Are you aware that your emotions contain signposts linked to your values?  When experiencing tough emotions, do you avoid them? Susan David Ph.D has made a career of asking these questions and researching the value of emotions. Her concept of emotional agility, 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”, is a method which Harvard Business Review declared as the Management Idea of the Year (2013). We had the honour of interviewing Susan at the World Business Forum Sydney to learn more about her groundbreaking work.

Best selling author, Harvard Medical School psychologist and international speaker Susan David PhD knows a thing or two about emotions. Her work, borne from personal experience with grief in her childhood, challenges what she terms is a societal norm of “thinking positively.” Our need for everything to be okay, warns Susan, and our propensity to label emotions good and bad are affecting our wellbeing and our ability to lead, succeed and even to parent. One of our faults as a society is that we label emotions as good and bad. Joy and happiness are good, anger and grief are not good. According to Susan “discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” And yet we belong to a culture which attempts to quash and quieten difficult emotions such as anger, shame and sadness.  But by doing so are we missing out on a meaningful life? Emotions, whether good or bad, have evolved in us to help us to respond or even survive.

Susan refers to the commercial industry of happiness; we are pressured to buy this, take that, do this and you will be happy.  But in putting a band-aid over the difficult emotions, Susan wisely notes “suppressed emotions inevitably surface in unintended ways.” And sometimes that turns up looking ugly. Like when we lash out at our loved ones. “Unnamed emotions cause uncontrollable stress,” explains Susan. Susan clarifies that just because we feel an emotion it doesn’t mean we have the right to act on it, “But our emotions contain signposts.  Just because I feel guilty about my children doesn’t mean that I should feel guilty, but it often means there’s a value that sits beneath it, the value of connecting with my children and that I’m not feeling enough of it.” In Susan’s TED talk “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage” which has had over 5 million views, Susan connected with the world by using the Zulu greeting “Sawubona” which translates as “I see you,” and shared how important it is as humans to be seen or felt seen in our entirety.

An Interview

You say that courage is fear walking. What does courage look like to you and whose courage has inspired you?

My Father, who I speak about in my talk has inspired me.   He was never one of those people who would say to me, “just be positive…” He always had the courage to see me as I am, fearful, upset. The “Sawubona.” What that meant was at times I was fearful, but he was able to enter into that space with me and just see me. And that’s not an easy thing to do as a human being.  There’s a certain courage in just being with another person in a way that’s not flippant, that just allows that person to be seen.  When I look at the most effective leaders, I think that courageous leadership is very rarely about the inspirational speeches and it’s much more about the micro moments of people feeling seen and that involves the leader standing in courage. For leaders, listening takes courage. Hearing “I don’t agree with this transformation in the organisation, or I am worried about what this means for my job or I don’t think we are being led effectively,” for most leaders is difficult to hear. It takes courage for a leader to move into a space of vulnerability and say: “What is this emotion that this person is experiencing? What does it teach me? And what does it teach me about what is important to this person?”

Being able to move beyond the space of saying, “I have to own every single solution.” When you move into a space where you’re able to be with another person, then you are co-creating something, but it takes courage. It takes courage to put down that sense of, “it’s all on me. I’ve got to have all the answers.”

If courageous leadership involves helping people feel seen, does that mean wellbeing is not an individual’s responsibility?

It’s so easy when people are going through difficult situations to say, “you should just be positive” or “everything will be okay.” We experience this narrative in society: Positive vibes only. Just choose happiness. It’s all about what’s inside you…Your child, for example, comes home from school and is upset, and we say, “it’s okay.” But it’s not okay. There’s so much systemic injustice that exists in the world. And so, sometimes the idea of, “it’s okay” or you can just choose happiness, can abrogate societal responsibility. And I’m not suggesting for a moment that our thoughts and emotions don’t matter, but it does put the responsibility of wellbeing on the individual and it starts to take away our societal responsibility to recognise how our social policies, and our organisational policies around workplace wellness, flexibility and mobility can and do impact on your wellbeing.

You talk a lot about self-compassion and how it creates psychological safety within ourselves and an environment where we’re more likely to take risks.  Also how we recognise we’re doing the best we can with who we are, what we’ve got and the resources we’ve been given in life. Do you practise self-compassion? Are you kind to yourself? 

I am always kind to myself. I never try and talk myself out of emotions. If I’m feeling something, I never judge myself for that feeling. For example, I never think “I shouldn’t feel that.” But I have learned that over time. I definitely went through a stage where I would judge myself and I was treating myself in a way that I wouldn’t treat a friend. One of the things that are really important to me is creating little pockets in the day that are my space and my time and I don’t make myself feel guilty about those. My research has helped me with this. Because self-compassion, especially in leaders, is thought to come across as being soft, weak or lazy.  In fact, the research shows the opposite. The research shows that when people are kind to themselves, they’re more honest, they’re more motivated, they don’t let themselves off the hook. Because what they’re doing is creating a space for themselves, in which they are ok even if they fail. And it’s those people who are more willing to take risks.

Barbara Harvey