Emotional Agility

Article by Phoebe Cook, Psychologist at Within Consulting

“Emotional agility” was named by Harvard Business Review as the “Idea of the year” for 2016.  The book by psychologist Susan David PhD, “Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life” provides tips on how to best interact with our thoughts and feelings in a way that helps us to reach our personal and professional goals.  

Not only do we have external stressors at work (think: the dictator boss, the unrealistic deadlines, the demanding customers, constant organisational changes, never ending  ‘to do’ lists…), but we also have to deal with our own internal stressors. These might include the unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves, feelings of self-doubt, guilt about not spending enough time with family or worrying about the future of our profession. We can literally be our own worst enemy! As with external pressures, we might not be able to change all of these thoughts and feelings, but we can choose how we respond to them.

Being ‘hooked’

We can get so caught up in certain ideas, thoughts, feelings and emotions that our performance and satisfaction at work is impacted. For example, we might let our fear of failure stop us from putting our hand up for a project that is well within our capability. We might be so consumed with thoughts that one of our peers is trying to undermine us that we start to become just as competitive as them, rather than collaborative. We might be so worried about how we will deal with upcoming changes in management that we totally disengage from our work.

This is what Susan David refers to as being ‘hooked’. When we are hooked and caught up in our heads, we let our thoughts and feelings influence our behaviour in ways that aren’t consistent with how we truly want to live our lives. We react rather than respond. This can mean that we are held back from reaching our goals and performing at our best. Think of when you are feeling stressed because you are running late. You might be more likely to be impatient, angry and even aggressive towards a slow driver on the road. You might act in a way that is inconsistent with your values because you are listening to your thoughts and emotions rather than allowing your values to guide your behaviour.

For example, I have coached a manager who was hooked by thoughts that she didn’t want to appear to her team that she thought she was better than them. She had been promoted quickly and was much younger than her direct reports. She let these thoughts impact on her behaviour. For example, instead of leading her team, she put excessive effort into trying to be their friend. She avoided delegating tasks and providing negative or constructive feedback. This created more work for her. Instead of being the inspirational leader she wanted to be, she was acting in a way that was hampering her own and her team’s success.

What do we do with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings?

There are several ways that we try to ‘manage’ these thoughts and feelings. Many of us might spend time intellectualising or rationalising why we feel the way we feel. We can think over and over about what we could have done better yesterday or what we need to do tomorrow. Others might try and control these thoughts, telling themselves “I just need to think positive” or “I just have to be  confident.”. We might just push it to the side and focus on something else. We distract ourselves by chatting to colleagues or procrastinating. At home we go straight to Netflix, red wine or online shopping (or all of the above all at once!). We can also dodge unwanted thoughts and feelings in more overt ways, completely avoiding situations that make us anxious or sad.

Think about what your tendency is? Are you a bottler or a brooder? Having awareness of how you tend to respond is the first step in becoming emotionally agile. 

While all of these responses are normal, they are not necessarily helpful (and can even become quite harmful). Avoiding situations that make us anxious reduces negative emotions in the moment. Likewise, constant venting about a micromanaging boss feels good in the short term. However, these strategies are not effective – they do not solve anything. The next time that situation comes up, we feel anxious again and venting can act to make us more frustrated. If we engage with these thoughts and feelings, spending time trying to change them, we waste precious energy that could have been better directed elsewhere.

So, how can we manage such thoughts and feelings in an effective way? 

Emotional agility is defined as “a process that allows you to be in the moment, changing or maintaining your behaviours to live in ways that align with your intentions and values” (p.11, Thomas, 2016). It is believed that the best way to manage our emotions is to be more flexible in our thinking, mindful, self-compassionate and values driven. It is about being able to look at thoughts in a self-compassionate, attentive and nonjudgmental manner, and mindfully choosing behaviours based on your valued directions. It means choosing what you want to do in the moment based on the objective context and your own goals and values rather than letting your thoughts and feelings cloud your judgment and influence your behaviour.

So, how can we be more emotionally agile? Here are Susan David’s tips:

1. Showing up
Showing up refers to the willingness to face your thoughts, emotions, feelings, behaviours with curiosity and self-compassion. It’s about accepting that a vital life is necessarily full of ups and downs, so why not “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” It is human nature to have negative thoughts and feelings (they actually serve a purpose!), so let’s face them courageously.

2. Stepping out
Stepping out means creating space between you and your thoughts and emotions. It means looking at our thoughts, rather than from our thoughts. A useful technique for creating space between you and your thoughts is mindfulness meditation.

3. Walking your why
This involves having a clear understanding of our values and using them as a compass to guide decision-making. Think about how would you want significant people in your life to say about you? What sort of qualities do you want to be known for? What do you want your life to look like? Make a commitment to live these values as much as possible and be kind to yourself when you fall short.

4. Moving on
This is about committing to action. David proposes two principles in this respect:
1.    The tiny tweaks principle: committing to tiny tweaks in behaviour over time rather than aiming towards lofty goals.
2.    The teeter-totter principle: we perform best and feel most satisfied when we are achieving the perfect balance between challenge and competence. Here we are engaged; we are not complacent nor are we overwhelmed.

Within Consulting offer a range of coaching, consulting, leadership and team workshop services.  For more information, contact our team at info@withinconsulting.com.au.