyone would say yes, but non-HSPs won’t say “yes, me too,” to more than one or two. After a string of agreements on these sorts of things, the two of you will begin to see your underlying similarity.
You can check out even more subtle ones. Coffee use. Most HSPs can’t drink much caffeine–it makes them too overstimulated. If something startles you, say “I startle so easily!” and see if the other says “me too.” If something hurts, say “I am so sensitive to pain.” Or, “I am so bothered by too many cloudy days in a row.” Silence or no to these is a clue that this is not an HSP.
Or Forget Subtle
If you are an employer or manager (or even dating or looking for HSP friends), you might want to lead by discussing the trait at length, entirely in positive terms: That you are seeking to identify those with a certain combination of traits: conscientiousness, creativity, and responsiveness to the organization’s needs and to the needs of others on the team. You could say that some people have one or two of these–for example, some people are highly creative but rather self-centered or less conscientious–but you have noticed that a few people have all three, this person seeming to be one of them, and those are the people you want to identify and make better use of. You could add that you have observed that these people are also the most likely to be upset by failures of others in these areas–for example, when they observe bullying or unethical behavior–or by stressful conditions generally. By the time you have painted such a rosy picture of HSPs, the others may want to admit to being one.
Especially if you are in the business world, perhaps the very best way to introduce this subject is to use the material developed by Janine Ramsey in Australia.
For all of you, happy HSP hunting.
**In such a meeting you will want to reassure those who identify themselves as highly sensitive that you see this as a unique benefit to the organization. Also, until sensitivity is more broadly understood as a normal variation possessed by 20% of the population, you might want to have the policy that this innate trait will be kept confidential and not appear in any written records, which is in keeping with the view that a person’s DNA is private. In the group, you could ask that knowledge of who is or isn’t HS will stay within the confines of that group unless one has the person’s permission, asked for in private, to disclose it elsewhere.