Do You Need More Emotional Agility?

How do you deal with your difficult emotions?   Do you try to wish them away, bottle them up or stew over them?  And do you get worried that you’re worried, unhappy that you’re unhappy or stressed that you’re stressed?  Is there a better way to deal with these emotions?

Let’s face it, no matter what you do it can be impossible to avoid these emotions. They are just part of life’s ups and downs, disappointments, and hurts.  And not just in our personal lives, they can also often show up in our workplaces.  Particularly when we’re navigating changes, innovations or upheavals.  So how can we get more comfortable with our uncomfortable emotions?

“Undervaluing some emotions and overvaluing others can be toxic in an increasingly complex world,” said Susan David from Harvard Medical School and author of the bestselling book Emotional Agility when I interviewed her recently. “You lose the opportunity to adapt to a world in which life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.”

Susan explained that being too rigid about which emotions are good or bad can lead to judgments that can diminish your compassion for yourself and others, and make you less resilient in the face of life’s challenges.  You can get stuck in the secondary emotions about your emotions, so you feel sad about feeling sad for example. 

However, when you have emotional agility you’re able to navigate all of your emotions with curiosity and compassion, and act in ways that align with how you most want to live. You see your emotions not as a directive, but as just data to help you decide what you want to do next. For example, sadness can indicate a search for how you can do better in this world, social anxiety is wanting to connect better with those around you, and boredom in the workplace is about wanting to grow or be challenged.  

Susan suggested that emotional agility is critical for building psychological safety in yourself and within your workplace.  When you feel psychologically safe within yourself you can show yourself some kindness and self-compassion for your mistakes and disappointments.  Rather than self-compassion being a sign of weakness or being too soft on yourself, it can help you be more honest and motivated to make improvements.  And when you feel psychologically safe in your workplace you feel that you can bring your views to your organization, and be open to failure without feeling judged, pushed aside or being scapegoated. 

“It’s really important for organizations to recognize that there can be no agility or adaptability without emotional agility,” explained Susan. “They need to develop greater humanity, and appreciation for the full range of human experience.”

How can you build emotional agility for yourself and your team?

Susan shared the four core aspects of emotional agility:

  • Showing up – be open to experiencing your emotions without judgment. Use them as data without letting them call the shots.   As sometimes you’ll see things in yourself, in others or in your workplace that are uncomfortable this can take courage, curiosity, and compassion.   As a leader rather than pushing aside difficulties listen to people’s concerns without labeling them as a negative person. This recognizes the reality of emotional complexity and can help you move in the direction of positive change more effectively.
  • Stepping out – create distance between you and your emotions to help shift your perspective.  When you say things like, “I am sad,” or “I am anxious,” you become the emotion.  However, your emotions are just emotions.  So instead of saying “I am sad,” say “I’m noticing that I’m feeling sad”.   Try to label your emotions as accurately as possible.   For example, when you describe ‘stress’ in a more nuanced way, you can better understand the causes, what you need to do about them, and research indicates that this activates the readiness potential in your brain that can help you start setting goals.
  • Walking your Why –bring your values front and center and take action towards them.  Rather than abstract ideas you can think of values as qualities of action – so you can move in the direction of your values or away from your values. For example, if you value health, do you choose the muffin, or do you choose the fruit?   If you value fairness, do you choose to have the difficult conversation, or do you choose to avoid it?  And if you value fairness, how fair is avoiding it-  to the team, to the individual, or to yourself?  As a leader instead of getting sucked into the vortex of negativity, you can help your team come together with the idea of who do you as a team want to be in the context of the difficult situation you’re facing?  What do you hold important about how you want to interact with each other and with your clients?  How can your team walk a shared why?
  •  Moving on – research has found that the most effective way to make change is through tiny tweaks rather than taking large-scale action.  It is critical that these are values aligned tweaks, that connect with who you want to be – in your life, as a leader or in the workplace.  You can piggyback a new habit that you want to create onto an existing habit. For example, if connection is one of your values, if you always put your keys in the drawer when you arrive home, put your mobile phone is there as well and connect better with your loved ones.  

How might you align your values more with the actions you take every day?

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