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  • Writer's pictureKate Chaffer

Emotional agility – 4 steps towards flexing your emotional intelligence

Updated: Apr 4, 2023


Developing emotional intelligence (EI or EQ for short) found its place at the heart of executive and leadership development coaching programs in the 1990s.

Since then, coaching skills to support humans in harnessing the positive power of their messy, complex feelings have grown and evolved.


At Culture Zone, we work on increasing your emotional agility, a term and practice developed by Harvard Psychologist Susan David, whose book ‘Emotional Agility, Get, Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life'; and TED Talk make inspirational reading and listening.


If you’re new to EI or curious about how it landed a starring role in personal and professional development programs everywhere, here’s a short history of Emotional Intelligence.


If you like the sound of becoming more emotionally agile, here’s an overview of Susan David’s four steps to navigating life’s ups and downs with self-acceptance, clear-sightedness, and an open mind.


1. Recognise your (sticky, unhelpful) thought patterns….and get unhooked

First, a disclaimer, humans are hardwired to have a constant flow of thoughts and feelings, including a variable count of awkward, hairy, and scary ones. Challenging emotions like fear, anger, and frustration are part of your mind's problem-solving, bear trap-detecting toolbox. In short, your brain is in the business of trying to keep you safe. When it senses physical or emotional risk, it unleashes a trickle or a torrent of tricky-to-manage emotions and thoughts to WARN YOU SOMETHING’S UP and prepare you for fight or flight. Early in our evolution, a robust, visceral response to fear kept us alive. Today, not so much. And yet we still get hooked and hijacked by hard-to-handle thoughts and emotions and behave in ways we wish we hadn’t.


Two signs you hooked
  • Your thinking is rigid and repetitive. Your mind's replaying the same (negative, ‘judgy’) messages crammed with ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ and ‘never’ or ‘always.’

  • Your mind tapes are so old. And mostly tragic reruns of (selectively distorted) past experiences at and outside work.

Either way, you’re investing in the dispiriting business of treating thoughts and feelings as fact.


Top unhooking tip

Look out for then listen carefully for reruns of old tired messages. Uncover the patterns so you can start to disrupt and change them.

2. Label your thoughts and emotions

As soon as you sense a heavy feeling or heated thought, instead of hooking in, Step back and give it a label like …’ hmm, there’s anger’ or ‘Hmm, I’m thinking this meeting’s going nowhere, and I’m feeling frustrated.’


This classic mindfulness technique gives you mental space to consider how to react. Sidestep the self-baited hooks embedded in thoughts and feelings, and you may have a powerful piece of decision-making data. Alternatively, you may simply have an unhelpful but fleeting feeling or idea that disappears of its own accord.


Top labelling tip

It takes practice and patience to master the skill of stepping back and labelling. Be kind to yourself when you fall hook, line and sinker for a hard-to-handle feeling. When the ensuing inner or outer crisis passes, breathe, smile and resolve to stick with the practice.


3. Accept sticky feelings and listen to what they’re telling you

Stepping back and labelling your thoughts and feelings takes the battery out of your mental panic button. Now you’ve got the brain space to take deep breaths, sit quietly with those ideas and emotions and accept and experience them. We’re not saying this is an easy or comfortable place to be, but in the short and long term, accepting your feeling and thinking states is far healthier and more productive than trying to suppress them or letting them hijack and derail your reactions.


Labelling‘s cooling power creates the space to ask, ‘what’s happening here?’ Now you can take a clear, compassionate look at what’s going on externally for others and internally for you. Most thoughts and feelings that generate hard-to-handle energy and urgency do so for a reason – to alert you to something important that you need to attend to.


Top acceptance tip

Make a pact with yourself not to be critical or ‘judgy’ no matter what comes up when you ask, ‘what’s happening here? Open-hearted acceptance helps you read the signals correctly, work out what matters, what to do and how to do it in high integrity, values-driven ways.


4. Act on your values – a word about ‘workability’

Training your emotional agility – unhooking from, labelling, and accepting challenging thoughts and feelings, widens your scope for sound decision-making. Most importantly, it makes it immeasurably easier to act in ways that are consistent with your values.


We support leaders to make the most of emotional agility’s gift of values-driven decision-making by posing these three key questions underpinning the idea of ‘workability.’


Is your response:

  • Going to serve you and your organisation in the long term as well as the short term?

  • Help you steer others in a direction that furthers your collective purpose.

  • Take you a step nearer to being the leader you most want to be and living the life you most want to live.


Top values-driven, decision-making tip

Reality-check your values. Do they solidly and sincerely reflect who you are and the difference you want to make at work and beyond? If your answer’s ‘Yes!’, you’ll rely on them to guide you through thought storms, feeling tsunamis and whatever occurs in an increasingly volatile outer world.


Test your EQ and train your emotional agility

Increasing any kind of agility takes time and training. Assessing your current Emotional Quotient (EQ) is a practical and profound place to start.


If you’re curious and keen to self-assess, rate yourself for the fourteen competencies listed on this Emotional Intelligence Matrix. Ideally, you’ll get insight into how skilled you are at observing, interpreting, and regulating your emotions and being empathetic towards others.


But here’s the thing. It's tough to be objective and accurate when you measure your own EQ. It's even trickier to know where to start if you want to grow the strengths or plug the gaps that show up on the matrix.


Meet the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT)

MSCEIT is the acknowledged gold standard tool for EQ testing. It:

  • Poses a series of objective, creative and impersonal questions

  • Tests your ability to perceive, use, understand, and regulate emotions based on typical, daily life scenarios

  • Measures how well you perform tasks and solve emotional problems.

We’re accredited to administer the MSCEIT to individuals and teams who are keen better understand themselves and each other and develop their EQ.


Our clients find MSCEIT does many things. It enlightens, reassures, motivates, and transforms. Often, it’s their invaluable first step towards becoming an effective, inspiring, emotionally agile leader.


Have questions about EQ, emotional agility, MSCEIT, or executive or leadership development coaching?







Emotional Intelligence Matrix
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