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Four ways to harness your emotional responses in the workplace

2020 and 2021 have been exhausting years for many. Given the social inequalities and injustices that are still prevalent today, alongside the disruption of the Covid-19 Pandemic, if you have found it challenging to deal with uncertainty and moments of emotional turmoil – you are not alone.

Scientifically, emotions are a neural impulse that moves an organism to action, prompting automatic reactive behavior. Physiologically, an emotion only lasts 70 to 90 seconds in the body. Being able to observe the emotion you are experiencing in the moment rather than simply being overwhelmed by it is a skill where you can experience thoughts, emotions and events in a way that does not drive you negatively, but instead encourages you to reveal what is best for you.

Dr. Susan David, Harvard Medical School Psychologist, defines this skill as emotional agility –  “a process that enables us to navigate life’s twists and turns with self-acceptance, clear-sightedness, and an open mind. The process isn’t about ignoring difficult emotions and thoughts. It’s about holding those emotions and thoughts loosely, facing them courageously and compassionately, and then moving past them to ignite change in your life.”

World-class leadership in a fast-changing and increasingly-complex knowledge economy requires leaders to approach their inner experiences in a cognisant, practical and values-driven way so that the business itself can thrive in the future of work.

Leaders that are lacking emotional agility can stifle innovation, impede personal development, reduce their decision-making ability, and model a bad example to employees, consequently enabling emotional rigidity and a toxic work culture. David adds, “When individuals are emotionally rigid, we are not able to draw on other aspects of ourselves. So we are not able to be values-congruent. We are not able to see ‘the other’, [and] we often are not able to nurture our relationships effectively.”

Here are four ways to increase your emotional agility to help you harness your emotions in the workplace:

  1. Reframe how you view emotions

Typically, emotions such as anger, jealousy, sadness, or frustration are considered ‘bad,’ while emotions such as happiness, joy, love, or excitement are considered ‘good.’ However, we do ourselves a huge injustice when we categorise emotions in this way. All emotions are neutral, should be felt, and are out of our control. What is in our control is how we in turn behave or act due to our emotions.

  1. Be curious about your difficult emotions and look to your values
    It is easy to become critical of ourselves and our emotions. We treat our thoughts as facts and overgeneralise them. However, curiously exploring our thoughts and feelings with an open attitude and a non-judgemental approach helps us see a different perspective, one that guides us to find the deeper meaning behind what we think and feel. “They are signposting our values,” says David, “and we should treat them as pieces of data.”

When you reflect on your difficult emotions, ask yourself the following questions to help you find deeper meaning:

  1. What am I feeling both internally and externally?
  2. What are my concerns?
  3. What are these feelings trying to tell me about my situation?
  4. Are these thoughts and feelings serving me?
  5. What are my choices?

Try to examine whether your reaction will further serve your values. Ask yourself the following questions to gauge your values: deep down, what matters to me? What relationships do I want to build? What do I want my life to be about? How do I feel most of the time? What kind of situations make me feel most vital? Being able to answer these questions can let your values drive your actions, as you can then answer the questions, “Who do I want to be in the presence of this stressful event or challenge?” and “How do I want to show up to this challenge?”

  1. Be conscious of societal messages that tell you how you should feel. 

Be compassionate with yourself.

Although society may have conditioned us to think a particular way, it is important to learn to re-evaluate our individual priorities.

David shares the example that even during the Covid-19 Pandemic, a time defined by a lot of uncertainty and death, society (often through social media messaging) still found a way to conspire against self-compassion, with many people being convinced to feel bad about themselves for not achieving certain ‘goals’, even during the most challenging of circumstances. David advises that you should “remind yourself that you are a human being, doing the best you can, with who you are [and] with the resources that you have been given in life. And [others around you] are also doing the best they can with who they are and with the circumstances they have been given.”

  1. Learn to label emotions accurately and create linguistic space between you and your emotion

Frequently we use shortcuts to describe our feelings. David observes that calling everything “stress” can make it hard to move forward. She recommends learning to distinguish the difference between feeling stressed and feeling disappointment, exhaustion, or unsupported. Psychologically, stress does not give you direction because stress is very ambiguous; however, if you are able to label your emotions accurately, it can help you understand your emotion and what to do next.

Changing the way you acknowledge your emotions can be very powerful, too. For example:

When you say this: Try this instead:
I am sad /  anxious I am noticing that I am feeling sad / anxious in this moment
I am being undermined I am noticing the thought that I am being undermined
I am not creative I am noticing the story that I am telling myself is that I am not creative

Treating emotions and thoughts as emotions and thoughts (i.e. not as facts or as factual statements) can create breathing room so that you can think about your emotions as a data source that can be evaluated and understood.

Learn more here:

Susan David: Emotional Agility – The Fix Podcast

Emotional Agility (hbr.org)