Emotional Agility

Emotional Agility is a process that enables us to navigate life’s twists and turns with self-acceptance, clear-sightedness, and an open mind. The process isn’t about ignoring difficult emotions and thoughts. It’s about holding those emotions and thoughts loosely, facing them courageously and compassionately, and then moving past them to ignite change in your life. Susan David, a renowned psychologist and expert on emotions, happiness, and achievement, draws on her more than twenty years of research to show that emotionally agile people are not immune to stresses and setbacks. The key difference is they know how to gain critical insight about situations and interactions from their feelings, and use this knowledge to adapt, align their values and actions, and make changes to bring the best of themselves forward.

In Emotional Agility, Susan David shares four key concepts:

  • Showing Up: Instead of ignoring difficult thoughts and emotions or overemphasizing ‘positive thinking’, facing into your thoughts, emotions and behaviors willingly, with curiosity and kindness.

For example, saying “I’m angry at my co-worker” puts the emphasis on the target of the emotion, whereas “I feel angry about something my co-worker did” shifts the focus to the emotion and helps to get to the bottom of why that particular emotion is related to the situation. Similarly, “My work isn’t good enough” doesn’t identify negative thought patterns in the same way as “I’m having the thought that my work isn’t good enough.”

  • Stepping Out: Detaching from, and observing your thoughts and emotions to see them for what they are—just thoughts, just emotions. Essentially, learning to see yourself as the chessboard, filled with possibilities, rather than as any one piece on the board, confined to certain preordained moves. Stepping back to gain this view helps to identify what responses would be most appropriate in that context. In the absence of emotion, what would be the best decision based on the available information? Much like with conflict resolution, it’s important to remember that feelings are not being invalidated here, just temporarily set to the side after being acknowledged as legitimate.
  • Walking Your Why: Your core values provide the compass that keeps you moving in the right direction. Rather than being abstract ideas, these values are the true path to willpower, resilience and effectiveness.

Knowing what values are important to them helps people to make decisions that will move them forward rather than keeping them stuck in the same old patterns. In the context of an organization, focusing on specific goals and values makes it possible to respond to thoughts and emotions in ways that will benefit the organization in both the short term and the long term.

  • Moving On: Small deliberate tweaks to your mindset, motivation, and habits – in ways that are infused with your values, can make a powerful difference in your life. The idea is to find the balance between challenge and competence, so that you’re neither complacent nor overwhelmed. You’re excited, enthusiastic, invigorated.

When people accept that they do not act on their every emotion or thought, they can begin the process of making small changes to their mindset and habits that incorporate their core values. They become mindful of their emotions, but not hooked on negative patterns that prevent them from taking actions that will drive success. Accepting feelings and thoughts is not always pleasant, but it’s a necessary step that allows people to move beyond their inner experience so they can respond to situations in ways that support the goals and values they care about.

Emotional agility helps employees and especially leaders to gain a better sense of what motivates them and how they react to situation. By putting these insights to use, they can create a workplace driven by values rather than one at the mercy of reactionary emotions. There seems to be a prevailing wisdom that negative emotions should not be expressed in the workplace. This holds especially true for leaders, who are expected to project some combination of confidence, positivity, or enthusiasm at all times. If these attitudes don’t come easily or naturally, the leader should at least present a stoic demeanour that precludes any negative feelings; doubt, criticism, fear, and anger have no place at the office. The pressure to protect positivity can be extremely stressful for leaders considering that a recent study showed 47% of them cited “positivity” as the most important trait a leader can have. In their efforts to avoid confronting negative emotions, leaders often try to suppress them or push them away. Unfortunately, this approach has the effect of “hooking” them on these emotions, locking them into unhealthy patterns that can lead to poor decisions made for the wrong reasons.

For example, employees could go out of their way to avoid situations that may result in familiar negative thoughts, which leads them to pass up opportunities that might benefit their career or their company (“I might not be good at that and I don’t want to be a failure”). In other cases, people may try to overcome negative feelings by taking on new tasks they’re not able to handle or that conflict with their basic values (“I might not be good at that, but if I don’t do it, I’ll be a failure”). In both cases, decisions aren’t being made rationally; they’re being made based on how the outcome will make the person feel.

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