It can be difficult to know how to communicate with a highly sensitive person, or HSP. It can be especially challenging if you’ve never had to do it before and have no experience navigating the potentially rocky waters.
The good news is that once you learn how to communicate with a highly sensitive person, you could be rewarded with one of the most satisfying and fulfilling relationships you’ve ever had. Highly sensitive people possess some outstanding qualities, including warmth, compassion, great listening skills, and an attention to detail that is all too rare.
For these reasons and more, having an HSP as a friend, partner, or trusted confidante can be an extraordinary and uplifting experience.
The Characteristics of a Highly Sensitive Person
The highly sensitive person is deeply immersed in everything happening around them. But the fit is not always comfortable.
High levels of sensory stimulation bother them, so they feel ill at ease in environments saturated with loud noise, flashing or bright lights, people in constant motion, or strong odors. They are appalled by conflict and will try to avoid it at all costs. If they see other people arguing, they will begin planning their escape from the room almost immediately.
On the personal side, HSPs are extremely sensitive to any statements or actions they interpret as insulting, demeaning, or dismissive. They can take offense or become embarrassed easily, and they may stay hurt for quite some time if they believe someone has slighted them, mocked them, or ignored their concerns or feelings.
As you can see, there are some minefields to avoid if you want to become acquainted with an HSP. The good news is that highly sensitive people are not reclusive or antisocial; they want to communicate and make friends. Consequently, their sensitivities aren’t obstacles that you’ll have to struggle to overcome, but factors you’ll have to be alert to and take seriously if you want to eventually be accepted into their circle of cherished companions.
And that circle can be a warm and welcoming place to enter. Highly sensitive people are deeply empathic and compassionate and are the type who will always be there for friends and family members when they need help or support. Once they’ve accepted you as a friend, an HSP will be available any time of day or night. They are loyal and loving, and they will stand by you during your darkest hours.
When first getting to know a highly sensitive person, you may have to be more self-aware and conscious than you normally are in social situations. But in the end you won’t regret the effort it took to make an HSP a permanent part of your life.
With Highly Sensitive People, the Environment is Everything
You may be able to carry out a conversation in just about any setting and still feel comfortable. But the highly sensitive person is not so fortunate.
If the environment is noisy, too brightly lit, or chaotic and filled with movement, an HSP will feel uncomfortable and distracted. They also don’t like to be surrounded by large groups of people having many different conversations, as the cacophony of voices will assault their senses and leave them feeling anxious and overwhelmed. If someone tries to speak to them in such a setting, they won’t be able to concentrate and will struggle to pay attention, which will make meaningful conversation (or even casual conversation) almost impossible.
It's a waste of time to approach a highly sensitive person socially in this type of environment. They won’t comprehend what you’re trying to say and won’t feel up to participating in the discussion you’re trying to start. In fact, they may even become irritated with you, feeling that you’re insensitive for not noticing their discomfort or for not acknowledging or respecting their feelings.
In reality, such a situation offers you a golden opportunity to make a good impression. You can do that by providing them with an excuse to make their escape. You can suggest the two of you go elsewhere, to a place that’s quiet and peaceful so you can continue your conversation without distraction or interruption. This can be a public place, since you may not know your prospective HSP friend well enough to suggest a private location.
If you interact with them in this way, a highly sensitive person will appreciate your empathy and concern for their wellbeing. If they do agree to leave and continue the interaction somewhere else, your conversation is likely to be quite friendly and productive.
Body Language and the Highly Sensitive Person
Highly sensitive people are often reserved when speaking with someone new. But in every circumstance they communicate eloquently and prodigiously through body language. They constantly send out signals that will let you know if they’re feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable in your presence, or by a particular environment. If you pay close attention to an HSP’s body language it can help shape your efforts to communicate, since you’ll have an easier time tuning in to their emotional frequencies.
If you notice a highly sensitive person looking down or away, fidgeting, blushing, keeping their arms or legs crossed, frequently checking their watches or glancing at the nearest door, or having any other reaction that suggests discomfort, you should assume they really are uncomfortable and that you’re reading the clues right.
Next, you’ll have to figure out the cause of their disquiet. It could be the chaotic environment if there’s a lot of sound, movement, or noise. It could be the topic of conversation, or something you said they found offensive or that made them feel judged or embarrassed. It could also be something they’re worried or agitated about that has nothing to do with you.
If you encounter a fidgety or anxious HSP, there are several things you can try. You can change the topic to something light and fun. You can pause the conversation and move on, letting them know you’d like to speak to them again later. You could suggest continuing the conversation outside, in the hallway, or in the next room.
Conversely, you can also stop talking for a while and ask them a question, or for their opinion. This will give them the opportunity to take control of the conversation for a while. They can then take it in a new direction if they found the previous subject matter unappealing, or end it altogether if they feel the need to leave.
Tailoring Your Communication Style to the Highly Sensitive Person’s Needs
As you contemplate how to communicate with a highly sensitive person, you should reflect not just on their tendencies, but on yours as well.
If you have an open, outgoing, and friendly communication style, you might scare an HSP off if you come on too strong. HSPs are put off when people they don’t know well start asking a lot of personal questions, sharing gossip about mutual acquaintances, regaling them with humorous anecdotes that skew to the risqué side, or telling them all about their life stories. They also don’t like being teased by people they’ve just met. They will usually interpret this as mocking or thinly-veiled hostility.
Highly sensitive people aren’t judgmental, in most instances. But if they think you’re too blunt, abrasive, or pushy, based on a bad first impression, they will distance themselves from you quickly and be very reluctant to give you a second chance.
Another thing you should realize is that highly sensitive people have an extreme dislike of conflict, or anything that resembles conflict. You may be the type of person who enjoys a friendly debate, but if you try to draw an HSP into this type of conversation without their consent, you’ll drive them away at stunning speed.
Interestingly, they may be just as put off if they catch you overcompensating. In other words, if you treat them like they’re made of fragile crystal and will break into pieces at the slightest provocation, they will interpret that as condescending and likely won’t want anything to do with you.
HSPs simply want to be treated with respect, as they define it. If you make a sincere effort to do that, they will notice and give you credit, and be more than willing to forgive you when you commit the occasional faux pas.
Want to Know How to Communicate with a Highly Sensitive Person? Ask an HSP
Once you get to know your HSP friend better, you should be able to talk to them honestly about their preferences and personality. You can ask them specific questions about their sensitivities, while making it clear you’re doing so out of your concern for their welfare and because you want to know them better.
When you ask them questions in a friendly manner and show a genuine interest and curiosity about their lives, highly sensitive people will usually respond honestly and forthrightly. They may give you more detailed information about their mental, emotional, and physical triggers and vulnerabilities, and share fascinating anecdotes that illustrate how their sensitivities have impacted their life.
Highly sensitive people actually appreciate the chance to talk about their feelings, experiences, and expectations, if they know the person on the other end of the conversation is truly interested and sympathetic. Once this has happened you’ll be free to share similar details with them about your life, knowing that they will be empathetic and compassionate and appreciate your openness.
Conversations that give highly sensitive people a chance to explain themselves can deepen your relationship. They can also provide you with insights about how to communicate with a highly sensitive person that you won't find in any book or on a website. Your HSP friend will be able to give you an insider’s view on how highly sensitive people experience the world and their interactions with others, revealing hidden truths they’re now willing to disclose because you’ve earned their trust.