“To thrive in this uncertain world,” notes Jen Fisher, “we could all use a little more emotional agility.” As Deloitte’s Chief Well-Being Officer, Fisher hosts the WorkWell podcast series featuring interviews with leading experts from across the spectrum of work, health, and self-development. In this episode, Susan David explores why our emotional life can’t (and shouldn’t) be put on pause when we clock in. David is an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist and author of the bestselling Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life
Susan: I think there could be nothing further than the truth. [The idea that] Good emotions are about joy and happiness, and bad emotions are somehow about anger or anxiety, frustration, and they should be pushed aside. This is one of the largest misunderstandings of emotions and really, this has real cost. It has cost to the individual because when people see their emotions as good or bad, what they start doing is engaging and hustling with their emotions. I shouldn’t feel that, that’s a bad emotion, I should be grateful for my experience. And this, in the longer term, is actually associated with lower levels of well-being, high levels of mental distress, and also feeling stuck and being stuck, because if you are in a situation where for instance you are feeling bored in the workplace, and you said to yourself I shouldn’t feel that, at least I have got a job, I should be grateful,
[The idea that] good emotions are about joy and happiness, and bad emotions are somehow about anger or anxiety, frustration, and they should be pushed aside. This is one of the largest misunderstandings of emotions.
When we look at the workplace, this similar principle is operating. If we think about organizations that say things like “We want people to be innovative” or “We want people to be collaborative”, there is no innovation that is possible without potential failure and without the difficult emotions that come with potential failure. There is no true collaboration that takes place without conflict or dissenting views, and the emotions that come with that. So, for all of those organizations and leaders and teams that say “We want these outcomes,” whether it’s collaboration or agility or creativity, what those organizations need to be doing is then opening themselves up to the reality that those often tough emotions are part and parcel of being effective in an organizational setting.
Jen: How did we get here? I mean, especially in the workplace.
Understanding Our Emotions
Jen: What is emotional agility, and how does it better help us understand our emotions?
The short answer is that emotional agility is basically the capacity to be healthy with ourselves, to be healthy with our thoughts, our emotions, and the stories that we have. The longer answer is that there are core components to emotional agility that are really critical to this capacity to be healthy. The first is the ability to show up to our emotions with a level of gentle acceptance and compassion, and this really circles back to the beginning of our conversation, this idea that there aren’t good and bad emotions. If you start hustling with yourself and start [thinking you should] only have “positive” emotions or see your emotions as positive, or only think good thoughts? Number one, it doesn’t work. When we try to push aside these difficult emotions, there is actually an amplification effect. You said [to] yourself, I am really upset with my colleague, I am just not going to say anything, I am just going to push aside this difficult experience,
Susan: We have all been there in a meeting, we have all been there at the Thanksgiving table, we have all been there. So, the first part of emotional agility is really the ability to be able and compassionate and kind in the way we show up to our difficult emotions. Instead of hustling with them or pushing them aside, we just accept them: This is what I feel right now. I am in a situation in which I need to be compassionate with the fact that I am bored or I am anxious or I am feeling undermined, and I can be in that space in a way that makes room for that difficult experience. So, that’s a showing-up part.
If you start hustling with yourself and start [thinking you should] only have “positive” emotions or see your emotions as positive, or only think good thoughts? Number one, it doesn’t work.
Who do I want to be in this moment, what are my values so that I can actually bring myself forward and not be hooked by this difficult experience
The short answer is that emotional agility is about being healthy with ourselves. The longer answer is that emotional agility is the ability to be with ourselves in ways that are curious, compassionate, and courageous so that we can move forward in the direction of our values, in how we bring ourselves to the world, and this is a critical capacity for all of us.
Strategies to Improve Your Emotional Agility
Now, that analogy is one we can apply to self-compassion. Self-compassion, when you are kind to yourself, when you say to yourself, I love you, I will be there for you,
I love you, I will be there for you,
Another way we can be self-compassionate is, when we are beating ourselves up, to imagine the inner child that is there in all of us, the child that needs fun, the child that needs to be seen, and to play and to have joy and to just ask ourselves What does the child in me need right now
Those are strategies around showing up for our difficult emotions with gentle acceptance, but stepping out is when we recognize that our emotions don’t need to call the shots, our thoughts don’t need to call the shots. Again, these are data, not directives. Stepping out is one of the most powerful strategies that we need in the workplace. Anytime you are putting yourself into your clients’ shoes, anytime you are saying this is how I feel, but what does this person in front of me need right now
This interview has been condensed. To listen to or read the full interview from the WorkWell podcast, go to www.deloitte.com.