Most people struggle with Emotional Agility. Unfortunately, most people also struggle to even recognize it. In a 2013 article featured in Harvard Business Review (HBR), a pair of consultants defined emotional agility as the ability to approach internal challenges in a “mindful, values-driven, and productive way” (David, 2013). In this same article, the authors describe how to develop emotional agility in a four-step process.
Developing Emotional Agility
Growing up, I developed many built-in coping mechanisms that were augmented and made worse with the added stress of serving in the Marine Corps. During a particularly rough time, I realized that something needed to change.
My specific struggles included constant anger when I realized that my leaders don’t communicate effectively. I felt disgusted when my peers don’t even attempt to put as much effort in as I do and receive accolades for it. Then, when my subordinates suffer needlessly after not following my advice I felt disappointed. This constant barrage of emotions peaked when I got home, and I felt like I neglect my family. The result of constantly feeling angry, disgusted, disappointed, and inadequate also left me feeling guilty and worthless.
Learning to Recognize Your Patterns
To begin learning emotional agility, you must first learn to recognize the patterns that cause your negative emotions. As the authors of the previously mentioned articles put it, “you have to realize that you’re stuck before you can initiate change.”
Recognizing my Patterns as I Developed Emotional Agility
Shortly after the promotion boards in 2020, when two of my peers were promoted ahead of me, I felt unreasonably angry. In the Marine Corps, they teach us to value physical fitness and skill proficiency equally. As I analyzed both of my newly promoted leaders, my anger quickly turned to devastation. The first one received their recommendation for promotion although I beat them in every physical measurement. On the other hand, the other received a promotion despite their obvious lack of job proficiency.
However, this felt oddly familiar. In 2009, after graduating from Marine Corps Communications-Electronics School, the same thing happened in my first assignment. I came to them having been promoted twice during my short time at the school-house, and full of enthusiasm. By the time I’d spent three years there, I still had not been promoted, despite them promoting my subordinates well ahead of their time.
Maybe my assigned unit wasn’t the issue?
Labeling Your Thoughts and Emotions
By labeling your thoughts and emotions, you begin to take a more objective look at them as data. By analyzing the objective data points, you force your mind to slow down and process them.
Using Science to Develop Emotional Agility
Emotions affected my health. As I focused on the disappointment, disgust, and anger, it made me feel sick. Consequently, I would produce less and give my leaders justification for their actions. After reading a study called “Maps of Subjective Feelings,” I realized that all three of my problematic emotions were just different levels of anger (Nummenmaa, 2018).
Recognizing that, made it easier to change “I am angry” to “I feel angry because I think my fellow Marines are wrong.” Surprisingly, that simple thing made cataloging and letting anger go easier. Then, I began to notice I felt less overwhelmed by my children’s antics.
Accepting Your Emotions
Accepting what causes emotions and applying appropriate actions to those things you can control allows you to begin developing emotional agility.
Learning to Accept my Emotions
Admittedly, I still struggle at this step. That’s part of the reason for this particular blog. First, I know to stop and breathe until I feel ready to relax and accept the emotions I feel. Then, I can show myself compassion and look at why I feel the way I do. At the end of the day, this step makes you feel truly vulnerable.
Drawing on the advice of the HRB article, take ten deep breaths, and allow yourself to feel your emotions. Then, concentrate on the nuances of what your body does inside and out. Some people that make it successfully through this step, manage to turn their emotions into good data points. They then take this data and act on them in their best interest.
Acting on Your Values to Build Emotional Agility
As you begin recognizing and accepting your emotions, ask yourself the following questions from the HBR article:
- Is your response going to serve you and your organization in the long term as well as the short term?
- Will it help you steer others in a direction that furthers your collective purpose?
- Are you taking a step toward being the leader you most want to be and living the life you most want to live?
If you answer no to any of these questions, then allow yourself to feel your emotions, and let them go. Otherwise, decide on a course of action that allows you to answer yes to all three of the above questions.
Thriving With Emotional Agility
As you develop emotional agility, you can learn to avoid getting stuck on emotions. Then, you can being to act on your emotions in productive, value-driven, and mindful ways. Allow yourself the opportunity to thrive.
- David, S., & Congleton, C. (2013, November 1). Emotional agility. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2013/11/emotional-agility
- Nummenmaa, L., Hari, R., Hietanen, J., & Glerean, E. (2018). Maps of subjective feelings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115, 9198 – 9203.