16,000—that’s how many words we speak, on average, each day. Imagine how many unspoken words cross through our minds each day. Most of them are not facts, but perceptions and judgements intermingled with emotions. As we can relate, some positive and helpful;, and then the ones well…we know what they are.
There is a prevailing wisdom that leaders should project themselves in a particular way…stoic or cheerful… confident with a magic unicorn power to detox all negativity. This definitely goes against our basic biology. All healthy human beings have an inner system of thoughts and feelings that do not support prevailing wisdom. Whether we like it or not, this includes having an inner stream of criticism, doubt and fear. Our normal human response is to anticipate and solve problems in order to avoid any aversion along the way. So, how do we stumble and fall?
By studying and following patterns of human behavior, leaders stumble not because they have undesirable thoughts and feelings – it’s because they get hooked by them – like a fish caught on a line. How does this happen? Some humans buy into thoughts and treat them like facts based on environmental factors. The other route is they challenge the existence of the thoughts and try to rationalize them away. This type of thinking leads to getting into situations even when they go against their core values and goals. The internal underlying current whether it’s (guilt, shame, self-doubt, pressure, etc) causes one to pay too much attention to the internal chatter which then overrides and dries out the important cognitive resources that could be put to better use.
Ample research shows that attempting to minimize or ignore thoughts and emotions serves only to amplify them. In a famous study led by the late Daniel Wegner, a Harvard professor, participants who were told to avoid thinking about white bears had trouble doing so; later, when the ban was lifted, they thought about white bears much more than the control group did. Anyone who has dreamed of their favorite food while following a strict diet understands this phenomenon quite well too!
Emotional agility is a revolutionary, science-based approach that allows us to navigate life’s twists and turns with self-acceptance, a clear vision, and an open mind. Renowned psychologist Susan David developed this concept after studying emotions, happiness, and achievement for more than twenty years. Emotional agility is about developing the space between stimulus and response.
The path to fulfillment, whether at work or at home, is almost never a straight line. Ask anyone who has achieved their biggest goals or who thrives in their relationships, and you’ll hear stories of many unexpected detours along the way. What separates those who rise to these challenges and those who get derailed? The answer is agility—emotional agility.
No matter how intelligent, resilient, or creative people are, when they ignore how situations or interactions make them feel, they miss opportunities to gain insight, getting hooked by thoughts, emotions, and habits that prevent them from reaching their full potential. Emotionally agile people experience the same stresses and setbacks as anyone else, but they know how to adapt, aligning their actions with their values and making small changes that lead to a life of growth.
Effective leaders don’t buy into or try to suppress their inner experiences. Instead they approach them in a mindful, values-driven, and productive way—developing what we call emotional agility. We live in a complex, fast-changing knowledge economy, and having the ability to manage one’s thoughts and feelings is essential to one’s success. Numerous studies, from the University of London professor Frank Bond and others, show that emotional agility can help people alleviate stress, reduce errors, become more innovative, and improve job performance.
When you’re hooked, the attention you give your thoughts and feelings crowds your mind; there’s no room to examine them. One strategy that may help you consider your situation more objectively is the simple act of labeling. Just as you call a spade a spade, call a thought a thought and an emotion an emotion. Mounting scientific evidence shows that simple, straightforward mindfulness practice like this not only improves behavior and well-being but also promotes beneficial biological changes in the brain and at the cellular level.
After you label that thought, accept it—not acting on every thought or resigning yourself to negativity but responding to your ideas and emotions with an open attitude. Pay attention to your thoughts letting yourself experience them. At times it may feel uncomfortable, but in order to grow, we all have to go through some life adjustments.
When you unhook yourself from your difficult thoughts and emotions, you expand your choices. You can decide to act in a way that aligns with your values. How can you focus on the concept of workability? 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? Are you being pressured to act and lead a certain way that does not support your value system? The mind’s thought stream flows endlessly, and emotions change like the weather, but values can be called on at any time, in any situation.
It’s impossible to block out difficult thoughts and emotions. Effective leaders are mindful of their inner experiences but learn how to not get caught in them. They know how to free up their internal energy and commit to actions that align with their values. Developing emotional agility is no quick fix, but it can be done just like with any successful program – focus, consistency, clarity and drive.
In the sentiment of Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”