Viewing Susan David’s New York Times bestseller through the lens of Six Seconds Model of Emotional Intelligence

What image comes up for you when you think of the word agile? Perhaps it’s of an athlete – a gymnast or a pole vaulter competing at the Olympic Games. Or even in a more sedentary sport, such as golf. The speed of swing, the movement of hips, the pace of the green – these are all factors that influence the number of strokes needed to make par or better. And what comes to mind when you think of the opposite of agile? Maybe you’ve been unfortunate enough to have had a hip replaced or you’ve experienced the excruciating pain of a slipped disc in your lower back. Rigid, stiff, slow-moving, brittle. There may have been a lot of healing, stretching, and exercising needed before you recovered some of the former agility you once enjoyed.

When we think of the human body, agile implies speed and ease. But what about our inner world? The rich inner landscape of thoughts and feelings and emotions. What does it mean to be emotionally agile? Susan David is a South African born, Harvard psychologist and author of a recent book on this topic. I first came across her in a Ted Talk and then read her article on Three ways to better understand your emotions in the Harvard Business Review. According to her, emotional agility is, “a process that allows you to be in the moment, changing or maintaining your behaviours so that you can live in ways that align with your intentions and values. This process isn’t about ignoring difficult emotions and thoughts. It’s about holding these emotions and thoughts loosely, facing them courageously and compassionately, and then moving past them to make big things happen in your life”.

Something that struck me early on in her book (and self-evident in this statement) is that she often talks about thoughts and behaviours rather than about emotions. And with good reason too. One of the tools I use in my role as an Emotional Intelligence Practitioner with Six Seconds are TFA Cards (stands for Thoughts, Feelings and Actions). These invite us to reflect on a reaction and search for an alternative where we choose to respond intentionally rather than react. This ties in neatly with the first of eight emotional intelligence skills in the Six Seconds EQ model – that of recognising patterns. After all, it’s only when we know ourselves that we can choose how to act in line with our values and give ourselves what it is we truly need to live a life of meaning, purpose, and fulfilment. David proposes a model of her own – a four-step action plan to find and maintain your emotional agility. Showing up (facing your emotions), stepping out (detaching from habitual stories that keep you hooked), walking your why (identifying your core values and take the long view of your life), and moving on (setting goals and making tiny tweaks to your routine).

Showing up, she says, “requires guts”. Many of us bottle up emotions or brood over past and future – a form of “emotional aspirin” that may help in the short term but is nothing more than an avoidance tactic. Sooner or later, we need to face up to the underlying emotional distress. Otherwise, emotions have a way of rising to the surface and exploding in unpredictable ways. “It’s like quicksand. The harder you struggle with your emotions, the deeper you sink”, David warns. The healthy way is to simply allow yourself to feel those emotions, to go through them, to remain open and curious to whatever comes your way. And above all to treat yourself with self-compassion. According to the Center for Mindful Self-compassion, this means treating ourselves as we would a dear friend – mindfully, with kindness, and aware of our common humanity. Increasing empathy for ourselves is the closest fit in the Six Seconds model. Her thoughts on self-compassion are some of the most powerful in the book. Compassion gives us the freedom to fail and within it the freedom to take risks that allow us to be truly creative.

Another of those eight key EQ skills from Six Seconds is emotional literacy. This means being able to accurately identify and understand feelings. It matters whether you label an emotion (or series of underlying emotions) accurately as only then can we understand what we truly need or ask for appropriate help. By saying it out loud, we take away its power over us. Name it to tame it, so the saying goes. David makes it clear that the language we use makes all the difference. For example, instead of simply saying “I am anxious”, it’s better to create some space between you and the feeling. We can say “I’m feeling anxious” or even “I’m noticing that I’m feeling anxious”. After all, you are not your feelings. And emotions are no more facts than thoughts are.

When we learn to navigate emotions, another EQ skill, we get to choose how and whether to respond to them. Emotions are a valuable source of data that tell us about what is important to us and to motivate us. When we create the space to step outside ourselves and take the meta-view, we broaden our perspective and become more sensitive to context – of our own emotions and that of others. One of those core emotions that often gets in the way is fear. The author shares a story about her young son and his initial terror of diving into a swimming pool to illustrate that taking the leap, in whatever context that may be, is not about ignoring fear or fighting or fixing it. Rather, it’s about noticing and accepting all your emotions and thoughts, viewing them with compassion and curiosity, and then choosing courage over comfort to act according to your values. “Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is fear walking”. Or diving, in this case. It’s an image that I find strangely comforting.

Another memorable quote, which drew ripples of laughter from the audience at her Ted Talk, goes, “When we say, ‘I don’t want to fail’, ‘I don’t want to embarrass myself’, ‘I don’t want to get hurt’, we’re expressing what I call dead people’s goals”. The only people who never feel discomfort for having made fools of themselves are those who are no longer walking with us in this world. This really speaks to me as I’ve spent far too much time snuggled up in the warm embrace of my comfort zone. We grow and flourish when we let go of that embrace and bring a playful sense of curiosity to what awaits us outside. Not too far out mind you. Staying emotional agile requires us to find balance between over-competence and over-challenge –in her words, the See-Saw Principle.

Another vital EQ skill that can energize us, embolden us to take calculated risks, and to persevere when the going gets tough is to engage our intrinsic motivation. We gain energy from our personal values and commitments. Put another way, when you are emotionally agile, you don’t waste energy wrestling with your impulses. You act with intention. And without action, a value is merely an aspiration, rather than a way of being. Angela Duckworth describes grit, in her eponymous book, as passion and sustained persistence in trying to achieve a goal over the very long haul, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way. David, however, cautions against grit for grits sake. In her words, it’s “grit or quit”. An emotionally agile response requires us to review our goals and to either let them go or adjust them if they are found to be unattainable. Notwithstanding the fact that our values can also evolve over time. But firstly, we need to know what our values are. The Six Seconds model encourages us to go one step further and pursue our noble goals. This activates the other seven EQ competencies – a kind of rocket booster, if you will. When we do so, we are laser-focused on our daily choices to ensure that they are aligned with our vision, our mission, and our legacy. David refers to it as “walking your why”.

The Harvard psychologist makes a strong case against classifying emotions as simply good or bad and this certainly chimes with Six Seconds philosophy. She puts in a good word for negative moods (“people in ‘negative’ moods tend to be less gullible and more sceptical”) and cautions against the pursuit of happiness (“deliberately striving for it is fundamentally incompatible with the nature of happiness itself”). But she neglects to extol the virtues of exercising optimism, that is, taking a proactive perspective of hope and possibility. According to Six Seconds, an optimistic outlook increases the pool of choices and opportunity for success, helps us innovate and find solutions. In the context of emotional agility, this allows us to change perspective and remain open and curious to the constantly evolving world around us. That leaves us with one final EQ skill to talk about. Applying consequential thinking means we carefully evaluate the costs and benefits of our choices. Although David doesn’t directly allude to it in her book, one tip, which loosely corresponds to this, is to keep a diary. Not only can it create more distance between us and the thought or emotion, but it can be a great way to reflect and to identify appropriate responses by exploring options on the page.

I regard myself as an emotional intelligence practitioner rather than an expert. It’s a never-ending journey of learning and self-discovery. Emotional agility is my yoga for the heart – it offers strength, balance, and flexibility to be my authentic self and to flourish, even in hard times. Writing this article has been one more step on that journey. Thank you for taking the time to come along for some of the way.

Colin Cafferty is a Certified Emotional Intelligence Practitioner with Six Seconds and a Network Leader who hosts EQ Cafés. He is currently training to become an EQ Assessor and EQ Coach. His noble goal is to nurture emotional well-being in others to allow them flourish in service of a fairer society and a healthier planet.

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