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What is Emotional Agility, and How Can You Manage Your Emotions in the Workplace?

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What is Emotional Agility, and How Can You Manage Your Emotions in the Workplace?

By Bill Olson, Senior VP, Operations at United Benefit Advisors  
Nov 5, 2019 9:30:00 AM

It’s a buzzword we hear all the time: emotional agility. So you may be asking, what exactly IS emotional agility? It’s defined as one’s ability to deal with stressors and discomfort in work and life. People are preprogrammed to deal with situations in certain ways, but these types of reactions don’t always allow room for emotional growth.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space,” explains Dr. Susan David, an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist. “This space is born out of emotional agility. In that space is our power to choose. And it’s in that choice that lies our growth and freedom.”

When people are emotionally agile, that space gives them the opportunity to deal with difficult and stressful situations and become resilient. Dr. David elaborates: “Emotional agility is being sensitive to the context and responding to the world right now—and that allows us to move into a space where we are managing our lives more in accord with our values.”

Stop Managing Emotions at Work, and Start Experiencing Them

“Firstly, it’s normal, healthy and good to experience the full range of emotions,” Dr. David continued. It’s unrealistic to try to focus on being happy and positive all the time. This hyper-focus lessens one’s adaptability and agility.

The workplace demands a lot of employees. No matter how stressful or taxing, employees are expected to hide their emotions at work and only portray positive emotions. However, research shows that experiencing difficult emotions helps people successfully navigate complex situations at work and at home.

Dr. David believes all emotions are necessary for employees to succeed in their careers: “There is no collaboration … without potential conflict. There is no innovation … without the potential of failure. And if there’s no openness to the emotions, the disappointment and the loss that comes with failure, well then you’re not going to get real innovation.”

Becoming Emotionally Agile

Even with the best intentions, things don’t always pan out like we plan. Unexpected or non-ideal outcomes in the workplace can elicit rigid or preprogrammed reactions to emotions, like ignoring them, bottling them up, placing blame, or replaying situations over and over in one’s head.

“Rigidity in the face of complexity is toxic,” Dr. David said. In order to become emotionally agile, people need to acknowledge and understand their emotional responses but not take them as fact. For example, if a person is feeling a stress response, it doesn’t mean everything about their life has to be stressful. By understanding these emotions, one can learn from them and ultimately move forward.

Dr. David elaborates: “The radical acceptance of our emotions — even the difficult ones, even the messy ones — is the cornerstone to resilience, to effectiveness, to success, to relationships, and to truly thriving.”

Bonus: Tips & Tricks to Cope With Stressful Workdays

  • Compartmentalization (when negative emotions from home affect your work). Try your best to leave personal matters and issues at home. When you commute to work, use that time to tell your mind to let go. You can also compartmentalize work-related stressors so that your emotions at work don’t spill over into your personal life too.
  • Deep breathing & relaxation techniques. This will help with emotions like anxiety, worry, frustration, and anger. Take deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling slowly until you calm down. Slowly count to 10. You can take a walk to cool down and listen to some relaxing music. Talk to someone who can help you calm down.
  • The 10-second rule. This is especially helpful if you are feeling angry, frustrated or even irate. If you feel your temper rising, try and count to 10 to recompose yourself. If possible, excuse yourself from the situation to get some distance, but remember to reassure the other party that you will return to deal with the matter.
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