When I was a child, I was frequently chastised for being “too sensitive.”*
Much to my parent’s chagrin, it seemed that I felt everything DEEPLY, from a cheesy but heart-wrenching ad on TV to a classmate getting teased.
Despite being a happy kid, I cried easily—and often—about things that moved me.
But it wasn’t only the negative things; I instantly picked up on the good too, genuinely feeling another’s joy and sharing in their happiness or laughter.
I later learned that this made me an empath, someone highly attuned to others who reads emotions, nuance, subtext, undercurrent, intentions, thoughts, social space, interactions, relational behaviors, body language, and gestural language.
I also learned that this wasn’t how everyone was wired.
As an adult, this has played out in a variety of interesting ways:
I still cry at commercials and events, though not just weddings or funerals—graduations choke me just as much as listening to someone perform the national anthem. (Yes, really. Something about a singer’s perfect pitch gets me every time.)
I listen “between the lines” in conversations to hear the things not said (out loud, at least) and then repeat back what I’ve “heard” to the amazement of the other person.
I’ll pick up on someone’s energy immediately and sense whether they’re having a phenomenal day (or working extra work to give that impression to the world when they are not).
Even when I’m not physically with someone, I’ll often discern if something’s amiss.
On the first phone call I had with a new ghostwriting client, I instantly suspected something was wrong and asked if she was okay. Though that caught her off guard, she marveled at how intuitive I was and explained that she’d just wrapped a tense series of meetings.
This even happens with people I’ve never met.
Years ago, I knew Zayn Malik would leave the supergroup One Direction after observing him at a concert we attended with our young daughters. I remember asking, “What’s up with Zayn?” because he seemed “off” in some way. A few weeks later, he announced his departure.
The truth is that you emit a certain energy—scientifically speaking, a specific frequency—that introduces you even before you speak.
As much as we try to conceal this, it often leaks out. And those among us attuned to others notice it on their faces, pick up on their body language, and hear it in their voices.
I’ve now come to realize (and appreciate) that my heightened sensitivity is my superpower, helping me pick up on things others might miss and drawing others out, making them feel seen, heard, and understood.
But even if you’re not a natural empath, you can better tune in to others by honing your awareness and cultivating your listening skills:
1. Stop multitasking and focus on others.
Step away from your computer, put aside your phone, and give others your full attention.
2. Watch for nonverbal cues and incongruence.
A skilled listener is conscious of the words spoken by others but can also "hear" what’s not being said. Pay attention to others' words as well as their body language so you can spot inconsistencies.
3. Listen with the intent to understand, not to formulate your response.
Getting into this habit means you'll gain a deeper understanding of others, which will improve your communications and relationships.
Tuning in to others is especially important in the workplace, where a recent study found that nearly 9 in 10 employees report that their workplace stress affects their mental health.
Despite this grim statistic, there is an opportunity for companies to help employees maintain or improve their mental health. In my latest Forbes article, I share three ways leaders can address it to help their teams thrive.
Here’s to feeling all the feels, my friends.
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*I’m curious (I mean, when am I not, right?): Were you called “too” anything as a kid? Maybe “rambunctious” or “hyper” or “serious”? Those early monikers have a way of sticking with us, but they also reveal, if we let them, a hidden talent or trait that can positively differentiate us. A child labeled as “nosy” might turn out to be a scientist who uses their sense of curiosity to better understand how things work; someone called “quiet” might have a rich inner world and imagination.