Welcome to Read to Lead, Lincoln’s complimentary bite size monthly update with the very latest in leadership topics for the worldwide veterinary community.

From the desk of Paul Ainsworth, Lincoln’s Founder

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 that just shakes their head at how we’ve never had it so easy, through to the latest in academia 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 before now 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 that 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 that is feeling down, to think about those things for which they should be grateful – when they’re feeling anything but grateful, is akin to false positivity or false hope. It is designed to take 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).   More-over, 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).  

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’re all likely 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 in us a strong feeling will be different for everyone.  

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

Perspective Taking (Seligman) is a helpful way to do this, and in so doing, build emotional agility.  

I want to talk about three ways in which we can use Perspective Taking to build Emotional Agility or Resilience.

1. 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 that you ask this, 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.  I hope you’re seeing the distinction between feeling an emotion and how you respond?   

2. 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. These aren’t 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. Way more helpful in terms of working out a path forward.

3. 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).

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 stopping wrestling with what we consider to be unhelpful emotions or feelings (either within ourselves or what we observe in others).   Instead, learn to sit with them and provide a safe environment for the team to sit with their own 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).  This leads to an immediate de-escalation and certainly in the case of the child, 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) an ability to acknowledge and accept their feelings rather than trying to dissociate from them.

We have to develop the courage to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. 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 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 to choose a response that is helpful in the circumstances.

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

There’s a wonderful definition of Compassion by a New York born Tibetan Buddhist, Pema Chödrön that “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 found 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”. Best of luck, Paul. 

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