Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to
 an Insensitive Person

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/insensitive.htm

Updated  01-24-2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An effective response occurs when you get your  primary needs met well enough, and both people feel heard and respected enough.

      This brief YouTube video provides perspective on people who lack empathy ("sensitivity"):


      This article offers useful responses to the behavior of someone you believe is insensitive to something or someone. It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • basic options for all responses

  • how to give effective feedback to someone

  • effective assertion and empathic listening skills.

  • these ideas about respect and empathy


      Try saying your definition of interpersonal sensitivity out loud. Then define empathy. Can you think of an adult or child whom you feel is often insensitive? Someone who is usually very sensitive? In this article, sensitivity means "able to accurately empathize with another person's thoughts, feelings, and needs." Another article focuses on responding effectively to excessive sensitivity (reactivity). Would people who know you say you are a sensitive person?

      Nature gifts us with six (?) senses, and the ability to be aware of sensory information. Some people extend that to "sense' what other people are thinking + feeling + needing. They can sense how their behavior may affect people they're with, and regulate their actions to minimize upsetting their partner/s. People who don't have this sensitivity are called rude, tactless, unempathic, and insensitive. People who are too needy and sensitive to some other people are called codependent.

      Premise - chronically insensitive people are probably psychologically-wounded survivors of early-childhood abandonment, neglect, and abuse - Grown Wounded Children (GWCs). If this is true, they cannot help or control their lack of empathy, so reasoning, pleading, and demanding they be more sensitive is like trying to persuade an addict to "get sober." The most tragic GWC wound is an inability to feel and bond with other people. Once they've hit true bottom and admit their wounds, typical GWCs can reduce them over time.

      Recently, a condition called Asperger's Syndrome has been used to describe or explain some social insensitivity - specially in young people. It's symptoms vary, and its cause is not known. I suspect it is a symptom of psychological wounds, perhaps combined with a neurological malfunction.

      Think of the last time you were with a significantly-insensitive person. What did they do (or didn't do) that merited that judgment? How did you feel? Irritated? Resentful? Disrespected? Hurt? angry? Frustrated? Scornful? Compassionate? Indifferent? Resigned? Numb?

      How did you respond to the person - pretend? Confront? Complain? Endure? Leave? Hint? Try to problem-solve? Offer feedback? Blame? Joke? Shut down (numb)? How did that feel to you? Did it help or hurt your self-respect? How can you get your needs met well enough with an overly-insensitive per-son?

Response Options

      Review the definition of "effective response" above. Then consider these choices...

  • Mentally review...

    • these basic options until they become a habit,

    • your mutual rights as dignified persons,

    • how you feel because of the person's insensitivity,

    • signs that someone is ruled by a false self;

    • what you need with this person - e.g. to vent, to inform, to cause action, to confront, to set or enforce a limit, to problem-solve, or something else; then...

  • Ask if the person is open to some personal feedback. If s/he says "No," you have a different problem to manage (distrust and defensiveness).

  • Depending on your feelings and needs, choose one or more of these response-types:

To Inform

  • Teach the other person about R(espect)-messages and awareness bubbles.

  • Discuss what interpersonal sensitivity and empathy;

  • Ask the person if s/he knows any insensitive, unempathic people, and how they affect her/him.

To Vent, Learn, or Confront

(Name), when you only focus on yourself, I feel _______."

"How do you think I feel when you ________ (describe a specific behavior)?"

"Seems like you have a hard time empathizing with me / people."

"What are you feeling / aware of / now?" This is one way of testing for significant psychological wounds.

"Do you see yourself as a sensitive person?"

"You seem to have trouble judging how I feel."

"I feel ignored and misunderstood by you now."

"When you __________, I feel ________ (e.g. hurt and disrespected)."

"I feel you're monologing / talking at / lecturing / me now."

"You have a one-person bubble now, and I feel __________."

"Are you willing to learn what I need from you?"

"I need you to want to know how your behavior affects me."

To Cause Change or Set a Limit

"(Name), I'm going to tell you each time I feel ignored / you interrupt me / you don't look at me / you criticize me / you do other things when we talk / (etc)."

  Expect Resistances

      Psychologically-wounded people are apt to "resist" responses like those above - i.e. they'll deny, explain, justify, whine, attack, excuse, say nothing, blame you, and so on. Expect this with compassion, and respond calmly with respectful empathic listening - like

"So you feel you are aware of my feelings."

      Then calmly restate your original response with steady eye contact. Repeat this sequence as often as needed until (a) you get your original need met, (b) your needs change, or (c) you run out of time or patience.

Responses to Avoid

      The response-examples above are based on true-Self awareness and an attitude of mutual respect. Unaware, wounded people are apt to respond to insensitivity like this:

"Pat, you're unbelievably rude / tactless / ignorant / disrespectful / _______."

"You have the sensitivity of a turnip."

"Does it ever occur to you that I have feelings and needs too?"

"Where were you when they passed out empathy?"

"No wonder you have no real friends."

"You're clueless about healthy relationships."

      Impulsive responses like these will probably degrade your mutual respect and your relationship. They are the opposite of constructive feedback and win-win problem-solving.

Bottom line - you have many ways to proactively respond to an insensitive / rude / disrespectful person, depending on what outcome you wish. You don't need to endure them or play victim!


      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common aggravating social behaviors. This article offers ways to respond effectively to an insensitive (unempathic, rude, disrespectful) person. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your feelings, needs, and mutual rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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