Emotional Agility

David, Susan. (2016). Emotional Agility. New York: Penguin

As an educator for a long time and the continued acceleration of change, it occurs to me that we need a higher level of agility to deal with the multiple issues facing education. As teacher and leader problems mount, it can overwhelm professionals. In 2006, Jennifer York-Barr, et.al. wrote, “During times of increased demands, increased diversity of student needs, and an overall tone of doing more with less, educators can easily move into feeling overly responsible and overwhelmed. Left unchecked, these thoughts can easily turn into feelings of guilt and inadequacy.” I submit that burnout results more from the feeling of not seeing progress with students. Educators expend a huge amount of energy to make a positive difference. When repeated efforts show little or no results, ‘learned helplessness’ can set in. In the final stages, it turns into resignation and giving up.

David promotes the idea of ‘Emotional Agility’ and describes this as loosening up, calming down, and living with more intention. Educators and most people can’t control what happens to you. What we do have is the ability to control how we RESPOND to what happens to us. Too often we fall into a default mode of fight, flight, freeze, or appease.

Emotional Agility might be the next level of Emotional Intelligence to increase personal and professional satisfaction. There is a Chinese Proverb I like, “it is easier to stay out than get out.” Think about it. How much time, energy, and sometimes money does it take to get out of problems, that if you really thought through at first, you would have avoided and would not get the negative consequences from the experience?

I, being an impulsive person, have to guard against reacting so quickly. I must admit I have had some success in reducing my impulsivity, but still have a long way to go. In a crisis, this can be good. Jane Stevenson, who I got to work with as a colleague, sometimes would ask me, “how long are you going to be mad about this?” She was trying to help me solve the problem at hand rather than being hung up with the emotional energy I was wasting by pouting. She was right of course. Thank you, Jane.

Susan David provides the following as an alternative: The process of gaining emotional agility unfolds in four essential movements:
• SHOWING UP – means facing into your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors willingly, with curiosity and kindness.
• STEPPING OUT – detaching from and observing them to see them for what they are— just thoughts, just emotions
• WALKING YOUR WHY – these small decision moments choice points. Your core values provide the compass that keeps you moving in the right direction.
• MOVING ON – research actually supports the opposite view: that small, deliberate tweaks infused with your values can make a huge difference in your life.

I have always liked a quote used in this book by Alfred Korzybski, “The map is not the territory.” We can have all kinds of knowledge providing mental models and maps on how to act. The problem is when it is happening (in the territory) our minds usually go to self-protection. That is what the brain is developed to do. Go to safety under threat.

However, having maps (knowledge) can give you options. The ability to have multiple options give us the flexibility to respond differently rather than the four most common reactions previously mentioned: fight, flight, freeze, or appease.

Kahneman (2011) in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, says we operate in two systems. System 1 thoughts are typically fast, automatic, effortless, associative, and implicit, which means they are not available to immediate introspection. This is basically reacting. System 2 thoughts are slower and more deliberative. They require much more effort and a deeper level of attention. These thoughts are more reflective, thoughtful, and taking into consideration more possibilities. The key to emotional agility is to be able to go to System 2 while in System 1 because of the stimulus in front of you.

When in crisis people die because they panic. An example was the Mann Gulch forest fire in 1949 where 16 firefighters died trying to outrun the fire. The two that survived, intentionally burned an area around them, hunkered down and survived. The fire went around the area that was already burned. I am not sure I would have thought of that. However, it saved 72 firefights in 1985 because they learned the lesson in Mann Gulch.

When we get hooked emotionally, we go into our preferred default mode. THE FOUR MOST COMMON HOOKS
1. HOOK #1: THOUGHT-BLAMING – When you start thought-blaming, there’s not enough space between stimulus and response, in Frankl’s terms, for you to exercise real choice. Thoughts in isolation do not cause behavior. Old stories don’t cause behavior. We cause our behavior.
2. HOOK #2: MONKEY-MINDEDNESS – “Monkey mind” is a term from meditation used to describe that incessant internal chatterbox that can leap from one topic to the next like a monkey swinging from tree to tree. When we’re in a monkey-mind mode, it’s easy to start “awfulizing” imagining worst-case scenarios or making too much of a minor problem. It’s a huge sap of our energy and a complete waste of time. The monkey mind is obsessed with the push of the past (“I just can’t forgive what he did”) and the pull of the future (“I can’t wait to quit and give my manager a piece of my mind”).
3. HOOK #3: OLD, OUTGROWN IDEAS – Kevin’s behavior was completely functional when he was a small child; it protected him emotionally, and it kept him safe physically. But that was then. Like Kevin, she was living out an expired story. What got her this far wasn’t going to take her any further. She needed the agility to adapt to changing circumstances.
4. HOOK #4: WRONGHEADED RIGHTEOUSNESS – In so many other areas of life, we hang on too long to the idea of justice, or of vindication, or of having it proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are right.

Emotional agility means being aware and accepting of all your emotions, even learning from the most difficult ones.

There are two common reactions to conflict, bottling, and brooding. Bottling is usually done with the best intentions, and to the practical “get on with it.” We tell ourselves It’s no surprise either that bottling can have a negative effect on relationships. However, the consequence is increased blood pressure can result in secondary problems. Brooders, on the other hand, continuing to ruminate over issues increases worry. Most of the things we worry about never happen. Brooding waste a lot of time and energy.

Brooders lose perspective as molehills become mountains and slights become capital crimes. When you brood, your emotions don’t gain strength by being pressurized in a bottle, but they do gain strength. Brooding also makes you more likely to blame yourself with questions such as “Why do I always react like this?” and “Why can’t I handle this better?”

Again, we might not be able to change what happens to us but we can change how we respond to what happens to us. We can’t change ourselves or our circumstances until we accept what exists right now. Acceptance is a prerequisite for change. Self-compassion is the antidote to shame.

Compassion gives us the freedom to redefine ourselves as well as the all-important freedom to fail, which contains within it the freedom to take the risks that allow us to be truly creative. People who are more accepting of their own failures may actually be more motivated to improve.

I used to think I could solve every problem or I could find the one perfect way to deal with a problem. Silly me. Problems and people continue to vary. I either accept that fact I can’t deal with every issue or I find ways to respond with more options to solve a variety of problems. Eisenhower said, “plans are useless in battle, but planning is indispensable.” And then German field marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder was fond of saying (and I paraphrase), No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.

So, get over it. Planning provides some strategies on how to react. I hope I can remember them when I need them. AND, the more strategies you have, the better chance you have of remembering one, two, or more when a problem arises.

I remember going to an Eagles Concert in Austin, TX. Don Henley started the concert with ‘turn off your cellphones’ and said, “Be here now.” The idea was that the undisciplined mind is easily distracted, whipsawing back and forth in time, engaging with “push” memories of the past and “pull” projections of the future. It’s only by being fully in the present, fully attuned to the “now,” that we can deal with the moment in an emotionally agile way. That technique is called mindfulness. Harvard researchers recently performed brain scans on sixteen people, before and after they took an eight-week mindfulness training program to reduce stress. The results showed changes in the brain regions associated not just with stress but also with memory, sense of self, and empathy.

In the study, African American and Latino middle schoolers were asked to complete a ten-minute exercise in which they wrote down what mattered most to them. Their answers included everything from dancing to family to politics, and the effect of this simple exercise was astonishing. After focusing on their connections to the world and people outside themselves, the students were able to improve their GPAs enough to close the achievement gap between them and their white classmates.

The importance of ‘responding to resistance’ is one of the four tenets that Jennifer Abrams (2019) writes about in her newest book, Swimming in the Deep End. Abrams metaphor is if we are going to find new ideas which expand our knowledge and skills we will have to take risks. In our educational systems, risk is not highly valued especially when testing focuses on the right answer. The fact is, we have to be able to swim in the deep end so we can find ways of supporting new and diverse learners. That means teachers and administrators too. We are learners.

Emotionally agile managers can step out from their micro-focus. They know that details are important, but they also know how to elevate their thinking and planning from task to objective. Before a meeting, the emotionally agile leader might ask himself, “What is the (shared) goal of this meeting?” “How would I and my team members be feeling when we adjourn. How will my feedback help them achieve their own objectives?”

The bottom-line, take-home message brought to you by emotional agility is this: Denying stress, bottling it, or brooding about it is counterproductive. Avoiding stress is impossible, but what we can do is adjust our relationship to stress. It doesn’t have to own us. We can own it.

I really liked this message. We want to know HOW TO THINK, NOT WHAT TO THINK. One of my fundamental beliefs is, “what we think may divide us, what we feel unites us.” (Sommers). We can think differently (thank you Apple). Our country has benefitted from the autonomy of people with new ideas and promoting creativity has driven our economy for many years. AND everyone knows what it feels like to be mad, sad, glad, scared, and rejected. Since we all know what it feels like to be ignored or discounted, we can connect with all humans. Therefore, developing ways to deal with the diversity of thought will become even more important in the future. The list below provides some ways to become more agile in dealing with emotions.

Here’s how you can start this journey today:
• Appoint yourself the agent of your own life and take ownership of your own development, career, creative spirit, work, and connections.
• Accept your full self—rubbed-off nose, shabby ears, “good” and “bad” emotions, the whole package—with compassion, courage, and curiosity.
• Welcome your inner experiences, breathe into them, and learn their contours without racing for the exit.
• Embrace an evolving identity and release narratives that no longer serve you.
• Let go of unrealistic dead people’s goals by accepting that being alive means sometimes getting hurt, failing, being stressed, and making mistakes
• Free yourself, pursuing perfection so you can enjoy the process of loving and living.
• Let yourself be up to the love that will come with hurt and the hurt that will come with love, and to the success that will come with failure and the failure that will come with success.
• Abandon the idea of being fearless, and instead walk directly into your fears, with your values as your guide, toward what matters to you. Courage is not an absence of fear; courage is fear walking.
• Choose courage over comfort by vitally engaging with new opportunities to learn and grow, rather than passively resigning yourself to your circumstances
• Recognize that life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility. We’re young until we’re not. We’re healthy until we’re not. We’re with those we love until we’re not.
• Learn how to hear the heartbeat of your own why.
• And finally, remember to “dance if you can.”


Abrams, Jennifer. (2019). Swimming in the Deep End. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

York-Barr, J., Sommers, W., Ghere, G. & Montie, J. (2006). Reflective Practice to Improve Schools (2nd ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.