Mary is a leader who seems to get things done without much fuss. She’s approachable and her staff describe how they can go to her with any emotional problems and feel listened to. However, she is no pushover. She says exactly what she expects from people in a clear and direct way, and always with an underlying sense of passion.
Occasionally, when things don’t go well, she gets very cross. She expresses this simply and without any added drama so, again, people know where they stand. More often than not, though, she celebrates people’s performance with a smile and warm acknowledgement. You might say she’s emotionally intelligent.
Ever since Daniel Goleman published his work around emotional intelligence there has been a growing acceptance that this is now a key ingredient for people to succeed in the workplace.
Goleman highlighted four areas:
- social awareness
- relationship management.
A lot of development work in this area has focussed on metrics.
Emotional intelligence, rather like intellectual intelligence, was given the shorthand of EQ and thus people’s ‘emotional quotient’ was measured by various questionnaires.
However, there was then always the challenge of how you turned this information into useful behaviour change. Using your intellect to process your emotion was somewhat of a lost cause.
Nevertheless, the first two elements of the Goleman model - self-awareness and self-management - have been helped a lot by the mindfulness movement. Mindfulness provides many techniques to allow you to become more conscious of what’s going on emotionally. This, at least, provides the first stage in being able to deal with feelings in an intelligent way.
The arrival of emotional agility
Then along comes the Harvard psychologist, Susan David, with her concept of Emotional Agility. This new labelling promises quite a lot. It provides a framework for thinking about our emotions and provides a process for acceptance rather than denial. It advocates flexibility in the way that we move away from feelings that keep us stuck.
Her research states that every day we speak around 16,000 words - but inside our minds we create tens of thousands more. These are often critical thoughts that can seem to be indisputable facts. In reality, they're the judgemental opinions of our inner voice.
She suggests that emotionally agile people experience the same stresses and setbacks as anyone else. The difference is that they know how to detach themselves from unhelpful patterns.
Yet, none of this academic work addresses the messy, nitty gritty of the visceral dimension of dealing with feelings. Whilst we may have a range of subtle feelings that can be identified and processed in a civilized way, our bodies are also sometimes convulsed in paroxysms of uncomfortable and embarrassing emotional turmoil.
Susan David’s work does not really address the true meaning of emotional agility.
This can be witnessed on a daily basis by watching any young child interact with the world. They speedily go through a range of emotions – sadness, joy, exhilaration, fear, annoyance, upset, fury, love, hate – often in the space of a few hours. Emotions are not held on to, they are fluid. And yet, as we get older, there is a narrowing of our emotional range and a hardening of our ability to access and express a full repertoire of feelings.
This is where the missing developmental element can come in, and it comes via the world of acting. People often mistake acting as being pretence. Good acting is quite the opposite – it’s truthful.
For an actor to move an audience they have to connect with their own honest emotions. The rehearsal process for any actor in a production is to understand the character’s emotional journey and be able to replicate that within themselves. Thus they portray a fully expressive human being for an audience to relate to.
Emotional expression as exercise
Actors therefore exercise their emotional expression in the same way as athletes exercise their muscles in the gym. But you don’t have to be an actor to workout in this way. Workshops that allow participants to express various feelings as well as experiment with different levels of expression provide one of the few opportunities that people will get to really manage this area of their lives.
Participants don’t have to learn the craft of acting to be able to at least dip their toes into the realm of emotional workouts, in the safe space of a learning environment. Practising expressing different emotions in different ways can expand their range of expression and also help them develop empathy.
So what is it that actors can share of their craft that allows people to gain mastery over their emotional expressions?
In workshops people are asked to identify often subtle differences between frustration and anger, fear and need, irritation and anxiety, delight and happiness. Sometimes it’s great to simply have a 30sec rant about something or someone getting on your nerves.
Other times participants are asked to deliver a communication whilst going through a variety of different feelings, e.g. amazement, annoyance, happiness.
They’re also given the chance to practise expressing different levels of emotion. They might identify something they’re cross about and express it as if they were mildly annoyed, angry or absolutely furious.
Other times they can find different ways of expressing appreciation or joy. Again, they are asked to connect with the real instances of this in their lives and then explore a variety of ways of delivering their message. Coaching and feedback allows them to get a sense of what is the most appropriate and effective.
In such courses people have a chance to awaken their emotional intelligence, express themselves authentically and effectively, and become far more fluid in the way they experience and communicate their feelings.
The acting exercises help people develop the facility to move fluidly from one feeling to another. As such they connect with those feelings in themselves and also discover that they can let go of that emotion, ready to be present and in the moment for whatever life throws at them. Truly intelligent, agile and fluid.