How does a salesperson successfully close on the biggest opportunity of her career? What makes an executive leader resilient in the face of massive organizational change? And what makes an insecure new leader rise to the occasion? More often than not, the answer boils down to the way that person navigates and manages their emotions. The salesperson doesn’t let her anxiety take over, but she does lean into her adrenaline to move past barriers and ensure she tries to close. The resilient executive leader devotes extra time to stress management and reminds herself of all the preparation she’s done for these types of moments. The new leader defeats his insecurities by breaking down his job into smaller, achievable pieces. emotional agility
Each of these people demonstrates a high degree of emotional agility. Emotional agility is the ability to manage your emotions and thoughts in a way that makes you more effective at what you’re doing. In studies across organizations and industries, emotional agility has been shown to reduce stress, increase confidence and resilience, and help people build relationships. According to researcher and author of the 2016 book Emotional Agility, Dr. Susan David, the key to developing emotional agilityis to follow four practices in your thoughts and emotions: 1) recognize your patterns, 2) label your thoughts and emotions, 3) accept your emotions, and 4) act on your values.
To bring each of these practices to life, we’ll follow Shelly who just landed her dream job as a Director of Marketing for an animal shelter. She’s on her first big project, trying to put together a rollout plan across platforms for the entirety of their social media. She knows she should be more focused and motivated than ever, but for some reason, she can’t stop falling into internet holes. What can she do to turn this behavior around?
1. Recognize Your Patterns. To change a habit, you first need to recognize it. The best starting point is usually the most obvious sign—your behavior. In the case of Shelly, she recognizes that something’s wrong and spots her pattern in behavior quickly: She’s not getting any work done. As soon as she asks herself what’s getting in the way, she immediately knows she is succumbing to distractions.
2. Label Your Thoughts and Emotions. Now that Shelly knows what is getting in the way of her work, the question becomes why. To think about the “why,” she follows a chain of emotions asking herself why along the way. She knows, for example, that she feels anxious, flustered, and guilty as she scans the internet. Why? Because she’s anxious about her new job and this immediate new, big task. But why is she nervous? After all, she ran much of the social media at her previous job. She’s nervous she will fail and lose her dream job. Even more specifically, she realizes that she suffers from a kind of imposter syndrome where she can’t stop imagining her worst-case scenario. Shelly was able to reach this internal kernel of truth by getting as specific as possible with her emotions. When Shelly said she was “anxious” or “nervous,” this got her moving in the right direction, but it was when she arrived at the source of her anxiety that she began to see the bigger pattern. To get yourself moving in a more specific direction with your emotions, check out this comprehensive emotions list, which actually includes words for emotions that only exist in other languages like “toska,” a vague sense of restlessness, “abbiocco,” a sleepy feeling after a big meal, and “umpty,” a feeling of everything being too much and all in the wrong way.
3. Accept Your Emotions. Once you’re successfully able to label your emotions, it’s important to actually accept them for what they are. Don’t judge them as good or bad. In Shelly’s case, her anxiety won’t magically disappear by recognizing that she’s afraid to fail. However, her acceptance may give her the sense of calm to stop ruminating on hypothetical failure and focus on the task at hand. After all, some degree of failure is inevitable, and she can only control her effort. This might be a good moment to talk with her supervisor about her insight and plan going forward. That supervisor will appreciate Shelly’s growth and may offer her reassurance about making mistakes, which will offer Shelly an additional source of calm.
4. Act on Your Values, Not Your Thoughts. Values give you a sense of distance from your negative emotions by offering a bigger picture perspective. They can also serve as a “rupture point” from cyclic, negative thinking. Shelly, for example, reminded herself that the Marketing Director job for an animal rescue was her dream job because she’d always felt highly connected to animals since at the age of seven when her family adopted a dog. She derived a lot of energy from this value-based thought. Instead of running to the internet, or obsessively thinking about ways she might fail, she focused on making a difference by spreading the word that there were animals who needed homes and seven-year-old girls whose lives would change in the process. She even developed a mantra for when she doubted her own abilities. “You can make a big difference,” she told herself.
From Insights to Action. We have such a constant stream of thoughts in our daily life that we frequently don’t realize the extent to which these thoughts dictate our attitude, actions, and even our outlook. We think of our thoughts as something that “just happens” or are “naturally a part of us.” To be agile with our emotions and thoughts, we have to recognize that our thoughts are under our control. And to get that control, we just need to begin to listen more closely, break them down, and understand them better. For further help with these emotional agility practices, check out these Self-Awareness Strategies in TalentSmart’s Emotional Intelligence 2.0:
Quit Treating Your Feelings as Good or Bad (page 64),
Observe the Ripple Effect of Your Emotions (page 66),
Watch Yourself Like a Hawk (page 75),
Stop and Ask Yourself Why You Do the Things You Do (page 84)
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