Emotional Agility is becoming something more commonly talked about especially as a quality of leaders. It sounds nice and positive but what exactly is it, where does it come from and how does one develop it?
Emotional agility is “the capability to recognize your current emotional state and fluidly adjust it to produce optimal results”. Already that tells us several things that need to be present in our relationship with emotions. First, we need to be aware of the emotion we are in or that is being triggered by the situation. Second, we need to be able to name it because emotions and thoughts are co-creative. If we feel a tightening in our stomach, recognize it and name it fear, we, at the same time, know that we are thinking that “something that is about to happen may hurt me”. The third step is to accept that this is the emotion we are in. Sometimes we’d prefer to be in another emotion but we aren’t. When we get up to give a presentation we may wish we were feeling calm but in fact we are feeling anxiety. If we deny the anxiety we are fighting against it whereas if we accept that we are experiencing anxiety we can make choices about how to navigate it. We can be emotionally agile and choose an emotion that will serve the moment better. In the case of feeling anxious giving a presentation we could shift to the emotion of service. Anxiety is a concern for myself; service is a concern for others so the shift is putting my attention on the experience I’m creating for the audience rather than the concern that something embarrassing may happen to me. While it is common to talk about ‘managing’ or ‘controlling’ emotions neither seems to be an effective way of dealing with them. Through the idea of navigating emotions, we can develop emotional agility which is the ability to be aware of the emotions we are experiencing and ease at selecting or shifting emotions in the moment.
Another aspect of emotional agility is understanding and having the ability to choose whether reaction or response is more effective for the situation. Every emotion has a reaction or impulse associated with it – in anger to punish, in sadness to mourn – but to some degree we have a choice as to when and how we do that. What may be most effective is to focus on a response rather than the reaction. Resentment means we feel something is unfair and our impulse is “to get even when we can”. If we go with the impulse we may sabotage or undermine the other person but if our real concern is the unfairness we perceive then a powerful response would address the unfairness. Once the story of unfairness changes we will no longer be in resentment and will no longer have the desire “to get even”.
So, emotional agility is a skill we can develop based on our understanding of emotions in general and the specifics of the emotion we are experiencing. Many people struggle even to name their emotions which is the starting point for navigating them. You might think of emotional agility as practical emotional intelligence. When our awareness, knowledge, understanding and comfort with emotions grow into a competence we will find this agility to be quite natural and easy to utilize.


If developing emotional agility for yourself is important to you please consider joining one of my upcoming workshops on emotions and coaching. Although geared for coaches I have had leaders not trained as coaches attend and they have found enormous value. The next available workshop in the U.S. is September 17th to 22nd and the next European workshop will be held in Spain October 1st to 6th. Please contact me at dan@dannewby.me for a conversation or more information.