- September 28, 2016
- Posted by: Joan Underwood
- Category: Leadership, People
“Effective leaders are mindful of their inner experiences but not caught in them.”
The Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently released a podcast featuring author Susan David. In that interview, Susan shared some of her research on Emotional Agility. Emotional agility refers to the ability to manage one’s thoughts and feelings. As I listened to the podcast, it occurred to me that emotional agility fit nicely in the space between self-awareness and self-expression. Close on that realization came the thought that, in the context of a coaching relationship, it could be extremely empowering for leaders at all levels to master the art of navigating that space.
According to a 2013 ASTD blog, emotional intelligence is the single best predictor of performance in the workplace and the strongest driver of leadership and personal excellence. At UTDS, we firmly believe that self-awareness is the beginning of wisdom. However, it is just that – i.e. the beginning and not the entire journey. One of the critical factors in determining whether the journey ends at wisdom or some other less desirable destination is the choice that one makes based on whether or not to express the emotions which we experience. Further, having decided if to express an emotion, it is also vital to decide how best to express the emotion in order to move us closer to our desired outcomes. Both of those decisions fall within the purview of emotional agility.
Circumventing the Amygdala Hijack
Which one of us has not had this experience – i.e. that moment when we react in a way that is driven purely by a fight, flight or freeze instinct… where our sense of reason completely eludes us? You know what I mean, that experience where we act in haste and then find ourselves repenting at leisure… By developing our self-awareness and emotional agility, we can circumvent future hijacks. Fundamental to mastering our emotions is the realization that they are a resource for us rather than a force that is bigger than us.
Viktor Frankl described the space between a stimulus and our response as where we have the opportunity to deploy our power to choose. Instead of reacting by succumbing to the amygdala hijack, we can develop the capacity to mindfully insert our values and intentions into the space between the stimulus and our response as we choose if and how to respond. Part of the mindful processing of stimuli is assessing if and how the contemplated response serves our greater purpose and/or values.
Here’s the thing though – to do so, we have to use a different part of our brains. A skillful coach can help clients to develop the ability to shift from an instinctive response to a more mindful consideration of how we can best utilize all the resources that are available to us.
Four Steps to Emotional Agility
Susan David outlines the following steps which we can all use to improve our personal efficacy:
- Notice when we’ve been hooked by our thoughts and feelings.
- Label our thoughts and emotions.
- Accept our thoughts and emotions by acknowledging them and exploring them from a position of curiosity.
- Act on our values.
By inserting these steps in the space between experiencing a stimulus and reacting to it, we position ourselves to become much more resourceful. The reality is that all emotions – even the negative ones – have a positive intent. Once we identify that positive intent, we can then align our actions with that rather than with the negative emotion itself.
So, what might that look like in real life? Let’s imagine that you’re scheduled to make a big presentation at work and you’re experiencing fear. What is the positive intent or value associated with fear? It might be the desire to get a promotion or a special assignment. If you allow your amygdala to hijack the moment, you would probably freeze.
Alternatively if you notice what you’re experiencing – i.e. your physiological response – and then put the appropriate label on that response, the conversation in your mind might sound something like this:
My heart is racing right now, and I’m sweating even though the A/C is on full blast…
I’m experiencing these feelings because I’m anxious…
I’m anxious because the stakes are high, and I want to succeed…
What do I need to do now, and who do I need to be in order to have the best possible outcome in this situation?
Having had that conversation, you are now in the position to choose a response that is aligned with your values and intent rather than simply defaulting to a reaction that could be irrational and/or destructive.
How might you draw on the work of Viktor Frankl, Susan David and Daniel Goleman to effectively leverage all your resources and further enhance your personal efficacy?