Emotional Agility Will Make You Stronger and Happier

Courtesy of http://www.susandavid.com/

[The following is the raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for space and clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: What if our chase for happiness has been completely wrong? Hello everyone, I'm Kevin Kruse. Welcome to the LEADx show, where we help you to stand out and to get ahead. Today in the show, you're going to hear from an amazing psychologist who says we have to stop running and hiding from our negative emotions. Now, this is one of the most favorite conversations I've had after 170 some episodes. We talk about knowing when to grit or quit, using our emotions as data, not direct, and why you should put two simple words in front of every time you're expressing a negative emotion, like, I'm stressing, I'm overwhelmed, I'm so mad. You need to put two words in front of those statements.

First, our tip today is, Instagram icebreaker. Now this is just a fun one, a quick one. The next time you have to give a presentation in front of an audience that doesn't know you very well, maybe it's a speech at a conference or maybe it's just a presentation to a new team at work. After you give your official introduction or the host introduces you, all that life experience, all your accomplishments, personalize yourself by sharing recent photos that you've posted up on Instagram. If you're not on Instagram, just photos that you've taken on your phone. Lately I take the stage, I hook the audience with a sentence or two, and then I say, “You heard my official bio, but here's the real me. I decided I'll show you the last six photos from my Instagram page.” Then these photos usually include a picture of my cat, my three kids, a couple of photos around my house. People will like you and respond to you better when you're humanized and when you're personal. Usually by showing recent photos, it's fun and often funny. They usually will laugh at a few of them. This is a great ice breaker technique as well if you're doing a training session or you're in some kind of meeting, you can have the audience pair up and just tell them the share the last three photos they took on their phone. It's called an Instagram icebreaker.

Our guest today is a renowned Harvard Medical School psychologist and co-founder of the Harvard Institute of Coaching. She challenges the prevailing attitude that we should fix our difficult emotions through positive thinking and chasing happiness all the time. She draws on her 20+ years of research to instead introduce a revolutionary new concept called emotional agility. It changes the way people live, work, and lead in this very uncertain world. The idea of emotional agility is clearly resonating. The idea was named a Harvard Business Review management idea of the year. Her new book is Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and in Life. Our guest is Dr. Susan David. Sue, welcome to the show!

Dr. Susan David: Thank you so much for inviting me.

Kruse: I'm really excited, I loved your book, looking forward to chatting about it. I have a tradition on the LEADx show, where we always start by asking the same first question, we try to get vulnerable right away. Will you tell us a time when you failed at something and what did you learn from it?

David: Oh my goodness, which one do I choose? I've had many failures, but probably one of the ones that stands out most for me is when I quit university. I had a fairly bad experience leading up to it where my father had been ill and died and I still went off, because that was the thing that everyone did. I realized after a while in being there that it was not working for me and I was not working for it. I made a very difficult decision, which was to quit.

I think what I've learned from that experience and what is really an ongoing question for me is when do you grit and do you quit? Society really holds up this idea that we should grit no matter what, we should muscle through. When we're struggling with stuff at work, we should just get on with it. Yet, one of the signs of human adaptation is knowing when to persevere, but just as equally when you are persevering at something that is maybe incongruent with your values that has a low chance of success that you no longer enjoy. While there often seems to be a lot of shame in the idea of quitting, I actually think that there's a huge amount of grace, dignity, and adaptation in that. The world is changing, we are changing, and we need to know how to be flexible with that context.

Kruse: Wow, so much great stuff there, when to grit and when to quit. I'm just curious, look at now, your amazing academic career and credentials. When you quit school way back then, did you think, hey, I'm just pausing, this institution isn't right for me or I need to take a year off before starting again? What did you think at the time?

David: I quit. I quit. I was at university at a college away from where I grew up, which was in Johannesburg, South Africa, and I quit. I went to secretarial school, I became a pro shorthand typist, and then after a while decided that I really had a very strong interest in psychology and emotions, and in particular the emotional experience that I'd had, and so went back to university but with a very strong sense of why is this important to me, what am I trying to do here, how does this align with my values and who I want to be.

That was really important, because we know in organizational context and personal context that whilst extrinsic motivation, people telling us we should do something, for whichever range of reasons, whether it's money or something else, that can motivate us for a short period of time. Ultimately, we need to really be able to, for sustainable effective change, be able to connect with our values and who are and our emotions.

Kruse: Isn't it a shame, I won't assume that you'll agree, but I feel that it's a shame that here in the states, we go right off from high school into undergraduate studies? There's no gap year at all. As you said, how many of us when we're 18 years old have thought about that purpose or that meaning or developed that intrinsic motivation? I've got three teenagers, and I've tried to encourage all of them to think about a gap year, and the first year is, of course, saying, “Dad, you're foolish, I'm not taking a year away.” It feels like we would all have better undergrad experiences if we could delay it a little bit.

David: I think that's right. I mean, when you look at college and you look at how very often that first entry into college is a time of very, very great turmoil for people, high rates of depression and anxiety and difficulty adapting, and all this pressure in that context to adapt and to be the best. It becomes very challenging. Certainly I've had many breaks in my career, I dropped out of university, I backpacked around the world for two years, and really when I look back at those experiences, it's those times of maybe doing something different that have truly been the richness and value in my experience.

Kruse: Incredible. Again, your new book is Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Let's start with the fundamentals. What do you mean by emotional agility, and why is it so important? Not just on an individual level, but you also say it's important for organizations. 

David: I became interested in these ideas when I grew up in South Africa. I was born into apartheid South Africa and as mentioned already had a difficult experience, the death of a parent at a very young age. Very early on I started to ask myself one essential question: “What does it take in the way we deal with ourselves, our thoughts, our emotions, and the stories that we tell ourselves that either hold us back or help us to thrive in the world?” Ultimately, how we deal with our inner experience, our psychology, drives everything from the careers we put our hands up for, to how we lead and interact in the workplace. In fact, every aspect of how we come to our parenting, our work, and our lives.

What is emotional agility? Emotional agility is the ability to be with yourself, your thoughts, “I'm a failure,” your emotions, “I'm going to stuff up this presentation,” and your stories, some of which were written on mental chalkboards in grade three about what you are good at and not so good at. It's the ability to deal with those thoughts, emotions, and stories in a way that is curious and compassionate, in a way that allows you to surface your values, your ‘why,’ and in which you are able to use that information to make choices and bring to the fore behaviors that are congruent, that are important, that close the gap between your intentions and your reality.

Why is this important for individuals? It's important for individuals because we live in a world that often takes us away from a healthy relationship with ourselves. We're told to just be positive, to just grit, to just get on with things no matter what. What that can sometimes do, in fact very often do, is lead us into unhealthy ways of being with ourselves, where instead of learning from our emotions and learning from our experiences, we deny them, we try to push through, and then five years later, we say, “Gee whiz, I'm still in the same miserable job,” because we haven't allowed ourselves to learn from our experience. These skills that I describe in Emotional Agility are actually critical to people's well-being, to lower levels of stress, lower levels of anxiety, lower levels of burnout, but also greater levels of success and effectiveness. Certainly, there's a great body of research that shows that these skills are essential.

Kruse: Sue, I want to explore this a little bit. It's very interesting, this idea of sort of being told that all, we reject the negative emotions and the thoughts. I have to imagine that many of us will mask the negative emotions and thoughts with alcohol or drugs or maybe risky behaviors. Even just setting that aside, when I read on your bio at the beginning of the show, you talk about, it's almost like we're in an age where it's all about positive psychology and thinking. There's a million happiness books out there, that even culturally we're sort of being sent this signal that we should mask or get rid of the negative ideas that are coming up. Do I have that right?

David: Yeah. Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-happiness. I, in a previous aspect of my career, actually edited an 80 chapter handbook called the Oxford Handbook of Happiness. I'm deeply interested in what it is that makes human beings happy. What's fascinating is that when we chase happiness as a goal, when we have this expectation that we should be positive, the behaviors that accompany that are often about suppressing emotions, putting it aside, trying to rationalize them, “I'm miserable in my job, but at least I've got a job.” When we're doing that, what we start seeing psychologically is fascinating.

People who push difficult emotions aside, there's what we call an amplification effect. You try to not feel upset about something, and then you come home and blow up at the dog or at your child. Pushing emotions aside doesn't work, but also what it does is deny us the reality that these emotions have evolved to help us to adapt. When we push them aside, we stop being able to adapt to our life circumstances effectively. There are great costs to ourselves and again our well-being. Absolutely, we are force-fed this idea that this should be something that we going to, we keep needing to strive for happiness, that anything else is at odds with that.

Kruse: I'm curious, where's the balance? On the one hand, you're saying we don't want to push our negative emotions or unhappiness aside, it is an authentic experience, but you also write that we have to be careful that we don't get hooked by these negative experience. Where's the balance between acknowledging how I'm feeling or some negativity and yet not getting hooked by it?

David: Viktor Frankl, who survived the Nazi death camps, speaks to this very beautiful idea that between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose, and it's in that choice that comes our growth and freedom. When there's no space between stimulus and response, we are hooked. What that might look like is being undermined in this meeting, so I'm going to shut down. I feel really angry, so I'm going to shut down. I feel really angry, so I'm going to give the person a piece of my mind. What we do is we start attaching our emotions to an action, almost treating those emotions as fact.

When we're doing that, when our thoughts, our emotions, and stories are driving us, that's not effective. The way that I like to think of this is that our emotions are data, not directions. We can tap into them, we can notice them with curiosity, we can notice them with compassion, we can say, “What is this thing that I'm feeling strongly about, and what does it tell me about what's important to me, my values? What is critical in my workplace,” and so on. We can tap into these, but without treating them as directives to action. Ultimately, who's in charge here, the thinker or the thought?

Kruse: Right, the thinker or the thought. I'm not sure this is directly related but it kind of popped into my mind. I was having a conversation with a couple of friends recently about people who express negativity quite frequently, whether they're our team members, they're always complaining at work, or whether it's someone in our personal life. My one friend, he happens to be a psychologist, and he said when people express complaining around him, he doesn't acknowledge it at all. He doesn't support it and he doesn't say, “Stop being so negative,” because he says that's actually giving them attention and rewarding their negativity. He's just silent, he ignores it.

The other person said, “Kevin, my rule is, I give everybody about five minutes, because everybody should be allowed to share the negative parts of their day, they should be able to share with emotional honesty. If it goes beyond five minutes, then I've got a problem with it.” What are your thoughts about the people in your own life and at work who are expressing their negative feelings and thoughts?

David: Well, what's interesting is when leaders, for instance, try to push negative emotions aside, they don't actually leave. They might leave the room, but they get taken up at the water cooler or the person becomes disengaged and might not be expressing emotions, but is still not necessarily effectively playing a role in the team or in where the organization is trying to go.

A very important aspect I think is, again, recognizing that there's a difference between data and direction. I can show up to my son and hear his frustration with his baby sister, but it doesn't mean that I'm endorsing that he gets to give his baby sister away to the first stranger that he sees in a shopping mall. There's a lot of conversation about how in the workplace diversity is very, very important, but what is diversity? Diversity is not just about gender diversity or thought diversity, it's also about emotional diversity.

To answer your question, I think that it's really important that leaders help to create a space where people actually feel that they can authentically speak about a concern that they have. As soon as you try to deny that, what happens is that emotion doesn't go away, it just gets formed in a different way. Very importantly is to not try to remove that from the room, but to try to create a sense for the team of what is the shared vision, you know, what is it… Yes, there's a lot of change going on in the organization, yes things aren't perfect here, but how do we want to be with one another even in the context of what is happening? When we are able to develop a sense of shared why without attacking the emotions or trying to negate them, that becomes a very powerful impetus to positive change.

Kruse: That makes sense. You mentioned your young children. I've got three who are older, they're teens now. How can we as parents support our kids to grow up and be raised emotionally agile as you've described?

David: I'll first say that I'm not perfect at it but I try, because I think as parents we've got to be compassionate towards ourselves. We're trying to do the best we can with who we are. What's really fascinating is that so often when our children come home and are experiencing pain, “No one will play with me,” or, “I've been rejected,” or something else, we with very good intentions rush in and try to fix that child's emotional experience. “Don't worry, I'll play with you,” or, “I'll call the mean girl's parents and organize a playdate.” We try to do all of these things, and we do them with good intentions.

What this actually does is it teaches children that there are good and bad emotions. It teaches children that emotions are to be feared, that some emotions are emotions that we should get rid of quickly. Critically, it doesn't actually help the child to develop very important emotional skills. For instance, all emotions are transient. You only learn that when you are able to sit with your difficult emotions, and notice that they have passed.

What I really encourage parents to do is firstly show up to your children's emotions. In South Africa, there was this beautiful phrase Zulu people say, “Sawubona,” “Yebo sawubona.” Sawubona means hello, but actually what it means is, “I see you, and by seeing you, I bring you into being.” When we can see our children's emotional pain, even if we don't necessarily understand it, that's powerful. The next thing we want to do is we want to help our children to label their emotions, you know, what it is that you're feeling. This is a critical skillset that has been shown to predict long-term health and wellbeing.

Last, we want to be asking the child, “How do you want to be in the situation?” Let me give you a quick example. Your child comes home from school and says, “Jack didn't invite me to his birthday party. Now, I'm not going to invite him to mine.” That child is showing no space between stimulus and response. I feel angry, therefore I'm going to act on it. When we recognize the child's anger, help them to label the anger, and start saying to them things like, “How do you want to be in the situation? What does a good friend look like to you?” In other words, instead of forcing them to invite Jack to the birthday party because that's what we do, what we're trying to do is we're helping them to develop their own “Why,” their own set of values. This, as it turns out, is what ultimately helps to shape children's moral compass and is absolutely fundamental. Showing up, helping to label, and then helping them to understand who they want to be in the situation separate from what their emotions are telling them.

Kruse: Great advice. Before we wrap up, I want to bring it back to us as individuals, as leaders in organizations. I always tell our LEADx listeners, I say, I just want you to get a little bit better every single day. It doesn't have to be dramatic transformations overnight, get 1% better. What's a starter behavior that you can challenge us with? What's something we can do today or in the next 24 hours to become a little more emotionally agile? 

David: I'm going to give two if that's okay.

Kruse: Yeah, please.

David: The first is, often when we experience emotions, we'll say things like, “I am stressed. I am anxious. I am sad.” What you're doing when you're saying that is you are basically identifying you, all of you, 100% of you, the “I am,” as being sad or stressed or whatever it is.

There's incredible power in noticing that emotion, but creating some distance. I'm noticing that I'm feeling stressed, I'm noticing that I'm feeling sad, I'm noticing the urge to leave the room, I'm noticing the urge to shut down. When you prefix the emotional story with simply, “I am noticing,” and calling it for what it is, a thought, emotion, a story, not a direction, you create incredibly important space that allows you to then decide who do you want to be in the situation.

Second and very quickly is, one of the things I've noticed in my work with organizations is that often people get very hooked on the idea of being right. “What if I'm right?” “What if my colleague is an idiot?” “What if I'm right?” “What if my team member really is a slacker?” Sometimes we get so focused on being right, that we forget that what we're doing might not be serving us. What I would encourage listeners to do is think about an area of their life, it might be at home, it might be to do with a specific project or product, or even with an individual, where they've become so focused on being right that it's actually stopping them from being effective.

Now, if the gods of right came down and said to you, “You are right. You are right. You are right. You are right. Your colleague is an idiot. The team member is a slacker. You are right,” you still get to choose who you want to be. What is an action that can take you closer to being the person, the leader, the parent that you most want to be?

Kruse: Wow, powerful stuff, really powerful stuff. Those are great challenges for us to take on. I've been taking notes like crazy. LEADx listeners, for those of you who've been with us from the start, I think Sue you're going to be episode like 178 or something like that, I might be off by one or two. I've probably only said this a handful of times, but your book, Emotional Agility, is one of the best books I've read and featured on the show after 178 episodes.

David: Thank you.

Kruse: You're welcome. I want to encourage all of the listeners out there to check out Emotional Agility on Amazon or wherever your favorite bookstore is. How else, Sue, can our listeners find out more about you and your work? 

David: Firstly, thank you so much. This was a huge investment and a labor of love. I appreciate your comments. People can find out by going to SusanDavid.com. I've also got a free quiz that 70,000 people have taken, which takes about five minutes and gives you insight in a report as to what is your level of emotional agility, what are some aspects of emotional agility that are really serving you and what might not be serving you. That quiz again can be found on my website. It's at www.SusanDavid.com/learn.

Kruse: Sue, thanks so much for coming on to the LEADx show.

David: Thank you. I'm so grateful to be here.

Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE trial of the LEADx platform at https://leadx.org/preview.