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Three Ways to Improve Your Emotional Agility

Every day, leaders encounter a wide range of negative emotions—their own and the emotions of those they lead. Impatience. Anger. Jealousy. Uncertainty. Insecurity. Defensiveness. Frustration. The list goes on. Learning to be agile and resourceful in the face of these emotions is a rich and complex area of coaching (and our third and final installment in the “round up” of 2014 coaching themes). We can only scratch the surface here in blog form, but it’s well worth scratching.

I take the term “emotional agility” from Susan David and Christina Congleton’s excellent 2013 Harvard Business Review article.  When you possess high levels of emotional agility, it simply means that you have a well-developed capacity to recognize and “unhook” from negative emotions. You can respond to difficulties in alignment with your values—rather than simply react impulsively from a “hot” state. You have grace under fire.

Here are three distinct ways you can work to improve your emotional agility as a leader:

1. Know Your Triggers

Understand well the people, scenarios, and topics that can trigger and tweak you. What you’re going for is an external map of situations; one that alerts you to tread carefully and to set your intentions in advance, e.g. “I’m here to listen and understand her perspective only.” Then, schedule yourself wisely—know your limits to ensure that you are as ‘on game’ as you can be when you will face difficult people/situations. People face stressful situations with much more grace when they’re rested, not decision fatigued, and when they have food in their systems. These are trite observations, but the research bears them out in a compelling manner.

2. Know Your Signs: Become a Sommelier of your Senses

What happens to you physically when you’re emotionally hooked? Does your jaw clench, chest tighten, ears redden, heart rate accelerate? Do you start to speak more loudly or become more clipped? Do you lightly clutch the table, roll your eyes, collapse your chest in a passive aggressive “who cares” or defeated posture? Do you adopt a look of mild disgust, furrow your brow? The finer your understanding here, the more likely you are to catch yourself before you react in a way that you’re less than proud of later.

3. Develop a Process to Unhook

Effective strategies to manage difficult emotions vary widely. Exercise is an excellent “go to.” A good night’s sleep. A walk outside. Taking ten deep breaths.  It is ideal if we “unhook” in the moment, but if we cannot, the cost of staying in the conversations often outweighs the small hit of saying something like this, “This is important information—I need some time to digest for just a moment. Let’s take a five minute break” (if heavily time pressured) or, “let’s get back together at xxyy time,” (if not).

My favorite strategies for neutralizing strong emotions are from the mindfulness-based stress reduction traditions.  For example, from Thich Nhat Hahn: simply taking deep, slow breaths and on the inhale/exhale saying the following: “Breathing in, I relax my body; breathing out, I smile.”  From Tara Brach, consider her stepwise process of “Working with Difficulties.” I have seen many executives learn and master this process with great effect.

If you lose your cool (or if those you lead do) the best strategy is to face it and learn from it. As bad as it may seem in the moment, if you handle your recovery with grace, you can work to strengthen your relationships. Consider these basic strategies for managing others and yourself after the fact:

What to Do When an Employee Cries at Work (June 2013)

Recovering from an Emotional Outburst at Work (May 2015)

Developing your emotional agility is hard work–it takes tons of practice, always involves slip-ups, and then recommitting to practice again. This skill (like developing patience or listening well) is one that can be refined for a lifetime. This said, like most things that require intensive work, committing yourself to recognizing and mastering your emotions also has rich rewards–in life and leadership.