emotional agility

You are probably already familiar with Emotional Intelligence (usually abbreviated as EQ): a measure of your ability to identify your own emotions and those of others, and to manage them. As measurements go, however, it is relatively static: an assessment of scope more than of speed and practice. Emotional Agility is subtly but importantly different: as well as introducing notes of empathy and compassion (which should not be confused with each other), emotional agility is the ability to use the most appropriate emotional response in each specific circumstance.

It is a skill that is easy to misunderstand. While many might choose to see any difficulty as a good time to deliver an inspiring, rousing pep-talk, they might not always be right: when compassion or commiseration would be more appropriate, the pep-talk may well make the other person feel that you are either tin-eared, wooden-hearted or both.

Emotional agility is about understanding your own habitual responses. Like so many elements of leadership and management, it begins with self-awareness. If you frequently display the same emotional response to situations – anger, frustration, fear – are you focusing on values and principles that are important to you, or are you allowing yourself to be a prisoner of habit?

Staying on this theme of self-awareness, how mindful are you of the impact that your habitual emotional behaviours are having on those you interact with? Are people avoiding raising issues with you because they know – or worse, dread – how you will react? Far from helping to improve the situation, your lack of emotional agility may be making matters worse, and not only for yourself.
Your anger, frustration and fear are not wrong: they are entirely natural and human. The problems begin when they stop being passing thoughts or feelings and start being treated as facts. “X will always get this wrong no matter how many times I explain it, “Nothing about this will ever get better”, or “but every time we do this, x happens, so I’m not going to try.” Unless you are sufficiently self-aware to appreciate that your feelings have become tape-loops or scratched records, you are trapped in a repetitive cycle.

If you can break out of this self-induced loop, this liberates emotional energy and psychological capacity to do something to improve the situation. Simply suppressing unhelpful or unwelcome feelings doesn’t work: one research study showed that restaurant staff who were constantly reminded not to drop plates did so more often than their colleagues – rather than concentrating calmly, they had been made anxious and clumsy. Faced with the inevitability of a particular gut response, the best course of action is to:

  1. Identify the emotion (this is making me angry/scared etc.)
  2. Accept it and allow the moment of calm this produces to decide what the best course of action – for you and for others – will be
  3. Do whatever is workable, effective and fits with your values and principles

And that difference between empathy and compassion? Where empathy refers to the ability to put yourself in someone else’s place, compassion has the extra ingredient of seeking to alleviate or avoid suffering. If you’ve allowed yourself to be caught on your own emotional hooks, self-compassion is needed to help you wriggle free.

To find out more, ASK’s Principal Consultant Liaquat Lal will be delivered a bite-sized learning event as part of our Breakfast Briefing event on Friday October 7th.