Emotional agility in the workplace

Sagar Satyal

Sagar Satyal

Emotional agility in the workplace

Instead of reacting right away, we can pause and choose an appropriate response

There’s no denying that work-life is hard. Having to deal with so many people with varying emotions, interests, and expectations can get tiring. But that’s why emotional intelligence is so important. The ability to manage oneself in the midst of frustrations when dealing with variables outside of one’s control is at the core of what it means to be emotionally intelligent.

Take two people, for instance. One is cool, calm, and collected during confrontations at work. She understands that all her co-workers have their own pressures and that they are all trying their best. She is empathetic but not a doormat. She can be assertive when needed, but generally radiates positive vibes that make working with her pleasurable.

On the other hand, there’s a person who takes everything personally, gossips all the time and doesn’t think twice before sharing what he really feels. He excuses it as ‘being himself’, not realizing that what seems like authenticity to him is making life hard for his colleagues.

What happens when these two individuals feel angry at work? The emotionally intelligent person is likely to notice feelings of anger arising within her. She realizes that anger is an emotion that is just communicating to her that there is an obstacle in the way of getting something she cares about. She uses anger to understand herself and redirect her actions towards her goal rather than reacting angrily. On the other hand, the person lacking emotional intelligence reacts with anger without realizing that the emotion has gotten the better of him. Instead of seeing anger as a signal, he justifies his unhelpful comments and reactions.

We all have thoughts, emotions, and stories inside our heads. If we act on them without consideration, we might end up resentful of both others and ourselves. But instead, what if we learnt to see emotions as data and not directives? When we are governed by our emotions, we become emotionally rigid. We are hooked into our mental chatter and fail to see the bigger picture. The opposite of this inability is the ability to create space between stimulus and response.

Instead of reacting right away, we can pause and choose an appropriate response. This fundamental skill is called emotional agility. When we are emotionally agile, we learn to align our actions with our values, intentions, and the kind of person we wish to become. What others do and say is out of our control. But how we think and act are well within our reasoning: are we getting closer to the kind of person we aspire to be or veering away from it?

Our emotional intelligence is highly malleable. But we must first be honest with ourselves: what are we like during trying times? What are our aspirations: what kind of person do we really wish to become? Once we find answers to these deep but important questions, we can see what is making us emotionally rigid. Stretching the space between stimuli and our responses requires us to practice taking small pauses. A helpful way to take a pause is to ask ourselves three important questions: First, how am I feeling? Second, what are my options? And finally, what do I truly want?

If we practice asking these questions to ourselves regularly, we will quickly realize that the choices available to us are shaped by the way we feel at any moment. Let’s say someone gives us feedback we don’t like. The first step is to recognize feelings of frustration in us. Now what choices do we have? Shouting back? Shutting down and becoming passive aggressive? Or is it to acknowledge frustration in us and to communicate in a way where we try to understand another person’s reasons for the feedback but also share why we would have liked the feedback delivered differently?

If we are emotionally agile, we understand the value of our frustration in telling us what’s important to us. But if we aren’t skillful, we might act frustrated rather than using our frustration constructively.

Becoming aware of our emotions, intentional with our choices and purposeful with our actions takes practice. You can practice each moment, starting right now. How are you feeling? What are your options? What do you truly want?

The author is co-founder of My Emotions Matter, an education initiative that helps individuals and teams learn the mindset and skills of Emotional Intelligence. Learn more at