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8 February 2023

Emotional Agility And How To Have It

Jairek Robbins


In these times of unprecedented change in business and in life, leaders shoulder an even greater responsibility to keep the organization functional and heading in the right direction. However, leaders may often be held back by what is going on inside them.

Their feelings and thoughts can be a barrier to responding proactively and driving innovation. We discuss how emotional agility can help leaders to function better and help their organizations thrive amidst all the rapid changes happening around them.


What Is Emotional Agility?


Emotional agility refers to one’s ability to regard their emotions as data or information which they can process and respond to in a productive way.

A person with emotional agility isn’t ruled by their emotions. Rather, those emotions offer learning moments and inform the rational decisions they make, and the actions that they take.

For example, a parent may feel irritated when they find that their teenage child has left a mess at the dining table after having a meal while the parent was away. Rather than stomp to the teen’s room and yell at them for not cleaning up after themselves, a parent with emotional agility will recognize the reason for their irritation and think of a way to respond to the situation so that the problem is fixed minus creating additional problems (you know teens and their rebellious nature, right?!).

The practical response could be to calmly tell the teenager that it isn’t acceptable to leave a mess at the dining table, and that in future, certain penalties will be enforced if the undesirable behavior is repeated.

As you can see, the parent hasn’t allowed themselves to be controlled by their emotions, and neither have they tried to suppress those negative emotions. Instead, they have used the negative emotion to think through a logical way to address the reason behind how they are feeling.

That is how emotional agility works. You don’t allow your emotions to control you, and you don’t pretend the emotions don’t exist. You are agile and respond logically after processing your emotions.


How Does Emotional Agility Differ From Emotional Intelligence?


While both emotional agility and emotional intelligence require one to be aware of their emotions, emotional agility puts more emphasis on enabling an individual to act based on their own values while emotional intelligence has a lot to do with social skills like communication.

A quick example will illustrate this. A leader may feel upset that a team member has delayed to submit a needed project. Emotional agility enables that leader to step back and realize that they are upset because they could lose a major client. Rather than berate the employee for leading to the possible loss of an important client, the leader will ask the employee if they need help to complete the project asap and stress how important it is to avoid late completion of projects.

Here, the leader has acted in a way that moves the organization forward while honoring his or her value of timeliness in delivering client work. The leader’s values are paramount here, rather than tailoring their communication simply to avoid conflict with the direct report.

In short, emotional agility primarily helps an individual to function better regardless of the different emotions they feel from time to time.


How To Cultivate Emotional Agility


Developing emotional agility starts with recognizing the patterns of behavior which characterize your negative thoughts as well as emotions. For example, if you verbally lash out at people once you are stressed, angry or in fear, observe for those responses as they approach and step back before they boil over.

As you detach and look at yourself from an elevated perspective, you will begin to loosen the control that those negative emotions and thoughts have over you, and you will begin to flex your ability to regulate how you respond in the face of that negativity from within.


As you start to identify your patterns of behavior each time negativity sets in, the next step is to give that negativity a label. Be as precise as possible when labeling the negativity because this will make it easier for you to bring logic back into the equation and peg back the emotion which was threatening to control you.

For example, don’t say that you are feeling stressed. Go a step further and name the exact emotion, such as feeling anxious, feeling disappointed by a colleague, and so on. Those apt labels hold the key to bringing you back in charge at a time when an emotion was just about to exercise control over your response.


We aren’t saying that you give in to the negativity; what we mean is that you acknowledge the negative emotion that you are experiencing. Don’t try to suppress it. Don’t ignore it. Accept that it is there.

We know that acceptance is a crucial step to resolving a situation. You can’t fix a problem whose existence you don’t accept. So, accept the existence of the negative emotion that you have just labeled after recognizing the pattern it triggers when it surfaces.

Another thing about accepting the emotion is that it calms you down in way, because it is as though you are at some vantage point above the situation and you are viewing it from a distance. You are somewhat detached from it all, and that is empowering.


The next important step is to go back to your values as an individual and let them inform the specific response you make to the situation. For example, if you value your professional life and your family life, your values can help you to make the right decisions when a situation comes up that could compromise those values.

Think about being at the dinner table and a work email pops up. You may feel irritated by work matters cropping up outside work hours, and your values may guide you to turn off your mobile device so that you can complete your meal with your family.

The four ways discussed above to build your emotional agility muscle will undoubtedly require work on your part before they can become second nature to you.

As a leader, this is a process that you need to undertake, because those you lead take their cues from you and will often model your behavior.

As your own emotional agility improves, so will that of those around you, and your life overall will become better since these principles apply in every sphere of life. Start the journey today!

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