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Emotional Agility is a thing? How to cope with what veterinary life throws at you!

Posted in Guest Blogger @ Jun 30th 2022 - By Paul Ainsworth, Founder & Director, Lincoln Institute
Emotional Agility Is A Thing How To Cope With What Veterinary Life Throws At You

Resilience...Is it possible to build the Emotional Agility to cope with what life throws at us?

I don’t think I’ve come across a leadership topic that generates more controversy – ranging from the war veteran who shakes their head at how we’ve never had it so easy, through to the latest in academia thought that assures us that telling ourselves to be grateful is counterproductive to building individual resilience (Susan David).  

I also can’t think of a time when the need for strategies to help maintain our reserves has been greater.  

I say this whether you’re at home looking after a young child who won’t sleep or doing back-to-back shifts in the clinic. 

I won’t leave you hanging on this point regarding gratitude – David’s view is that to tell someone who is feeling down to think about the things for which they should be grateful – when they’re feeling anything but grateful - is akin to giving false positivity or false hope. It takes you from the world you live in, to the world that you wish it could be which ultimately undermines resilience.  

This is not to thwart the vast array of research on Gratitude and our ability to teach ourselves to see the cup half full through a daily practice of Gratitude Journaling (Seligman).  This is a deliberate practice designed to tap into the neuroplasticity of the brain and or its ability to change over time to embrace the polarity of any situation (‘bothness’, David).  

Emotions are neither good, nor bad

It is widely accepted that emotions should be viewed as neither good, nor bad. Rather, emotions ‘signpost’ something else that is going on for us (David).

You may be familiar with Lincoln’s “Iceberg Theory” (getting below someone’s “surface”) – and in all my life, I don’t think I’ve met two people who share the exact same history, experiences and set of values - and if they do, their interpretation will surely differ. So, a trigger that creates a strong feeling in us, will be different for everyone else.  

So too will be the response to this feeling. Take anger for example; It is never acceptable to respond in anger. You can feel as much anger as you like (it’s healthy and simply signposts your deeply held values) but you need to take the time to choose a higher order response (Frankl).

Using 'Perspective Taking' to build emotional agility

Perspective Taking (Seligman) is a helpful way to do this, and in so doing, build emotional agility.  Perspective-taking is the act of perceiving a situation or understanding a concept from an alternative point of view, such as that of another individual.

There are three ways in which we can use Perspective Taking to build Emotional Agility or Resilience.

1. How would someone else respond?

When you’re overcome with a strong emotion, ask yourself, ‘how would someone else respond to this overwhelming feeling that I’m experiencing?’ 

The minute you ask this question, you release yourself from the amygdala hijack (Frankl) that you’re experiencing, because you’ve engaged your pre-frontal cortex and your response will be more mindful. Far from the emotion being diminished, you’ve gone to it and treated it as data. Hopefully you’re seeing the distinction between feeling an emotion and how you respond.   

2. Experience your emotions and recognise your responses

It’s SO important for our emotional development and resilience to experience our emotions and recognise our responses. This is the muscle that lies at the heart of building resilience.  

Think of the blast of a car horn in traffic that scares you and triggers an angry response – it is probably signposting ‘exhaustion’ or ‘depletion’ – which is data that is useful to us when trying to get to a better place. Emotions are data, not a directive (David).

How well do you see the granularity of your emotions? The big emotions are stress, anger, sadness etc. and are often not very helpful. 

The reality is that the more granular we can get around our emotions, the more likely we are to be able to understand them. In the previous point, I referred to ‘exhaustion’ and ‘depletion’, not stressed which is much more helpful in terms of working out a path forward.

3. Hold your emotions lightly

Finally, ‘hold onto your emotions lightly’ (David). Tough emotions are simply data and are a part of the contract that we have with life – and certainly the price of admission to a meaningful one.

So, notice them, ‘unpick’ them, embrace them as a signpost to your unique set of experiences and values, and accept that we’re fundamentally emotional beings, who only occasionally operate at the level of thoughts and analysis (Collins).

Building a resilient team

Before I leave the topic, I’d better talk briefly about how to build a resilient team.  

As a leader, it’s our role to help craft Emotional Agility within the team. This agility comes from understanding how to stop wrestling with what we consider to be unhelpful emotions or feelings - either within ourselves or what we observe in others. And instead, learning to sit with these feelings and importantly, providing a safe environment for your team to sit with their emotions. 

The best analogy I can think of is a screaming, upset child. We know that the most powerful way to deal with the emotion is to go ‘to’ the emotion before trying to go ‘through it’ (David) which can lead to an immediate de-escalation of the emotional situation. In the case of the child, this starts with a hug to let them know they’re safe and then a redirection of their emotional state. You’ll be role modelling for your child (or team member) the ability to acknowledge and accept their feelings rather than trying to dissociate from them.

As a leader you're the compass not the map

We have to develop the courage to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers and as a leader, become the ‘compass’ for your team, not the ‘map’.  

The map is prescriptive, corrupted with ‘man made objects’ that aren’t really there, and you can guarantee that where you hope to get to will be located on the fold!  Conversely, the ‘compass’ is a set of values (your own and the teams) that are not only useful in finding direction in difficult circumstances but underlie most emotional responses (Brown).  

Coach your team to understand what is being signposted for them and how to choose a response that is helpful in the circumstances.

A constant dialogue around your team values is helpful to this signposting and serves as an anchor when the seas get rough and helps to create the ‘Frankl space’ in order for you to use the wisdom inherent in your feelings, to guide you in your values.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

- Viktor E. Frankl, a neurologist, psychologist and Holocaust survivor

There’s a wonderful definition of Compassion by a New York born Tibetan Buddhist, Pema Chödrön that says “..compassion is not a relationship between the wounded and the heeled it’s a relationship between equals. It’s knowing our darkness well enough that we can sit in the dark with others." 

The final word goes to Brene Brown who described walking into her child’s bedroom and finding her upset over not having been invited to a party. The room was dark. “It’s not my job to turn on the light, it’s my job to sit in the dark”.

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