Elaine Aron has identified Sensitives as being the “royal advisors”, the “visionaries” of society. Many sensitives identify with the role of the researcher, consultant, and gentle therapist, BUT is there an important sensitive capacity that we are overlooking? Reading Justin Menkes’ “Heightened Sensitivity: Why It’s Such a Critical Leadership Component” I decided it was time to identify what years of being a teacher and discussion leader have taught me…how do you take your shyness and listening skills and transform them into an ability to effectively lead others? How do you activate your HSP leadership?
“Great leaders are highly sensitive in that they are acutely aware of the reactions of their people, the rhythms of the workplace, and the subtle, often unsaid shifts in the attitudes of their customers. Heightened awareness is not selective — it exposes leaders to a wide spectrum of data that can include stinging feedback..” (Justin Menkes)
When you’re a HSP leading a meeting or a group discussion, the information you receive from that group might be overwhelming. Besides the obvious communication going on: things said and body language, you’ll also pick up on much of what is unspoken, yet undeniably there. Instead of finding yourself unusually well-informed, you might find yourself unusually well… overwhelmed. Not a good space to be in! So, what to do?
Here’s 5 critical things I’ve learned from leading dynamic discussion groups. Note: they are not so much distinct “steps” as they are overlapping “angles”.
First: Decide beforehand what your goals are for the meeting. When you know what it is that you need to know, you are automatically programming your senses to pick up information relevant to your goal and letting the rest go. You’ll find that your sensitivity will help you instead of hinder you. It will be an empowering source of information. It will help you filter the massive amounts of information coming at you.
Are you looking for new ideas from the group on a particular matter? Are you interested in spotting the few truly enthusiastic team members to delegate responsibilities to? Do you want to get an idea of the unspoken wishes of the participants? Do you want to know whether the discussion matter is sufficiently understood by everyone?
Note that these goals are not the same as the agenda for the meeting. The agenda will structure the discussion, but your goals as a leader need to go beyond that: what are you trying to achieve beyond the immediate common goals for the meeting? The success of this step depends on the strength of your vision as a leader.
Second: Recognize negative subtle feedback and see it for what it is. People will be bored, they will get sidetracked, they will get tired. Don’t deny the signs, and don’t panic. If the discussion gets sidetracked it’s probably time to remind the group of the goal of the meeting. When people get bored then take this as a sign that either the group process needs tweaking OR the relevance of the discussion is not clear to those who are loosing interest. When people get tired, it’s probably time for a break! Use the sensitive input you receive to improve your interaction with the group. People will notice, and they will thank you for it. They’ll likely be relieved that you are NOT the kind of leader who will blabble endlessly, completely oblivious to the fact that people are mentally checking out.
Third: Use your sensitivity to keep group processes transparent. Since you are the leader, you are in the position to bring things to the table, to make the unspoken into something that is up for discussion. You can use your sensitivity to keep group processes transparent so that the things that ‘everyone is thinking’ – but nobody is saying – are included as constructive input. What often happens in groups is that people will model their behaviour to ‘how things are supposed to be’ at the cost of authentic communication. It’s a survival strategy, we all have a fear of “not fitting in”. Members will nod their heads and breeze over topics…because they have no idea what’s going on but are afraid of coming across as unintelligent. They’ll talk for a long time about the things they feel comfortable discussing, leaving little time for crucial yet difficult things that need to be dealt with. This is where you come in. Find gentle yet effective ways to break through these kinds of barriers and guide members to tackle difficult topics constructively. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for applying this, it will depend on your leadership style and the kind of group you are leading. However, know that you can trust your inner sense of what “feels right”.
Fourth: Encourage people to share their best. You notice when that one member – who tends to have brilliant ideas but is shy about sharing them – was just about to say something. You notice when people keep talking BS because they are uncomfortable with silence. You notice when people utter niceties to be polite out of fear that they will be criticized for their true opinions. So, speak up. Invite the shy speaker, point out the BS, install a minute of silence, open difficult topics up for discussion and do so in a way that honours everyone’s input. Over time, people will become more comfortable speaking their truth and honouring the truth of others, but it takes time.
Fifth: Create an environment where people feel safe. A good group is a group where people feel safe enough to speak up. A good group is a place where people can be vulnerable, where they can speak their mind, pitch ideas without being made fun of. You notice the subtleties that are decisive for the atmosphere of a group. Be assertive, if you invite people to speak, you’ll need to claim your power as a leader to intervene there where that freedom of speech is being breeched. Again, it really helps to know what you want before you start. What is the right level of intimacy for this group? What is the overal goal? Is “sharing personal stories” conducive to that goal or is it an unwelcome distraction? Decide in advance and communicate and discuss these “group settings” in advance, so that all members are on the same page and can be reminded of the collective agreement when necessary.
Most of all, know and trust that whatever it is that people are afraid to say, is a lot more interesting and productive than what they believe they are supposed to say. Be the one that “keeps it real” by setting a new kind of leadership example. This means you will create an environment where people can speak their minds (and hearts!), where difficult things will be brought to the table, where people’s limits and true interests are respected, and members are valued for what they bring to the group.
Is it easy? Not exactly. Is it rewarding? Try and see!
***Are you looking for further ways to up your HSP leadership skills? It all starts on the inside…get cool pre-release training opportunities through my newsletter (sign-up: above left)