READ ON TO DISCOVER:
- The value of liberating emotions in a healthy way
- How to bring your emotions into the workplace
- What it means to be a truly and deeply compassionate parent, peer, and colleague
Susan David is the author of Emotional Agility, a leading psychologist at Harvard Medical School, and the co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital. She recently talked with Leah Weiss, a professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, author of the forthcoming book Heart at Work, and consultant who specializes in the application of mindfulness to workplace environments. They discussed the value of liberating emotions in a healthy way, how to bring your emotions into your professional life, and what it means to be truly and deeply compassionate.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Leah: What brought you to the topic of emotional agility in the first place?
Susan: I grew up in apartheid South Africa, an environment in which there was essentially legislated hate, where you were literally forbidden from having friendships or relationships across color lines with the real threat of arrest and treason.
From a very early age, I became interested in the idea of how emotions can exist beneath the surface of an environment where there might be rules and systems, and [how] emotions are these very rich sources of our humanity beneath that.
The beauty and fragility of life seem to be intimately linked. What does it take in the way we deal with our thoughts, our emotions, and our stories, that help us to thrive in this imperfect world?
“People become interested in their careers because they’ve had experiences that shape particular questions. For me, it was [asking] what does it take to thrive in a complex fragile world.”
When I was in my teens, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. So many people said things like “It’ll be okay, just be positive, think happy thoughts,” with very good intentions. The aftershock of that, though, for our family was pretty profound.
Then I had this incredible other experience: our English teacher invited us to keep journals. She knew what was going on for me. I began this silent correspondence with this woman where I would hand in this journal and talk about what I was going through at home, during and after my dad died. She would write back to me.
I came out of that experience feeling really resilient, feeling like I’d grown even though I didn’t invite it for myself. When I started to think about what made the difference, I realized it was the interaction with this amazing woman, that truly helped me move through and get insight.
That really started to spark my career. It was this idea of thriving in this complex, crazy, changing, beautiful world, and the reality of what truly helps us to be effective. I became interested in emotions. I did a PhD in clinical psychology, and then my post doc in emotions research, and then went onto primarily work with organizations. My focus was always on the individual within the organizational context. People become interested in their careers because they’ve had experiences that shape particular questions. For me, it was [asking] what does it take to thrive in a complex fragile world.
“Emotions aren’t directions, they are data.”
Leah: The MBA students I work with [are] fascinated when they learn emotion is understood by researchers and scientists in a very different way [from] vernacular ideas about emotion. When they come across the perspective that emotions live in our bodies and influence the way we’re perceiving and responding to the world, this idea has a big impact on their willingness and interest in investigating their own emotions. In the work I do, this becomes an important natural segue into the role of mindfulness, of really understanding what emotions look like as one lives one’s life.
I’m curious where you are in your understanding of what emotions are and how they’re experienced by people as they move through their lives. What’s your current thinking on this?
Susan: Some people are often trained to push emotions aside, this idea that “I just don’t do emotions because it feels like something that is irrelevant to my goals and my aims.” Sometimes the act of pushing emotions aside is a much more thoughtful and intentional activity—[the belief] that if they show up, it will lead into an area that feels difficult.
Often there’s that opposite experience, too, which is the brooding of emotion, over-investing in emotion, considering them to be fact. There is a really important [realization] process for most people, which is recognizing that emotions aren’t directions, they are data. People often start to experience emotions very differently when they recognize they’re not good or bad, but they often do contain data to things we value, things that we care about.
“When we see ourselves, we help to bring ourselves into being, and when we see our children’s, our team’s, our staff members’ emotions, we help to bring those people into being.”
Leah: That coupled with the idea that our emotional goals influence what our emotional experience looks like is just fascinating. People have very different experiences of their emotions and can relearn how to bear witness to them and relate to them in a new way. One of the things I see people come into when they risk engaging with their emotions in the context of their lives, they’ll often report their anxiety [as] higher in the beginning, and that they’re experiencing more negative emotions. It’s an interesting question: Are you experiencing more or are you aware of what’s been under the surface?
People then work through [that question] quickly if they can apply some way to observe what was happening in their emotional experience and learn they don’t have to be at the mercy of the emotions. I’m curious what you see from the learning curve from people who are really not in touch with what they’re feeling emotionally and their bodily sensations, [and are] heavily oriented towards their thoughts. They’re skewing their experience of the world towards cognitive ideas. Opening up these other ways of being in the world [can be] destabilizing before it can go into a recalibration. Is that consistent with what you think about it?
Susan: We have type one emotions and type two emotions. The type one emotion is “I feel anxious.” Then the type two is feeling anxious about being anxious. When people have general levels of discomfort about emotions in general, there’s that initial experience of feeling anxious. When they’re opening themselves up to it, and it feels unfamiliar, then the anxiety about [feeling] anxious comes up.
We often push those emotions aside because we see them as weak and distracting. There’s this [false] idea that by pushing emotions aside that you are stronger, that you’re creating a greater sense of strength and resilience.
Based on the research, but also based on my experience with individuals, suppressing emotions, rather than making you strong, actually makes you more fragile. When we push emotions aside, it actually undermines our resilience. We’re not getting practiced with tough feelings and tough feelings passing.
“When we push emotions aside, it actually undermines our resilience.”
Leah: What can organizations do to support people in having a more adaptive and resiliency oriented approach to their emotions? Are there recommendations you make for teams or organizations?
Susan: In the same way suppressing emotions or only focusing on the good emotions undermine resilience in individuals, I also think they undermine resilience in large scale organizational resilience.
The belief that focusing on the goal or just being happy or just focusing on the project [seems] helpful, but actually it’s not. It creates a space and a culture where there’s effectively a dehumanization of people, where there’s this idea that only some emotions can be brought to the workplace— some emotions are good, some emotions are bad. It’s a very mechanistic way of treating people. We’ll tell them what to believe, we’ll tell them why they need to believe it, and they’re going to come out the other end of this machine believing the things we’ve told them to.
This weakens the organization because it puts the organization in a position where they’re not actually able to learn from their people. If we can’t hear the concerns of people on the ground, then we lose incredibly valuable opportunities to identify issues or potential risks.
If we truly want organizations to be resilient, we need to more effectively welcome and open the humanity of the full range of emotional experience into those organizations. It’s only if the organization is open to those other emotions that it’s truly going to be an organization that embraces failure and therefore embraces learning, growth, and sustainability.
[Also,] the idea of psychological safety is critical from an organizational perspective. The idea that there are no good or bad emotions, emotions just are. We can then make intentional choices about how we act on our emotions. This strengthens the organization and strengthens the culture of the organization, versus anything goes, and you can just act on your emotions. That’s a really important distinction and is critical for leaders in organizations to understand when we’re talking about these ideas.
“If we truly want organizations to be resilient, we need to more effectively welcome and open the humanity of the full range of emotional experience into those organizations.”
Leah: That’s such an interesting point: there’s this whole middle space of what it looks like to have and express emotions in ways that are neither acting out nor suppressing. A leader who’s upset can show it, they don’t have to hide and suppress it—and at the same time, they don’t have to throw a chair against the wall and yell.
I learned early on, when my oldest was a toddler, to narrate her emotions for her. If one of my children is really angry and they’re starting to act out—I just say for them, “Caleb is really angry right now.” Just saying that diffuses the situation, he’s like “That’s right, I am angry. Now that you know it, it’s okay.” The anger itself isn’t a problem.
Susan: There’s this South African Zulu greeting—“Sawubona”—that basically means “ hello,” but what it means literally is “I see you, and by seeing you, I bring you into being.”
A core part of emotional agility is being able to show up to our own emotions. And when we see ourselves, we help to bring ourselves into being, and when we see our children’s, our team’s, our staff members’ emotions, we help to bring those people into being.