A former client requested this post. I will begin by saying this is not an easy situation. Highly sensitive people are like a sponge so full, that it doesn’t want to soak up any more water. Someone else who is quick to be on the defense, can stop you dead in your tracks so you don’t finish saying what you intended. Sensitive people are saturated in fear and they generally assume the worst. It can safely be assumed that they suffer with anxiety.
It’s important not to give up on what you want to say. You might begin by acknowledging how you imagine they might feel. “I know that it’s hard for you to hear feedback and it’s important that we find a way to discuss difficult things.” “Do you realize that your reactions tend to shut down our conversation?” “How can I make this easier for you?” Perhaps a conversation about how to talk about hard things and how to make it work. Asking her/him to recognize not being able to have these conversations really isn’t an option because it’s how we all grow, learn about ourselves and change.
Another suggestion is to set up a two-part conversation. “I’m going to give you some feedback and ask that you go write down your response which will give you some time to think through your feelings.” “Sometimes you jump into defensiveness so quickly I know you find it hard to think.” “Would you like me to write down some of our issues, then wait for your response?”
Be clear that the conversation is not an attack though it may feel like one. Be certain that giving up on talking about hard things is not an option. Be respectful of their input about what will help to make the conversation take place. Ask them to take a 15-20 minute break if there is too much emotion and offer to continue when they’ve had a chance to think a bit more. Remind them, that it’s key to think and feel at the same time. You need to remember not to take things personally and strive for clarity.
People with anxiety use their fears and sensitivity in an attempt to control what’s going on. “I want the power to decide this is not important so there will be no way to disagree with me or talk to me about this.” It is often unconscious control, meaning they are not aware of this as a power play. It’s important that sensitive people not erase the opportunity to discuss difficult things because then they’re in their own little bubble, deciding they know what’s best. Truth is always best when it is explored between two people, no doubt about it.