Susan David on the Importance of Emotional Agility

March 27, 2019

Headshot of Susan David

We're so excited for Susan David to speak at the 2019 Simmons Leadership Conference!

Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David, PhD, is one of the world’s leading management thinkers and the author of the bestselling book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. David is also co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital and CEO of Evidence Based Psychology.

David’s work focuses on emotional agility – the ability to have a full range of emotions and experiences, including more difficult ones, and to still choose to act in ways that are in line with our values. This recognition enables us to get a clear reading of the present circumstances, cultivating real change in our habits, relationships and well-being, at work and at home.

Any tips for work/life integration?

We tend to put work/life balance on a pedestal as a fixed objective that we can actually achieve. We all know that’s not the case. Sometimes work calls on more of us, sometimes home calls on more of us. Work/life integration is an on-going process that is informed by your emotions and what they are telling you.

When we start having difficult emotions, we tend to buy into them. For example, if you’re away from your children because you’re traveling for work, you may miss a special event. You may feel guilty and think: “I’m a bad Mom.” Instead, we need to think of that difficult emotion (guilt) as a signpost of something that we care about. In this case, the signpost tells you that presence and connectness with your children is important to you and that you’re not getting enough of that at this time.

When we experience difficult emotions, we’re often told to push them aside, to “stay positive.” But facing difficult emotions and listening to the signals they are sending helps us to understand who we are and what’s important to us in the world, based on our values.

Armed with that recognition, we can be agile and adapt. We can make tiny tweaks and small shifts that allow us to live closer to our values. For a traveling parent, that might mean calling and not multitasking at the same time, video chatting every evening, texting frequently, or leaving behind a note for every night that you’re away from your child. What small changes can you make to feel more connected to your kids? When you’re at home, perhaps you can put your phone in the drawer until the children are in bed, so that you’re focused when you are with them.

In terms of work/life integration, we might think: “My values are in conflict.” I value my work and my home life, and they’re in conflict. That’s a zero sum way of looking at it. Our values are our values. What is in conflict are our goals.

In short: Listen to the signals that your emotions are sending. Make small changes to reflect your values and what’s important to you. Recognize that work/life conflicts are not values-based, but you may have conflicting goals at times. Make the best decision you can in that moment.

If someone wants to make a change in their lives or to work toward societal change, how do they get started?

It’s about asking one question: “Who do I want to be in this situation?”

For example, when we’re at work, struggling with cynicism, stress, or change, we can get stuck in these emotions. We roll our eyes. We shut down. In these situations, we need to ask these fundamental questions: “Is what I’m doing here serving me, serving my career? Is it serving who I want to be as a person? Is it serving how I want to be in my life?”

All of us come to the world with good intentions, but we often get stuck in ways of being that are not effective or productive. Asking these types of questions allows us to let go of stories about feeling cynical or stressed.

Thinking in terms of these types of questions allows us to come much closer to the core of our values and to the essence of who we want to be as human beings. It allows us to bring the best of ourselves forward.

I fundamentally believe that in any organization and society, it’s the small shifts that individuals make in how they see themselves and how they see other people that make a difference and drive change. When we are able to be healthy with ourselves and others, it allows for change in larger systems. And it certainly helps if an organization’s leadership takes this approach.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve gotten along the way?

I launched my book, Emotional Agility, in 2016. The presidential campaign was in full swing. It was tough getting the media’s attention. I asked my agent, “What can I do? I’ve spent so much time writing this book. Do I write another book? Do I focus on something else?” I wasn’t about to give up, but I felt a little despondent about my next steps. She said, “Susan, sometimes as human beings, we think we’re on a plateau, whereas we are about to hit a tipping point.” So I persevered with my book tour. Six weeks later the book was a #1 Wall Street Journal bestseller.

At times in your career, you’ll land on a plateau. You feel you’re not advancing. You may even go backwards for a bit. When you’re having a tough stretch, it helps to step back and take the long view. You need to regroup and recognize that this is just one day in the midst of a week, a month, a year. As long as you feel that what are you are doing is congruous with your values, and connects with your heart, there’s huge value in staying the course and reminding yourself to be kind to yourself (and others) in that journey. It comes back to the values that are driving your behavior.


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Valerie Plame

Simmons Leadership Conference

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