Psychologist Susan David discusses her book on emotional agility.
Just like physical agility, emotional agility is important to overall health, well-being and successful relationships at work. But in a fast-paced world fraught with so much stress and upheaval, how do you achieve it? Psychologist Susan David, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, offers insights in a new book titled Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. She spoke with [email protected] about the “critical skill set” needed to achieve emotional balance on the Wharton Business Radio network on Channel 111 on SiriusXM Radio.
[email protected]: What is emotional agility?
Susan David: Effectively, it’s the ability to be able to be with your thoughts, your emotions and your stories. We all have thousands of these every day in a way that enables us not to be derailed by them, but rather brings us intentionally and with purpose towards what we value in our lives.
[email protected]: Is getting derailed something that happens to most people on a daily or weekly basis?
David: Absolutely. It’s not simply getting derailed in anger, for example. But we all have ways that we want to live, ways that we want to parent, how we want to be in our relationships and how we want to be at work. Yet we often allow ourselves to get derailed by not being in an effective relationship with our thoughts and emotions and stories.
[email protected]: Is this book based on the research that you’ve done over the last couple of decades and examples that you’ve seen firsthand?
David: Yes. I am a clinical psychologist by training. I’m on faculty at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital. A lot of my work is both drawn from my research in emotions and the work that I do with clients and with organizations.
[email protected]: You have a list of key ingredients for people to think about in trying to reach that level of emotional agility. What is on the list?
“Emotional agility is the ability to be with yourself in a way that is courageous and curious and compassionate.”
David: Firstly, emotional agility is the ability to be with yourself in a way that is courageous and curious and compassionate. This involves a number of strategies and core competencies. One of them is being able to not struggle with your thoughts and emotions. The reason that I say this is because people often will have an experience where they feel undermined at work or they’re not liking their job or something happens in their world. Instead of being able to move forward around that situation, we almost jostle and engage in an internal struggle about whether we should or shouldn’t feel or think a particular thing. I shouldn’t be unhappy because at least I’ve got a job. Or we try to rationalize our thoughts and emotions away. We know that this is not an effective way of actually facing into what is going on in our lives.
[email protected]: One of the things you bring up are the values that people rely on, things that are core to them and how important they are to the process.
“Really having a clear sense of what it is that is important to us is absolutely critical.”
David: One of the first things that I talk about is how putting on a brave face often counters our ability to look beyond our emotions and our difficulties to discern signposts of what it is that we care about. The things that we are upset about or angry about often contain information of what’s of value. I’m unhappy about my idea being stolen because, underneath that, I really care about issues of equity and justice, for example. People will often push these emotions and, with them, the learning aside.
Really having a clear sense of what it is that is important to us is absolutely critical. Values are often seen as being cheesy, the kinds of things that we have on walls in organizations but don’t really believe in or do anything with. Yet what’s fascinating is the amazing work showing that when people have values front of mind, it is protective in things like transitions. If you’re going through a difficult period at work, you’re a first-generation college student, you’re having a struggle in a relationship, knowing how you want to be in the world protects us from social contagion. It protects us from a lot of the mindless comparison that we often do. And it’s really a fundamental part of our ability to be well and happy and productive people.
[email protected]: A lot of people have talked about how important it is to learn from negativity. It’s like the old line, “Never make the same mistake twice.”
David: We live in a world where every single newspaper we open tells us that we need to be happy. A friend of mine recently died of stage four breast cancer. She described this as the tyranny of positivity, this idea that simply by thinking herself out of her cancer that she would somehow be well. She said to me, “If it was just a case of being positive, all of the people in my breast cancer support group would be alive today. And the messaging to simply be positive makes me almost feel culpable for my own death.”
But absolutely, we live in this society that makes us second guess ourselves when things go wrong. The natural consequence is that we want to push these things aside. Psychological research tells us that the very thought that we try not to think about will often have a boomerang effect. We’ll think about that exact thought something like 30 or 40 times a minute. You try not to think about chocolate cake because you’re on a diet, and you dream about it. So trying not to think about or navigate difficult situations doesn’t work. And secondly, it doesn’t allow us to mine the learning and make constructive change to our lives.
“Our emotions are data, not directions. We can learn from them, but we don’t need to obey them or be dominated by them.”
[email protected]: You also talk about the idea that emotions tell you a lot about yourself. They communicate the type of person you are. How important is that in this process?
David: It’s critical. Charles Darwin wrote a lesser known book called The Expression of Emotion in Men and Animals. In this, he really talks to the idea that emotions help us not only to communicate with other people but also to ourselves. This is a critical aspect of my work and of the book itself. This idea that we can learn underneath our emotions, if we feel a sense of guilt, if we feel a sense of anger, there’s often something that is instructive to us. Now, the very clear distinction here is that our emotions are data, not directions. We can learn from them, but we don’t need to obey them or be dominated by them.
In the book, I talk about this idea of showing up. But I also describe the critical