When Sensitivity Training Makes Us Too Sensitive

On some–perhaps many–occasions, what was said was indeed all that was meant.

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Michael Wade

Diversity training workshops often emphasize the importance of being sensitive to the subtle messages sent by others. All of those non-verbals and sub-verbals are supposed to be grasped along with the body language and whatever cultural differences that may come into play—lest one wind up on a witness stand.

There is, however, a limit to such readings. On some—perhaps many—occasions, what was said was indeed all that was meant. There was no subtext or ulterior motive. And there was certainly no intent to offend.

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This hardly satisfies those who like to play “gotcha.” They eagerly dissect innocent statements for what could have been said, what should have been said, what was omitted, and why one word was used instead of another. If there is the remotest chance that any interest group might find the phrasing offensive, then the race is on to demonstrate uber-sensitivity. Actual impropriety becomes almost a non-issue. The appearance of impropriety, as determined by those who are heavily inclined to find such appearances, governs.

This hair-trigger mechanism to find offense is harmful because it sets an impossible standard. The fact is we all say dumb things, insensitive things, and even cruel things. Often, no extraordinary interpretation is necessary. The remark may be inappropriate on its face. If a team is to foster trust and have a prayer of being successful, however, there must be a willingness on the part of its members to give the benefit of the doubt. This shouldn’t apply in cases of extreme comments or where a pattern exists, but as a daily way of handling garden variety offenses, forgiveness sure beats “gotcha.” It recognizes that we work alongside human beings, not angels. Sometimes, the most sensitive approach of all is to avoid being too sensitive.

Michael Wade writes Execupundit.com, an eclectic combination of management advice, observations, and links. A partner with the Phoenix firm of Sanders Wade Rodarte Consulting Inc., he has advised private and public-sector organizations for more than 30 years.