Articles > Sense and sensitivity: Reading emotional currents

Sense and sensitivity: Reading emotional currents
Globe & Mail, April 21, 2006

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

I recently attended an event at which a woman who had risen through the ranks of an organization spoke about female leadership. She talked extensively about emotional intelligence and empathy, and how these characteristics had contributed to her success.

I listened to all of the female-friendly affirming words she uttered, and yet I couldn't help but feel that she was cold and completely devoid of emotion -- the exact opposite of what she was trying to convey. Indeed, I was so affected by her persona that I couldn't shake her from my mind all day.

In the audience were a number of friends and clients. Their reactions were varied. Some were similarly freaked out but others were enthralled. "The most inauthentic, yucky woman," said one. "Very inspiring," said another.

So why did we react so differently to this woman? Quite simply, it wasn't what she was saying, but our intuitive reactions to her. And some of us are more intuitive, and sensitive, to what we pick up on than are others.

What do I mean by an intuitive reaction? Intuition involves mentally crunching all sorts of available information that goes beyond what is being said, and making inferences as a result.

Non-verbal cues, such as body language, voice tones, dress and facial expression, are all things we process. Some of us do this more quickly and are more affected by what others are like -- something which has always interested me.

Why does it matter? It affects all of our daily interactions, the interpretations we make about people and how we feel about our work.
When I asked a friend recently about his new job and whether he liked his co-workers, he looked at me like I'd asked about the plumbing in his office. It was something he hadn't even considered. But for others, the people they work with have a huge impact on how they feel about their jobs.

As one woman commented: "I know it sounds indulgent but I can't work with clients whom I don't care for on a personal level. If I don't like someone or pick up something unpleasant about their personality, say narcissism, that's all I can think of."

Gender, of course, also plays a role. Research shows that there is a significant difference between men and women in their sensitivity to non-verbal cues. Men, for example, are less likely to see and accurately read facial expressions or pick up on underlying emotional currents. Men also pay less attention and are more oblivious to the tenor of an organizational culture, while women notice it and are more disturbed when they perceive unpleasant undertones.

This explains, in part, why women are more likely to complain about the culture of their organization. As one corporate refugee who has held several senior human resource jobs said: "I'd come out of meetings with the senior management team and realize for the guys it was simply a game. But all I could see was the one-upmanship, the nasty undermining of each other. It would make me sick. I don't think the guys saw anything."

Male or female, being sensitive can have its advantages. Just like a good comedian will adjust his or her tempo and routine when the audience isn't laughing, the salesperson pitching high-level professional services or luxury goods, for example --where it's important to be able to read the audience, and adapt a selling strategy accordingly -- will be far more effective than someone who is tone-deaf, oblivious to the fact they've lost their audience or are boring them.

But such sensitivity can also make you more vulnerable, quicker to jump to conclusions, more intolerant of people you don't care for and more easily hurt. It can also be an impediment for certain kinds of work.
I was never completely at ease in a one-on-one counselling role because I found myself picking up too much information about my client -- more than I was supposed to know based on what I had been told. The client would say "x" and I would hear, and respond to, "y," which was not what the person had communicated.

I also found it difficult to be in the type of job where I couldn't choose my clients. But when you are starting out, you don't have such luxury, which meant working with people I didn't care for. When I mentioned to a counselling colleague that I had difficulty getting though an entire session with someone I didn't care for, she said: "It never occurred to me to think about whether I like them."

Often people who have this sensitivity have thinner boundaries between themselves and the world. They pick up more, and therefore feel others' pain more. One banker, for example, had to take a stress leave from his job as a loans officer. " It killed me to call a loan from a small business person who had invested all their life savings in their business," he said. He subsequently quit his job and became a real estate agent -- a role in which his sensitivity to clients' spoken and unspoken needs and emotional tensions between couples would be an asset.

Indeed, people who are more insensitive often miss out on important information and the subtexts and nuances of situations.

I believe sensitivity to non-verbal information is an attribute, like height, that you can't change. But if you recognize your own predilections, like the banker, you can leverage them by finding roles that play to your strengths. You can also exercise control over your natural inclinations to ensure you are reacting appropriately to all of the rich interpersonal information you are presented with in any interaction.

How to play it

Overly sensitive:

Step back before you draw conclusions about someone. When you think someone is not being honest, distinguish between what was actually said and what you inferred. Ask yourself what evidence there is to support your inference. Use your intuition and what you have observed from body language to inform rather than completely determine how you assess things.

Develop boundaries. Don't internalize others' pain. It belongs to them, not to you.

Act on what really happened. Don't overinterpret. Often, overly sensitive people build elaborate stories about what they've seen or heard that take on a life of their own.

Find work that leverages your sensitivity. Jobs that require the ability to pick up on subtle non-verbal cues, such as teaching and selling professional services and luxury goods, are examples. Conversely, avoid jobs in which the people you interact with are in pain or you create pain for others, for example, foreclosing a business. Ditto jobs that require taking a harsh position that will have a negative impact on others,

Overly insensitive:

Pay more attention to non-verbal cues. Consider what you hear in others' voice tones or see in their body language. Are they congruent with the words being spoken? Similarly, pay attention to the effects of your own behaviour on others.

Imagine yourself in another person's shoes. Use this information to get a better understanding of their emotional state. Adjust your behaviour in light of what you observe. There is nothing more irritating than someone who drones on without determining whether they have the interest of the other party. Stop and change tactics if you are not holding other people's attention.

Work in jobs where being thick-skinned is an asset. Consider, for example, roles that require the ability to spring back from frequent rejections or take tough and unpopular decisions.