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Tips for emotional agility

Cox, Sharon, MSN, BSN

doi: 10.1097/01.NUMA.0000538912.07418.16
Department: Leadership Q&A
Free

Founder and Principal Consultant, Cox & Associates, Brentwood, Tenn.

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Q My organization is in a highly competitive market and we're experiencing significant pressure on every front. I've never seen the stress levels higher as we all deal with fear and anxiety, and try to keep a decent attitude. My health is suffering and I find myself regressing into a controlling style that I don't like. Any suggestions before I start updating my résumé?

Given the unprecedented change and uncertainty in healthcare today, the stress levels you describe are all too common. We know that the stress isn't going away, so the real issue is how to change our relationship with stress so that our survival instincts (fight, freeze, or flight) don't make matters worse. All too often, we get hooked by stress and revert to familiar patterns in an attempt to gain control. Patterns such as brooding and shutting down or bottling up our feelings and using forced positivity are typical. Our inner work life feels turbulent and takes us off course from the things we say we value.

Knowing that control is an illusion, we need to become emotionally agile and not let the old rigid patterns do us in. The challenge is in learning to be flexible and not being held hostage by all of the drama. To unhook from what we've always done, we need to learn from the experience, be clear sighted about our options, and live out our values.

Executive coach Dr. Susan David offers a four-step process for emotional agility:1,2

  • Show up to your good and bad emotions or thoughts. Face your real feelings with curiosity and acceptance, rather than trying to fix or run from them; giving them a name often strips them of their power. We can learn from negative emotions, and acceptance is a prerequisite for change. Ask what the situation may be teaching you and listen to your intuitive sense.
  • Step out from your inner monologue and see it for what it is. These are simply emotions that you're dealing with; they don't define you. For example, “I notice that I'm feeling stuck” instead of “I'm stuck.” Creating space as you step back allows you to see options and regain perspective.
  • Act on your values by unhooking from challenging thoughts and emotions to expand your choices. This allows you to respond rather than react, to “walk your why” and be true to what matters most. Values such as generosity, forgiveness, ownership, and honesty can then dictate what you do.
  • Move on by developing habits to help you stay motivated and aligned with your values. This is about creating the life you want, not adding to your list of “shoulds.”

As you develop emotional agility, you may find that practicing mindfulness is helpful in being less judgmental and realizing that you don't need to believe everything you think. Taking a purposeful pause and noticing your breathing for about 10 seconds is useful in detaching from the internal chatter that may otherwise hook you.3 Routinely taking 20 minutes to write about your emotional experiences and then discarding what you write is also a way to create distance between the thinker and the thought.

You may find that you have more emotional energy as you operate from a mindset of options and personal values, rather than victim thinking. You'll be coming out of your comfort zone, and that's where you'll see growth. As you accept this learning curve and work to develop emotional agility, you'll be putting all that stress to good use and allowing yourself to be the leader you really want to be.

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REFERENCES

1. David S. Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. New York, NY: Random House; 2016:1–14.
2. David S, Congleton C. Emotional agility. https://hbr.org/2013/11/emotional-agility.
3. Marturano J. Finding the Space to Lead. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press; 2014:64.
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