What is emotional agility?

Strictly speaking, our emotions are simply data that we may or may not utilize. Emotional agility is thus the ability to use our emotions as an information base for making better decisions in challenging situations

Forget trying to completely turn off or totally control your emotions. You won’t succeed. This is how emotional agility differs from emotional intelligence (EQ). Both focus on the conscious perception of your feelings and their effect on others. Emotional intelligence, however, teaches you to control your emotions, while emotional agility focuses more on coming into harmony with your feelings.  

Emotions always win

Have you heard of the Lighthouse and Naval Vessel Urban Legend, in which the highly decorated captain of a large battleship radios another ship to change course to avoid a collision? In return, the person on the other side of the radio suggests that the big ship change course. The captain finds this outrageous and gets really angry. He orders the lower-ranking sailor on the obviously much smaller and insignificant boat to change course immediately. Highly emotional, he points out his captain rank and the importance of his big battleship. Quite unimpressed, the reply comes through the radio: "Sir, this is a lighthouse and I am the keeper. It’s up to you to change course.”  

We don't know for sure whether this is exactly what happened, but the story certainly illustrates one thing: Excessive emotions narrow our view and reduce our scope of actions. At the same time, emotions serve as a highly valuable orientation and warning system. Just like in this legend, your feelings are the lighthouse that prevents you from being shipwrecked, as long as you pay attention to them. 

Increase your emotional agility in six practical steps

The following practical tips can help you strengthen and develop your emotional agility. They are based on comprehensive experience from my client work paired with the latest findings on the concept of emotional agility

1. Throw unrealistic demands and expectations overboard

Leaders are still expected to live up to an ideal image: always cheerful, stoic, confident and positive. This inflated expectation often leads executives to ward off situations in which they may be confronted with undesirable feelings: A difficult conversation may be avoided, and an important appearance in front of a larger audience might be canceled.

If certain situations cannot be averted, and the emotions associated with them surface, managers often develop a sense of failure. This is because the attempt to control emotions frequently causes inauthentic behavior. As a result, a leader’s credibility drops to the point of severe irritation within their environment.

Especially now, in these challenging times, this creates a negative spiral. Executives tend to withdraw, and employees feel left alone. So say goodbye to the idea of always having to be strong and showing no emotions. Accept them as an integral part of your leadership role. You will see how much relief this brings.  


2. Learn to name your emotions

Once you have accepted that emotions are simply present, your next step will be to name them. This can be tricky. Try it out! How many emotions can you list? How are they correlated? I have to admit that this can be challenging. Here’s a little tip: Do some research on emotions to get a solid overview. This list of emotions along with these 27 emotions may help. 

Emotions are defined in various ways that are sometimes contradictory or even controversial. This doesn't mean that you have to become an amateur psychologist. All you need to learn is to be able to name your feelings


3. Identify your patterns

Developing a curiosity for your emotions is a fundamental step. Once you’ve done that, try to identify whether and how you allow yourself to be captured by your feelings. One clear indicator: Your thoughts keep spinning around the same topic, and you’re finding it hard to take a different perspective.  

Here’s a nice example: During the current lockdown, many leaders – especially female ones – are experiencing a feeling of guilt as they are struggling to work from home and help their children with homeschooling. “I can’t get my job done. I’m letting my team down, but I’m also not living up to my responsibilities as a mother.” The attempt to cope by increasing the effort and multitasking to the max tends to result in a dead-end road. Ultimately, this leads to an even stronger feeling of failure and guilt. 

4. Accept your feelings

This negative spiral can be stopped. You don't need to react to every individual thought you have. Just pay sufficient attention to your emotions. Take a few deep breaths and observe what is going on. This tends to bring relief, but it probably won’t significantly change the way you feel. However, you may realize how upset you actually are. 

What’s important now: Allow yourself some compassion and take a closer look at the situation you are in. What is happening inside you and around you? In the example above, the overwhelmed executive would realize that it is impossible to manage two tasks simultaneously and that the feeling of guilt is triggered by the need to please everyone.  


5. Act in line with your values

By becoming aware of your emotions and thoughts, you will expand your scope of action. Doing so will allow you to base your decisions on your values. Use the following questions to guide you: 

  • Is my reaction benefiting me and my company, respectively my family, in the short as well as the long term?
  • Am I helping others to advance the company’s purpose? 
  • Are my actions bringing me one step closer to my vision of a good job and a good life?  

Let’s stick to our example: Asking these guiding questions, our leader would have quickly realized that overhasty multitasking without considering personal stress limits would not bring the desired long-term results and might even be harmful. With this insight, possible alternative scenarios can be considered.


6. Take one step at a time

Once you have identified alternative courses of action based on your emotions and guided by your value compass, it’s time to implement them. Make sure you don’t take on too much at once! Take small steps but start immediately. This increases the likelihood that you will actually change something.  

Using our example, this means: The executive first defines her vision of an ideal future: “I’m setting priorities and focusing on what’s important. This allows me to focus on the various areas of my life and work. I will gain strength and fulfillment because I will be acknowledging my needs.” 

A brainstorming session can help to collect ideas on how to get closer to this ideal future. Please note: The output should be considered a pool of ideas. Not all of them will have to be implemented! In a next step, our leader will prioritize these options based on their feasibility. Ideally, she will choose an idea that is relatively easy to implement. This could be something like integrating a brief mindfulness exercise into her daily routine. One by one, small changes will ensue. If a measure shows to be ineffective, it will simply be adapted or thrown overboard. 


Let your emotions shine

“Cover your feeling in seven layers of clothes, it will still shine through.” This quote by the German author Manfred Hinrich elegantly summarizes what also applies to your professional environment. So, don't invest in a new outfit to cover up your emotions, but utilize your feelings for yourself and your success. Enjoy! 


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