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managing books

Emotional Agility

By Susan David

(Avery, 274 pages, $32.50)

Emotional intelligence has been a big deal since the mid-1990s bestseller by Daniel Goleman reminded us of the importance of understanding and managing our emotions. Agility has been a buzzword in recent years in tech operations and, more broadly, strategy. Harvard Medical School psychologist and executive coach Susan David has combined those two separate concepts into a new notion, emotional agility, which she believes is the key to workplace and life success.

"Emotional agility is about loosening up, calming down, and living with more intention. It's about choosing how you'll respond to your emotional warning system," she writes in her book Emotional Agility.

She observes that many people, most of the time, operate on emotional autopilot, reacting to situations without true awareness. Others realize they expend too much energy trying to constrain or suppress their emotions, which are treated she says "like unruly children and, at worst, as threats to their well-being."

When she asks clients how long they have been trying to get in touch with, fix, or cope with their challenging emotions and the situations that prompt them, the answers can range from five to 20 years. Sometimes the answer is "ever since I was a little kid." Clearly, many people haven't developed much in the way of emotional intelligence.

The agility part of her approach deals with the thinking and behaviour processes – habits that can prevent you from flourishing. They keep you stuck, reacting in the same obstinate way to new or different situations. Perhaps since you were young you always say the wrong thing or fold when it's time to fight for what you deserve. Or perhaps you default to certain rules of thumb that served you well in the past but aren't serving you now, such as people can't be trusted.

"A growing body of research shows that emotional rigidity – getting hooked by thoughts, feelings and behaviours that don't serve us – is associated with a range of psychological ills, including depression and anxiety. Meanwhile, emotional agility – being flexible with your thoughts and feelings so you can respond optimally to everyday situations – is key to well-being and success," she says.

Emotional agility is not about controlling your thoughts or forcing yourself to think more positively. It involves loosening up and calming down, being more intentional when emotions can trip you up. Throughout the book, she regularly comes back to a key concept Nazi death camp survivor Viktor Frankl advanced in Man's Search for Meaning: "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 freedom."

Emotional agility involves opening up that space between how you feel and what you do about those feelings. You need not be an automaton. You can change what may seem like preordained patterns of response. "Emotionally agile people are dynamic. They demonstrate flexibility in dealing with our fast-changing, complex world. They are able to tolerate high levels of stress and to endure setbacks, while remaining engaged, open and receptive," she says.

Life doesn't become magically easy. They still experience feelings of anger and sadness. But they face those with curiosity, self-compassion and acceptance, rather than being derailed by them.

Work may seem coldly rational with spreadsheets and organizational charts but in fact she sees it as a stage on which emotional issues play out. Old stories about who we think we are hook us at critical moments, such as when we are pressured. "To advance in our careers, we need to update those narratives the same way we update our resumes. And just as we no longer list our summer jobs once we're out of college, some stuff from way back simply needs to be left behind," she advises.

Insecurity can be a hook. So can caring too much, leading us to step on co-workers' toes. Groups can also get hooked, developing tunnel vision. In all cases, step back and let go. Stay true to your values. Move on with small, deliberate tweaks to your mindset, motivation and habits.

She lists signs you're hooked at work: You can't let go of an idea or being right, even when there is an obviously better answer; you stay silent when you know something is going wrong; you busy yourself with small tasks without considering the bigger picture; you volunteer for only the least difficult tasks; you make backhanded comments about co-workers or projects; and you rely on assumptions about colleagues.

To get past those and truly show up for work, you must make room for and label your thoughts and emotions. That will help you to see them as information rather than facts or directives.

The book is not a guidebook for regaining emotional balance and agility. But it does set out some key principles for understanding the power of emotions upon us and how to be more effective in life and at work.


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Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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