Melody Wilding, LMSW is an executive coach for smart, sensitive high-achievers and author of "Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work." Recently named one of Business Insider's Most Innovative Coaches for her groundbreaking work on "Sensitive Strivers," her clients include CEOs, C-level executives, and managers at top Fortune 500 companies such as Google, HP, Facebook, Netflix, Twitter, IBM, Citibank, JP Morgan, and others.

Melody has been featured in the New York Times, O Magazine, NBC News, and spoken at Stanford University, Walmart, Adweek, Burberry and more. She's here to help you break free from self-doubt and imposter syndrome so you can use your sensitivity as the superpower that it is.

Melody is a licensed social worker with a Masters degree from Columbia University, and a former researcher at Rutgers University. She is a professor of Human Behavior at Hunter College and is a contributor to Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Forbes, and Business Insider.

Inside This Episode

  • What are Sensitive Strivers?
  • How Social Awareness is Changing Corporate Culture
  • The Neuro Science of Higher Sensitivity
  • The Nature of Being an Empathic Leader
  • Developing Your Internal Compass
  • The #1 Thing that Holds Back Sensitive Strivers
  • Dealing with Imposter Syndrome
  • How We Hold Ourselves Back from Success
  • The Danger of Over-Apologizing
  • Leading a Team as a Sensitive Striver
  • The Dynamic of Over-Functioning
  • Creating Interdependent Teams





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John Ryan  
You're listening to key conversations for leaders. This is episode number 51.

John Ryan 0:05
Hey everyone and welcome to key conversations for leaders. I'm your host John Ryan and today we have a very special guest, Melody Wilding. Melody is an lm SW. She's an executive coach for smart, sensitive, high achievers, and the author of trust yourself. Stop overthinking and channel your emotions for success at work recently named one of business Insider's most innovative coaches for her groundbreaking work on sensitive drivers. Her clients include CEOs, C suite executives and managers, top fortune 500 companies such as Google, HP, Facebook, Netflix, Twitter, IBM, Citibank, JP Morgan, and many, many more. Melody has been featured on the New York Times Oh magazine, NBC News and spoken at Stanford University, Walmart, Adweek, Burberry, and many more. She's here to help you break free from self doubt and imposter syndrome. So you can use your sensitivity as the superpower that it is Melody. Thank you so much for being here. And welcome to the show. It's a pleasure to be here with you. You know, obviously your work revolves around sensitive strivers. Can you tell us a little bit about what is a sensitive stryver? Why is it important to be aware of who you are or who they are and how you got focused on that demographic?

Melody Wilding 1:17
Sure. So a sensitive striver refers to someone who is both high achieving meaning they're career oriented, driven, they set and reach high goals. But they are also highly sensitive. So these are people who think and feel everything more deeply. So what we're talking about here is about one in five people about 20% of the population that has this biological difference, actual brain differences that lead them to be more attuned to their own emotions, emotions of other people, and subtleties in the environment and nuances going on around them. So these are people who harness and have tremendous strengths. And being a sensitive driver is really a key to success. But we're not given the right tools to manage this combination of qualities effectively. So without that sensitive drivers also tend to face a battle with overthinking burnout, self doubt, because we do process everything so much more deeply than other people.

John Ryan 2:24
So 20% of the population, is this number changing as we become more socially emotionally aware, or it hasn't been this way for a long time? Or do we not have the information necessary to know that we know that yet?

Melody Wilding 2:38
Yeah, it's a great question. You know, Dr. Elaine Aaron, who was the original researcher who discovered the traits of high sensitivity, her research began in the 90s. That's where this number of about 15 to 20% came about. And over time, what I've seen is that the numbers have slightly increased, mostly credited to being able to do better research better MRI scans of people's brain patterns, if they have this trait of high sensitivity and activation in certain parts of the brain, the number of cells shifted a little more towards 30%. But I think there are cultural factors, right? There's societal influences here that we're seeing now, a greater acceptance of talking about emotions in the workplace sensitivities to different people and differences, right. So I think as a as a culture, we are shifting more towards being sensitive. But in this case, sensitivity specifically refers to having a more highly attuned central nervous system. So being more reactive and responsive to things that are happening not only within yourself, but sensing that in other people and your surroundings.

John Ryan 3:49
So this is evolving, and we're having the better capability of measuring the differences in the brain without no over getting into the specifics. What kind of physiological differences are there? Like, do we know exactly how to pinpoint where that sensitivity the hyper perhaps enhanced awareness comes from?

Melody Wilding 4:09
Excellent question. And what is really fascinating about this, and as a neuroscience geek, I love this aspect of it is that we actually see different neurological patterns in people who have higher sensitivity. So their brains actually have more activation in certain areas related to things like action planning, anticipating how you're going to plan or approach a task, problem solving, complex thinking. So a strength and an aspect of sensitivity is being able to take in information, process it more deeply. So we see activation in those parts of the brain around mental processing of situations, but also also synthesizing it so creating connections and seeing nuances spotting gaps that other people miss and the emotion also of sensitivity we see in that sensitive drivers tend to have more active mirror neurons. So the empathy neuron, your mirror neuron is responsible for understanding and perceiving other people's behavior. And so sensitive drivers have more active neurons. So we are you able to perceive sense process other people's feelings and emotions, the classically being an empath, when you say, I'm a sponge for everything that's happening around me, that's very true for sensitive strivers. So those are some of the different brain patterns we see. Which is really fascinating.

John Ryan 5:37
Thank you so much for sharing those insights. That's, that's awesome. The the new book that you have one of the new books I mentioned, trust yourself. I imagine that's a message for for all of us to learn how to trust our gut, our instinct, intuition, experience and training. Is it more pronounced as a need to trust yourself if you're a sensitive stryver stryver? Or is it pretty consistent across the board?

Melody Wilding 6:01
Yeah, you know, in my coaching experience, having done this work, and worked with sensitive strivers for 10 years, lack of confidence, imposter syndrome, self doubt, is the number one thing that holds sensitive strivers back from making the type of impact they want and reaching their full potential. And that comes from a number of places. First, if anybody who is listening is sensitive or is identifying as this personality type, you like me have probably been told your whole life to stop being so sensitive, why don't you grow a thicker skin to stop taking things so personally. And so from a very young age, we get these messages that you're not okay as you are right? And we internalize that. And that can lead to a lack of confidence, feeling insecure, in who we are. But sensitive shrivers because of our depth of processing comes with all of those strengths that I mentioned, that sometimes we become so self aware, or we think about something so long and deeply that it can lead to being overly self conscious. It can lead to overthinking situations, and that attentiveness to people around you can not only make us afraid of what are people thinking of us, everyone's judging me, but also have us so externally oriented on what other people want for us on what we should do that we were not listening to ourselves. So that's exactly why I felt strongly about making the message of the book, trust yourself.

John Ryan 7:34
Excellent. So with that sensitive striver there's conditioning, maybe in the household or in other places Stop being so sensitive, because, you know, whatever, toughness, tough girl, tough guy, whatever the thing is that's going on that's impacting them. So they have a doubt that's there, because what's normal for them is not as normal for the culture that they're in. How do they overcome that? Are there any suggestions or tips? Or what do you recommend for someone who wants to learn how to trust themselves? Whether they're a sensitive driver or not, and they have that externalized focus, instead of focusing internally?

Melody Wilding 8:10
Yeah, you know, one chapter in the book, in the first section of the book, I have an entire chapter on learning to give yourself permission. Because so many sensitive drivers, we hold ourselves back from being successful. So in the chapter, one of the recommendations that I give, is being aware of how you're undermining yourself to begin with. So two very popular, very common behaviors. Number one is over apologizing. I'm sorry, let me repeat myself. I apologize for being late. We apologize for things that really don't need apologies excessively, to the point where we're really looking for approval validation from other people to say, Oh, no, you're okay. No, that was good. Right? We over apologize because we feel shame for who we are. And so really paying attention and starting to curb that tendency to over apologize, even just replacing a sorry with Thank you. Thank you for waiting for me, thank you for your patience. Thank you for being considerate, can be a huge shift, as can not pulling so often sensitive drivers. As soon as we have to make a decision. We go out to everyone else, our team, different stakeholders, our mentors, our colleagues, and ask, what do you think is best here? What do you think our approach should be? What's your thoughts about this, instead of trying to develop a point of view and listen to ourselves first. So of course, you need to socialize and get input on an idea. But that should not come at the cost of you forming an opinion about it first, and really tapping into what do I think about this?

Melody Wilding 9:56
First and foremost, so really starting to step back from that and walking into opportunities and challenges before you feel ready, sensitive strivers we are conscientious we are perfectionist, we do not want to do something until we have researched it for two months. And we feel like, okay, I am I am fully prepared for that promotion, for example, or to take on this bigger project. But that moment never comes, you will never feel 100% ready, there is always more you can do always more you can learn. And so really, you build confidence through taking action, right and proving to yourself that you can persevere. And so starting before you're ready is really a key strategy on that of that chapter of giving yourself permission. And such a foundational part of trusting yourself.

John Ryan 10:47
In many of those cases, and perhaps that as I'm thinking about this as we go through our conversation here. It's about claiming your power, right. So when you're apologizing, you say like, you're sound like I've done something wrong, please forgive me in a way. But instead you flip it around, and you're saying, Hey, thank you, I'm acknowledging You for Your Grace, your forgiveness, your patience, your flexibility, whatever it is, which is you having power and giving them the recognition that they deserve. So is that one of the things that we need to learn as sensitive drivers, for those of us who connect to that,

Melody Wilding 11:19
that's an excellent way to put it, you know, and last night, I was actually speaking with a group of my clients. And we were talking about self criticism, and how self criticism can actually be so self centered, you're focusing on yourself, you're so mean and harsh with yourself in a way that you would never be to anybody else around you. So a core part of being a sensitive striver is actually taking all of that empathy, compassion, care, dedication that you have, for others, for everyone else, and starting to turn it back on yourself. So yes, absolutely not being not being so self focused, but actually using that empathy in that case of saying, I'm sorry to actually be empathetic and acknowledge the gift the other person is giving you.

John Ryan 12:05
Wow, what would it take that superpower and apply it to yourself equally put on your own, you know, oxygen mask before you help other other people that sense? Does it take How long does it take? Have you found in coaching people through this process, to kind of begin to turn around and get some comfort level with putting yourself first or at least at the same playing field as those around you?

Melody Wilding 12:28
Yeah, of course, everyone is different. We're all at different starting lines here. And your conditions not are right for sensitive people, we are more affected by our environment, because we're more, we perceive more of what's happening. And so your environment really matters. So the clients who I see make the progress fastest are the ones who are in environments that are supportive positive. People who struggle tend to be in environments that are not great for for a sensitive driver, very toxic, harsh, extremely overly competitive environments where it's, it's really impossible for them to thrive. So the entire book is, I would say, it will take you about the time it takes to read the book. That's my hope. But really, the the tools in the book are structured to give you the transformation, transformation in the fastest time possible. So I have made sure that this book is chock full of worksheets and exercises. I didn't want this just to be another book that people read and say, Oh, that was great. But what do I do with this? So every single chapter is highly actionable. There's steps for you to take at the end worksheet to fill out so that by the end of the book, you are able to track your your progress and compare yourself to where you were when you started the book to where you are when you're ending the book on a on a assessment I've created so hopefully you will see some progress by just the end of reading it.

John Ryan 14:01
It sounds clearly there's gonna be some tools for the sense of strivers in there. It sounds like there might also be some tools that managers and leaders who are running teams who have a sense of drivers inside of them as well as helpful for them to

Melody Wilding 14:15
know Oh, absolutely, yes, you know, this, like I was saying this is about 20% of the population, one in five people. So you are either you either know, a sensitive driver, you're working with one or manage one, for example. So it's very important to understand this personality. And always when I have clients who say Should I tell my boss or my colleagues that I'm this personality, they're always nervous to do it at first, but once they do, they're their boss or colleague says Wow, this was tremendously valuable to have this context and understanding of who you are not just because I understand. You know what pitfalls might be and how we can avoid them, but also how to get the best out of you and how to position you for new opportunity. So it can open up a really valuable conversation.

John Ryan 15:04
Obviously labels can be limiting labels can be empowering, they can be insightful. And when you have a label like that, that also redefines the genre for you instead of feeling like an outsider, like, no, this is actually, this makes sense to who I am as a leader who has a sensitive striver. Is there any specific challenge if they're running a team leading a team that they might have versus being on a team?

Melody Wilding 15:30
Yes, great question. So many of my clients who are leaders struggle with over functioning. And that is a flipside of our sensitive strivers, we have a high drive for responsibility, we are dependable, we can be counted on to follow through, but we can't bear to let people down. And sometimes we are overly responsible, we over function and swoop into fix situations rescue problems, which can inadvertently create a dynamic where other people under function. So your team may not be stepping up or offering ideas or coming to the table with solutions, because they have never had to, you're going to tell them what to do, or you will be the one to swoop in and solve the problem for them. And so I see that all the time with clients where it's coming from a good place, they want to be a good manager, they want to help their team, they want them to be successful. They think a good boss should provide air cover from from certain things. But what it can do, inadvertently, again, no one, no one is doing this purposely to hold people back. But it can create this situation where your team is not getting the learning opportunities that they need. And they're not building the muscles, they need to be successful in their career, to be more proactive, to be strategic. So it's a win win. If you get better at delegation and empowering your team to step into those opportunities at sending them to a meeting instead of you so they can set in and get get get that exposure. So it can really be a one one.

John Ryan 17:09
I imagine shifting the frame from you as a leader versus supporting them and helping them have the opportunities to grow and learn and develop new skills and responsibilities, that that makes it very palatable and speaks in their language as well. 100% Absolutely. Fantastic. Well, obviously great conversations to be had with your clients and also with their employees and the team they have, you know, here are key conversations, we believe that conversations are an important part of growth, transformation and performance. What if you don't mind sharing a little bit Melody? What's a conversation or two that maybe you've had other person profession that had a big impact on you and your life?

Melody Wilding 17:46
Yeah, you know, when I reflect on this question, the first thing that came to mind, for me, was a conversation I had with my agent around the book. So long story short, when I was first approached to write it write a book, years ago, back in 2016, or so I was approached by a publisher. And I wrote a very fast book proposal. And I wrote a book proposal for what I thought they would want to publish what I thought would be right for the genre. And I was trying to live into the expectations that I thought they had of me, very typical sensitive striver want to be the A plus gold star. And the key conversation I had was with my agent at the time, who I was a brand new client to her. And she really sat me down and had a very candid conversation with me to say, I don't think this is the book you want to write. And she just she's instantly saw right through me, which was very powerful to have someone be that candid, which also have my best interest to deliver hard feedback, but with my best interest at heart, and to be seen in that way was was really powerful. And she was exactly right. And so she said, you know, take your time, we are no rush here. write the book you want to write. And that's, that's what we're about five years. Here we are. So that was truly a conversation that changed the trajectory of my career.

John Ryan 19:13
Fantastic. Awesome. Melody, thank you for being here and for sharing all your wonderful ideas and ideas to help stretch the sense of strangers out there. What's the best way for our listeners and viewers to get in touch with you and find out more about your work?

Melody Wilding 19:26
Sure, you can find out more about me at You can also find more about the book, anywhere books are sold, or at .

John Ryan 19:38
Excellent. I'll put all of those links in the show notes as well. Melody. Thanks so much for being here. Thank you for having me. And thank you for watching and listening until next time, develop yourself empower others and lead by example.

John Ryan 19:52
Thanks for listening to key conversations for leaders with your host John Ryan. If you enjoy the show, please let us know give us a rating or write a review and if you'd like to connect with me and other like minded leaders, I invite you to join our Facebook group called Develop, Empower and Lead where I deliver free live training every week. If you go to, it will redirect you right there. Hope to see you there soon.

Transcribed by

John Ryan

Host of Key Conversations for Leaders Podcast, Executive Coach, Consultant, and Trainer

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