How 'Emotional Agility' Can Ease Life's Complicated Situations

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"Emotional Agility," by Susan David. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Emotional Agility," by Susan David. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

What separates people who are able to master life’s challenges — job changes, relationships, moves — from those who are overwhelmed in the face of the same obstacles? According to psychologist Susan David (@SusanDavid_PHD), the answer is "emotional agility."

Adaptability, she says, provides the tools to face difficult emotions, evaluate them and move forward. David’s book "Emotional Agility" draws from the latest research in psychology, her own experiences and an array of interviews and anecdotes to provide a road map to developing emotional health. She joins Here & Now's Robin Young to discuss the book.

Interview Highlights

On the viral video of children interrupting their father's BBC interview

"When we are dominated by our thoughts or anxieties — what are people going to think, what are they going to say — we often act in ways that are incongruent with maybe our intentions or our values. What I loved about that clip is the very beautiful humanity. This reminder that we're all doing the best we can in an imperfect world."

On the anecdote from her book about a woman who was in line for a promotion, and began to act differently

"It was such a fascinating example of the idea that we can get hooked. We can become driven by our thoughts, our emotions and the stories that we tell ourselves. She'd become so consumed with the idea that she was actually about to be fired rather than being promoted that she started to shut down in meetings. She started to pull back. And ultimately was fired from her job. She ended up acting in ways that were absolutely at odds with her values and her intentions."

On the story from her book about a sea ship captain and a lighthouse

"He keeps on saying, ‘change course, change course, change course,’ and becoming more and more belligerent. Ultimately, at the end of this play, we recognize that the ship that he sees approaching is actually not a ship, but is a lighthouse."

"Emotions actually provide a very important guidance system. Like the lighthouse, they actually provide a guidance system. And what starts to happen is we start losing our ability to be effectively guided. To recognize, for example, that so often underneath our difficult emotions — even though they are difficult — are signals to things that we care about. Issues of equity and fairness and justice. And so often what we do is when we lose our capacity to recognize that our emotions contain data — they're not directions, but they contain data — we hinder our ability to shape our lives effectively."

"So often what we do is when we lose our capacity to recognize that our emotions contain data — they're not directions, but they contain data — we hinder our ability to shape our lives effectively."

Susan David

On inflexibility

"We can so often jump to conclusions about ourselves, about other people — ‘I feel like I'm being undermined so there's no point in me saying anything, I'm just going to shut down.’ Or, ‘I would really love to put my hand up for that job, but there's no way I'm gonna get it.’ What we call premature cognitive commitment: The story is true, the thought is true, the emotion is true. And then we act on that. When we can recognize again that our emotions are data, signals to things that we care about, what we are able to do is to approach those with mindfulness, with compassion and to notice them. But also to recognize that, it's not the thoughts and emotions driving the outcomes, it's rather a mindful, intentional choice."

On writing about emotions

"What's really fascinating in human psychology and in emotion psychology is often this idea that when we go through difficult experiences, we should just push them aside and be happy and be smiley. I actually truly believe that this orientation around happiness and positive thinking is undermining our resilience. What they do here is the opposite. He says to these individuals that have effectively been laid off from their lives’ work, ‘Think about your experience, write about it for 20 minutes a day for three days.’ An alternative group is the control group, and they are asked to write about arbitrary, non-emotionally relevant things.

And what James Penavega finds is that the individuals who go to their difficult emotions, who start moving this very big and messy emotional experience into something that feels like it's got language and is contained. Those individuals, six months later, had higher levels of well-being, lower levels of stress, lower levels of anxiety, and they had been rehired quicker. This going to emotion, processing emotion, actually helps us to make physical, real changes to our day-to-day reality."

On why addressing yourself in the third person is good for you

"A critical human skill — in fact, it is a skill that underpins our ability to empathize, to perspective take — is development of this meta view. This idea that you can feel an emotion, or you can think a thought — ‘I'm so terrible at this thing’ — and yet you can also notice that emotion for what it is, then almost be able to observe it. One of the skills that we know is critical in this is being able to address yourself in the third person. If you are really struggling with a situation at work, you can't see a solution, when you say, for example, to yourself, ‘What would the wisest person that I know advise on the situation,’ or, ‘What should Susan do in this situation?’ What you're doing is you're starting to develop that meta-emotion capacity, which is to give yourself a different perspective."

Book Excerpt: 'Emotional Agility'

By Susan David

Take This Job and Tweak It

In a perfect world, we’d all have a job in which we were constantly in a state of flow, with the weight evenly distributed on our Teeter Totter between challenge and competence, all the while saving humanity, lunching with glamorous people, and making zillions of dollars to boot.

In the real world, jobs like that are a little hard to come by, and even if such a job awaits, and we’re focused on it like a death ray, we’d still likely have to start a few rungs farther down the ladder. If you’re still figuring things out—like my younger self was when I worked in technical writing--you also might have to experiment with different pursuits before figuring out which ladder it is your really want to try to climb.

So what do you do when you know your dream job is somewhere up there at the top of the ladder, or out there on the far horizon, but for any number of predictable reasons--having to do with money, timing, location, economy--you still need to keep the job you’ve got? You Show Up to what you’re feeling (“I’m bored”), you Step Out and create distance from your hooks (“I can’t do better than this.”), you examine what is important to you and your Want To motivations (“That said, my co-workers are great”), and then you start tweaking, by taking actions that are workable—that will serve you for the long term by bringing you closer to a vital, engaged life.

Tweaking your job, also known as job crafting involves looking creatively at your work circumstances and finding ways to reconfigure your situation to make it more engaging and fulfilling. Employees who try job crafting often end up more satisfied with their work lives, achieve higher levels of performance in their organizations and report greater personal resilience.

The first step to job crafting is to pay attention to what activities—either at work or outside of your job—engage you the most. Maybe you’re not in a management position at the office, but you love coaching your son’s Little League games on the weekends. Can you start an office mentoring program in which you provide advice to younger workers or institute a Take Your Child to Work Day within your company? Or perhaps you’ve noticed that, even though you’re in the sales department, you’re constantly coming up with marketing ideas—some of which have actually been received and implemented by other divisions of the company. Could you can ask to sit in on the marketing department’s weekly strategy meetings? Could you offer to provide your sales perspective to help with the process? There’s an old military Basic Training saying, “Never volunteer” —the idea being that if a recruit raises a hand when a superior says, “I need a volunteer,” he or she will be stuck doing something unpleasant, like cleaning toilets. (Of course the corollary to this is that if you don’t volunteer, you’re likely to be “voluntold.”) When it comes to civilian career-building, though, volunteering is an excellent way to change the boundaries of your job.

You can also practice job crafting by changing the nature or extent of your interactions with other people. Maybe you have recent immigrants on the shop floor. So go talk to them. Maybe set up an ‘English as a Second Language’ program. Maybe get their cultural perspective on your company’s current product line and use that perspective to diversify the company’s offerings.

You can also change how you see what you do through job crafting. Maybe you just got a big promotion, but now, instead of doing the work you love, you’re stuck doing managerial housekeeping. Are you just another bureaucrat now? Well, that depends on what you see as important. If you value being a teacher and mentor, a leader helping people fulfill their potential and improve their lives, then you can find plenty of creativity in managing people.

Jean had the kind of menial job that no one ever fantasizes about as a kid—she worked on an assembly line at a plant that made medical equipment. Her job was to operate a miniature hole punch that poked tiny openings in the slender tubes that cancer specialists use to deliver drugs directly to tumors. If a hole was only partially punched, the plastic flap left behind could prevent the cancer medication from being properly delivered, or even worse, it might break off inside the patient, causing death.

Every working day for 28 years, Jean spent eight hours punching hole after hole in narrow plastic tubing. And for those same 28 years, Jean also kept a jar next to her workspace in which she placed each discarded flap. Jean knew that every one of these tiny bits was not just a piece of plastic: it was a potential life saved. This jar helped Jean find meaning in what otherwise might have been the world’s most profoundly dull work. She only had to look over at her jar to understand the importance of what she did. It was her version of those patient photos attached to the radiologists’ case files.

Job crafting, of course, has its limits. You can’t just stop doing the task you were hired to do while you experiment with different career options. And it’s possible your company won’t have the resources to help you implement your lofty ideas no matter how great they are. That’s why it’s important to be open about the process. To get ‘buy in’ for your job crafting ideas, you have to focus on ways to get what you want that also create value for the organization. You also have to build trust with others, especially your supervisor, then direct your efforts toward the people who are most likely to accommodate you. Your manager may even be able to help you identify opportunities for redistributing tasks in complementary ways. After all, your dreaded assignment may be your coworker’s dream opportunity, or vice versa.

No amount of crafting will allow you to create the perfect job (as if such a thing existed anyway) when you’re starting from a position that’s just totally wrong for you. Job crafting was never going to make me happy, for instance, as a technical writer in New Zealand, no matter how much I tweaked my situation. Which is yet again is why it is so important to Show Up to all your emotions, and learn from the negatives as well as the positives. By being emotionally agile, we can use the wrong job to gain the perspective, skills, and connections necessary to get to the right job. In the meantime, we can use emotional agility to make the most, every day, of the job we have now. That’s how we make sure that we’re not just making a living, but truly living.

Excerpted from EMOTIONAL AGILITY by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2016, Susan David PhD.

This article was originally published on March 17, 2017.

This segment aired on March 17, 2017.



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