The Canary in your Coalmine

Are you a sensitive person? Do you work with any sensitive people? Then caution and celebration are required! You see, human sensitivity represents danger (when we ignore it or overplay it) and opportunity (when we engage with it properly) ...

Recently a good friend was having a relapse of depression. Instead of being his usual bright, cheerful, active and healthy self, he looked exhausted, uptight and sad. Nothing wrong with these very human feelings (most of us will experience them at times). They only become a problem when we start spiraling downwards, believing that our recovery and happiness are both unlikely and undeserved.

It is hard to see someone bright and capable sink into this dark place. It is sobering to think how easily it can happen and widespread stress and depression are. Rates are increasing dramatically, particularly in Western societies which focus more upon individualism than collectivism and community (irrespective of what our business and political leaders may say). To me that is not just a coincidence; it is a cause.

Now I had no doubt that my friend would make a good recovery, and I was going to do everything I could to help accelerate that. Social support is essential. It also helps to go beyond the "illness" model and see the situation as an opportunity to grow, to develop even deeper awareness and empathy, and ultimately help others.

He shared two insights from the experience. Firstly, he had been trying to ignore his inner wisdom about knowing his own limits. He allowed the growing demands at work to pile up on him until it was too late. Secondly, his sensitivity and creativity was taking control of his imagination, but not in a healthy way. However, he came to see that these qualities are also what has made him successful at work. He is very good at building rapport, motivating people and enabling them to collaborate more effectively. He began to remember his underlying strengths. This TEDx video helped him recognise that depression actually stems from a useful adaptive response.

Up until 30 years ago, coal miners would take caged canaries underground with them. The canary's greater sensitivity to poisonous gases gave the miners an early warning of any danger. Each of us needs to be able to listen to our own internal "canary" which can offer us useful health warnings. Equally, teams at work can benefit from the presence of a more sensitive person. When that person reacts to something, it may suggest the need to make some adjustments before other less sensitive people also begin to react. (Of course, we must also remember that discomfort can suggest an opportunity to stretch or break through a limitation. Like physical exercise, it is about finding the right balance)

So what can go wrong when our internal "canary" is dead or unresponsive? Well, I came across a beautiful example recently: a client who tended not to bring enough awareness and emotional intelligence to meetings and would simply say what he thought regardless of how others might feel. Honesty is important but, to have real influence, we have to consider how we express it, plus when, where and to whom.

I learned that he had shut down his sensitivity to the perspectives and reactions of others after being relentlessly teased at school. At that time, "numbing out" the feelings was an understandable, adaptive response. However, as an adult in the business world, he will do far better when he can access and redeploy his sensitivity. Without it, he will continue to see things in a very black and white manner, and sacrifice good relationships simply to put across his own point of view about what is "true" and "correct".

Ultimately, a dead "canary" could a lead to a career dead-end.

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