A Different Kind of Agile

“Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” says Susan David.

Today, I would like to focus on a different kind of agility: one that can help you navigate your world and thrive in an environment that is both complex and constantly changing. It’s called emotional agility. At its most basic, emotional agility is the ability to manage your thoughts and feelings.

The concept of emotional agility was introduced by Susan David, one of the world’s leading management thinkers and an expert on emotions, happiness and achievement. Susan’s TED Talk on the topic of emotional agility has been seen by more than 8 million people (you can watch it here).

Emotional agility

Susan argues that no one trait is more indicative of success than the ability to collaborate gracefully with your own emotions. In her book she draws on her more than twenty years of research, decades of expert consulting, and her own experience overcoming adversity after losing her father at a young age. Susan defines emotional agility as the “capacity for us human beings to be with all of our emotions, the reality of our human experience, in ways that are healthy”[1]. And by healthy she does not mean being positive all the time. Quite the opposite. Do you sometimes have the feeling that in today’s society, your feelings and emotions are not acceptable unless they are positive? It’s almost like you are not entitled to feel angry, frustrated, sad, etc. Susan refers to this as the “tyranny of positivity”. The society seems to value relentless positivity and happiness. But the reality of our human experience is at times far from it. We all experience a whole tirade of emotions as we go through our life (and sometimes even in the course of one single day).

Emotional agility does not make people immune to life’s setbacks. But it enables us to draw insights from our feelings and use those insights to adapt, align our values and actions, and make changes that will enable us thrive. It is about identifying and accepting all your emotions courageously and with compassion – both good and bad – and having the ability to move past them to inspire a change in your life.

In her book, Susan offers an interesting analogy. She explains that we are like sea captains, trying to navigate our ships around the rocky shores of life. Each of us has an emotional lighthouse trying to warn us about problems ahead – but foolishly we try to ignore the signals. Our emotions are giving us important information – they are “data” we should act on. Our emotions might be signalling that this job isn't what you really want to do in your life, or your relationship isn’t really going great.

It is important to realize that our emotions do not own us. We own our emotions and we are able to choose how we respond. Thinking about the language that we use to describe our emotions can help us develop a healthy relationship with our emotions and not push them aside. Think about the way you express your emotions. Do you ever say “I am angry”, “I am frustrated”, etc.? This sounds as if the whole of you were the emotion itself. According to Susan, this does not leave space for anything else. There is just the all-consuming emotion and it does not allow us to step back from it and consider. And without consideration, we cannot calmly implement strategies to act on what those emotions are telling us. So next time you feel that flare of rage, try to think of yourself as “experiencing anger”, rather than saying “I am angry”. It’s a subtle reframing, but a powerful one.

Another issue in our weird relationship with negative emotions is that we're really bad at even naming them. For example, when we have a tough day we’ll often just say we are being “stressed” without really thinking about which emotions we’re actually experiencing. When we observe those feelings closer we might notice that we are actually burned out, frustrated or feel misunderstood. And there is a difference between all those emotions.

In her book, Susan identifies four key concepts to emotional agility: First is (1) showing up, where you recognise your emotions and confront them with curiosity and kindness. The second step is (2) stepping out, a process of detachment and observation. The third step (3) “walking your why” involves identifying your core values. The final step (4) “moving on” is the implementation of changes, or tweaks, that are in line with your values. 

In the information overload age, with so many things competing for our attention, Susan David urges us to look inward and collaborate with (not against) our own emotions. So next time you feel a negative emotion – don’t push it away or let it fully consume you. Focus instead on what it is trying to tell you about your current situation.