Being Emotionally Rigid
I once worked with a colleague who claimed expertise on any subject raised, and was immune to the idea that others could have anything to offer. Every time I found myself in a meeting with her my stomach would tighten, my heart would turn to ice, my eyes narrowed and I found myself arguing with vehemence on issues about which I cared little. A competitor in me, that I previously did not know existed suddenly kicked in and continued to kick in, even though I never won the competition. At the time I dismissed her as incapable of listening, even as I modelled the same pattern with her. With distance I see that we were both victims of emotional rigidity.
We are emotionally rigid when we become attached to thoughts, feelings and behaviours in habitual ways. It is as emotionally rigid to agree to every request from a customer or boss; to assume that being effective requires working every hour available, or answering every email no matter the time of day, as getting caught in regular conflict with a colleague.
In contract emotional agility is about loosening up and being intentional in our responses, rather than operating on mental shortcuts and assumptions. Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist and Nazi death camp survivor describes emotional agility in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. He wrote of there being a space between a stimulus and a response. In that space is our power to choose how we respond. In our response is our growth and freedom. Frankl was describing the choices he made on a daily basis on how to live a life in the worst of circumstances with a sense of purpose and in accordance with his values. He chose not to be driven by fear, anger or hopelessness but to consciously choose his response in the moment. His experience was extreme but his insight that purpose and values are central to creating those choice points is as relevant to deciding whether to send that vitriolic email in response to criticism and achieve a short-term reward. Or, to hold off until the hear of emotion has dissipated and other responses are available.
Learning Emotional Agility
Emotional agility is key to resilience. The challenges we face in work and life are often asking us to change. To change our expectations of work, of relationships, of our friends, our children, our parents or our bodies. If we cannot adapt by adjusting our emotions, then we risk becoming caught in an emotional rigidity that prevents growth. The simplest definition of resilience I know is that of Professor George Bonnano, ‘achieving successful outcomes despite adversity’. To achieve those outcomes asks that the individual is willing to use the adversity to take stock and to adjust thoughts feelings and behaviours. How can we do that, when our responses seem automatic, ‘I always get angry/sad/jealous/resentful/mean/compliant/conflictual/submissive etc when John/Jane…The time between John/Jane’s action and our response is so rapid that it does not feel like a choice but a compulsion. The answer according to Susan David of Harvard Medical School, who has researched extensively into emotional agility, is to make 4 moves:
Step 1: Show up
Face our thoughts and emotions with curiosity and some kindness. Rather than blaming the other person for being stupid/arrogant/insensitive/demanding, turn the attention on ourselves and become curious as to our own response. Why is it that when John/Jane behaves in that way I always respond by…The first step is to recognise that we are making a choice, John/Jane’s action does not predict our response. We choose it.
Step 2: Stepping Out
We need to step outside and detach from the thought or emotion so that we can see them for what they are: just thoughts and emotions. Not the definitive or only thought or emotion available in the situation, but the one’s we have become attached to. Others are available.
Step 3: Walking the Why
Once we have created distance between ourselves and the emotion we can start to reconnect with our values and goals. In separating away, it becomes easier to take the long view and to consider what am I really wanting to achieve, and what is important to me about how I behave. In standing outside other options come to mind. We develop choice points rather than being driven by a sense that we have no choice.
Step 4: Moving on
Is about making small deliberate tweaks in our habits, rather than making grandiose claims of never again getting angry/Sad/jealous/resentful/mean/compliant/conflictual or submissive. Instead to focus on the next opportunity when one of those emotions could be invoked and to consider the choice you want to make in the service of your own emotional agility. By making a new choice and operationalising it (even if not perfectly) you have increased the repertoire available to you in those split-second moments of emotional decision making.
Further reading – Susan David, Emotional Agility (2016) Penguin
Carole has been an executive and career coach for over 20 years. She specialises in emotional resilience. She has a Doctorate in Resilience Coaching and her latest book ‘Resilience’ was nominated as coaching book of the year.