Precious people

New Executive PA Media writer Karen Gately recommends the best ways for EAs to deal with hypersensitivity and defensiveness in the workplace

We’ve all met them – overly emotional colleagues who are easily offended and overact to the smallest issue; the hyper-critical colleague who finds fault in everything; people who argue points simply to prove themselves right and those who personalise every issue, constantly complaining when things don’t go their way. These people can be exhausting and zap busy EAs of vital energy.

So, reflect on the people in your life who overdramatise and demand more sympathy or concern than situations typically warrant – how much time and energy do you spend on those who never seem to follow through to fix the issues they complain about? Do you find yourself listening to the concerns of people who seem determined to believe everyone’s against them?

Most of us, at some point or another, will find ourselves having to deal with precious people prone to hypersensitivity and defensiveness. And, as tempting as it can be to simply ignore them, that’s likely to be difficult as a high level PA – plus, addressing the impact these people have matters to your sanity and quality of life.

Instead, here are some coping strategies:

Set boundaries: If allowed to, precious people will drain us of energy to fuel their seemingly never-ending need for negativity and drama. It’s up to you to protect your energy reserves, by limiting the time and attention you give them. Don’t fall into the trap of fixing a drama queen’s problems as they’ll draw on your talents and energy for as long as you allow them.

So, set firm boundaries about the conversations you will or won’t engage in. Excuse yourself from negative discussions about others, pointless issues or over dramatised points of view. If you set an example of professionalism and emotional intelligence, people will be less likely to share their dramas with you.

Have expectations: Healthy workplace cultures require that we listen to, care for and support our colleagues to cope with the challenges they encounter at work. What also matters, however, is that people help themselves and strive to move past the trivial things that make them unhappy. So, begin by expecting people to take responsibility for how they feel and impact others around them. Show respect and consideration, but expect also that people take ownership for how they choose to think, feel and behave.

Listen to understand: Typically, sensitive people need to feel heard and understood. Having empathy and listening is critical to earning their trust and, in turn, influencing their behaviour. Ask questions that’ll help you gain insight to what they feel and why. Have compassion but remain objective. And challenge people to choose to think differently when unfounded beliefs and assumptions fuel their concerns.

Have ‘tough love’ conversations: Engage in honest chats about the impact of their behaviour on you, others and their own reality. Be upfront yet sensitive in your approach and talk about how they can go about overcoming their issues. Encourage them to speak about any concerns going through their mind before they become blown out of proportion.

Respectfully challenge exaggerated reactions: Point out when emotional responses, such as crying, complaining or arguing, make it hard for them to maintain perspective. Ask that they set those reactions aside so that you can have a meaningful and productive conversation.

Finally, help them to understand the way they choose to feel is undermining their judgement and, ultimately, their ability to succeed: Be empathetic while challenging them to choose more productive thoughts and emotions.

THE EXPERT Karen Gately
Karen Gately is a leadership and people management specialist, plus a founder of HR consultancy Ryan Gately. She works with leaders and HR teams to drive business results through the talent and energy of people. She has authored two books – The People Manager’s Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Getting the Best from People and The Corporate Dojo: Driving Extraordinary Results through Spirited People.