4 Steps to Improve Emotional Agility

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BetterUp Studios
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8 min

You're disappointed your team missed a deadline. You're angry about an argument with a client. You're having a rough Monday.

How do you deal with those negative emotions?

Often, we're told to suppress them, especially at work. But research reveals that ignoring negative lines of thought doesn’t work. In fact, you might end up making those thoughts louder.

Instead of trying to block out negativity, try being more emotionally agile. Emotional agility means you can accept, understand, and manage your thoughts in a productive way. Research by Frank Bond, Professor of Psychology and Management at London University, (among others) shows that emotional agility can reduce stress, improve work quality, and boost creativity.

You're not trying to sweep your emotions under a rug. You're observing the clutter and neatly organizing it all before moving forward.

Easier said than done? Dr. Susan David, an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist, has developed four practices to help you gain emotional agility:

1. Identify Negative Feelings

We often get "hooked" on negative thought patterns. If you find yourself repeating a complaint or self-criticism, you might be "hooked."

Maybe you can't stop thinking about how you couldn't hit a deadline due to uncooperative teammates. Or maybe you keep blaming yourself for a misunderstanding with a client. Notice if that narrative in your head might even feel like déjà vu. How often have you been annoyed by your teammates or overly critical of your own communication skills? Is it a recurring issue?

2. Separate Facts From Thoughts

Acknowledge that those negative messages in your head may be untrue and unhelpful. Begin to label your thoughts as thoughts.

"My teammates are uncooperative" becomes "I am having the thought that my teammates are uncooperative."

"I am bad at communicating" becomes "I am having the thought that I am bad at communicating."

This is a mindfulness exercise that can give you a more objective view of the situation. It also can calm you on a biological level.

3. Make Acceptance Your Goal

Try taking a few deep breaths while accepting the presence of your negative emotions. You don't need to take action yet or try to control your thoughts. Just take a moment to reflect.

What are the reasons behind your self-criticism and complaints? Maybe your negative emotions are a sign that you want your teammates to put in more effort or that you put a high priority on communication skills.

4. Take Action

After you analyze your emotions, you're ready to make smart decisions that align with your values. Question whether your next steps offer a long-term solution and whether they are good for those around you. Maybe you resolve to set more intermediate deadlines for your team before a big deliverable, or to consult a communication coach.

Whatever action you take, make sure it moves you toward being the type of person you aspire to be.

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