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Hi, everyone. Continuing our TED Audio Collective Friday series, something a little different today, an episode from our new podcast, TED Business, featuring psychologist, researcher and author Susan David. If you enjoy it, find TED business wherever you're listening to this. I cried in a group meeting with four of my colleagues a few months ago, most of them I've known worked with and taught with for the past seven years. I know these people really, really well, but it was the first time I actually cried in a meeting with them.
And I'm not saying crying is the gold standard something we should or shouldn't do in organizations, but it was really interesting to me that I'd finally let my guard down. So let me tell you the situation. I was sharing some feedback on things we could do better in the classroom. And honestly, in sharing that feedback, I was very nervous because often in my research and in other research, it's very clear that feedback is often met with defensiveness and what happened when I gave the feedback defensiveness.
So quite frankly, I was angry and I was frustrated. I literally could feel my jaws clenching up, my hands growing sweaty in my heart, starting to palpitate, because I really wanted to say, hey, you're being defensive, stop being defensive, just listen to what I have to say.
But I didn't say anything. And the conversation continued and it continued. And the tenseness in my body grew grew even tighter. And I thought to myself, wait a minute, I'm angry and frustrated. These emotions matter. I need to say something. I needed to say something right now. And so I did. And as I was saying it, the tears started flowing.
Typically, I would beat myself up about not having emotional control or expressing my emotions inappropriately by crying, but this time I didn't do either of these things, you might ask, should I have what is the right way to engage with our emotions at work?
Welcome to Ted Business. I'm a Dupa Akinola professor at Columbia Business School. In today's talk, we'll hear from Susan David, who's a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of the book Emotional Agility.
In 2017, she gave a talk at TED Women that seemed to touch a lot of people very deeply.
And I think it's because she talks about something a lot of us need to hear that we should accept the full range of our emotions. This is hard enough to do in life and can be even more complicated in a workplace. So stick around after the talk and I'll dissect those tears I experienced and explore how we can pay attention to our emotions at work in a way that makes our work better.
Hello, everyone, so Abana in South Africa, where I come from, so Borna is the Zulu word for hello.
There's a beautiful and powerful intention behind the word because subunit means I see you. And by seeing you, I bring you into being. So beautiful, imagine being greeted like that. But what does it take in the way we see ourselves, our thoughts, our emotions and our stories that help us to thrive in an increasingly complex and fraught world? This crucial question has been at the center of my life's work, because how we deal with our inner world drives everything, every aspect of how we love, how we live, how we parent, and how we lead.
The conventional view of emotions as good or bad, positive or negative is rigid and rigidity in the face of complexity is toxic. We need greater levels of emotional agility for true resilience and thriving. My journey with his calling began not in the hallowed halls of a university, but in the messy, tender business of life, I grew up in the white suburbs of apartheid South Africa, a country and community committed to not seeing, to denial, its denial that makes 50 years of racist legislation possible while people convince themselves that they are doing nothing wrong.
And yet I first learned of the destructive power of denial at a personal level before I understood what it was doing to the country of my birth. My father died on a Friday. He was 42 years old and I was 15, my mother whispered to me to go and say goodbye to my father before I went to school. So I put my backpack down and walked the passage that ran through to where the heart of our home. My father lay dying of cancer.
His eyes were closed, but he knew I was there in his presence. I had always felt in. I told him I loved him, said goodbye and headed off for my day. At school, I drifted from science to mathematics to history to biology as my father slipped from the world from May to July to September to November.
I went about with my usual smile. I didn't drop a single grade. When asked how he's doing, I would shrug and say, OK. I was praised for being strong. I was the master of being OK. But back home, we struggled. My father hadn't been able to keep his small business going during his illness, and my mother alone was grieving the love of her life, trying to raise three children. And the creditors were knocking. We felt as a family, financially and emotionally ravaged, and I began to spiral down, isolated fast.
I started to use food to numb my pain, bingeing and purging, refusing to accept the full weight of my grief.
No one knew. And in a culture that values relentless positivity, I thought that no one wanted to know.
But one person did not buy into my story of triumph over grief, my eighth grade English teacher fixed me with burning blue eyes as she handed out blank notebooks. She said, Write what you're feeling. Tell the truth. Right, like nobody's reading. And just like that, I was invited to show up authentically to my grief and pain. It was a simple act, but nothing short of a revolution for me. It was the revolution that started in this blank notebook 30 years ago that shaped my life's work, the secret, silent correspondence with myself like a gymnast.
I started to move beyond the rigidity of denial into what I have now come to call emotional agility. Life's beauty is inseparable from its fragility. We are young until we are not. We walk down the street sexy until one day we realize that we are unseen. We nag our children and one day realize that there is silence with a child once was now making his or her way in the world. We are healthy until a diagnosis brings us to our knees.
The only certainty is uncertainty, and yet we are not navigating this frailty successfully or sustainably.
The World Health Organization tells us that depression is now the single leading cause of disability globally and at a time of greater complexity, unprecedented technological, political and economic change, we are seeing how people's tendency is more and more to lock down into rigid responses to their emotions.
On the one hand, we might obsessively brood on our feelings. Getting stuck inside our heads, hooked on being right or victimized by our news feed. On the other, we might bottle our emotions, pushing them aside and permitting only those emotions deemed legitimate. In a survey I recently conducted with over 70000 people, I found that a third of us, a third, either judge ourselves for having so-called bad emotions like sadness, anger or even grief.
Or actively try to push aside these feelings. We do this not only to ourselves, but also to people we love, like our children, we may inadvertently shame them out of emotion, seen as negative, jumped to solution and fail to help them to see these emotions as inherently valuable.
Normal natural emotions are now seen as good or bad. And being positive has become a new form of moral correctness. People with cancer are automatically told to just stay positive. Woman to stop being so angry. And the list goes on. It's a tyranny, it's a tyranny of positivity. And it's cruel. And kind. And ineffective. And we do it ourselves. And we do it to others. If there's one common feature of brooding, bottling or positivity, it's this.
They are all rigid responses. And if there's a single lesson we can learn from the inevitable fall of apartheid, it is that rigid denial doesn't work. It's unsustainable. For individuals, for families, for societies, and as we watch the ice caps melt, it is unsustainable for our planet. Research on emotional suppression shows that when emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger. Psychologists call this amplification like that delicious chocolate cake in the refrigerator. The more you try to ignore it.
The greater its hold on you, you might think you're in control of unwanted emotions when you ignore them, but in fact they control you. Internal pain always comes out always and who pays the price we do our children. Our colleagues. Our communities. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not anti happiness. I like being happy. I'm a pretty happy person.
But when we push aside normal emotions to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world as it is.
Not as we wish it to be. I've had hundreds of people tell me what they don't want to feel. They say things like, I don't want to try because I don't want to feel disappointed. Or I just want this feeling to go away. I understand I said to them, but you have dead people's goals. Only dead people never get unwanted or inconvenienced by their feelings, only dead people never get stressed, never get broken hearts, never experience the disappointment that comes with failure.
Tough emotions are part of our contract with life. You don't get to have a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort. Discomfort is the price of admission. To a meaningful life. So how do we begin to dismantle rigidity and embrace emotional agility? As that young schoolgirl when I leaned into those blank pages. I started to do away with feelings of what I should be experiencing and instead started to open my heart to what I did feel pain and grief.
And loss and regret. Research now shows that the radical acceptance of all of our emotions, even the messy, difficult ones, is the cornerstone to resilience, thriving and true authentic happiness. Emotional agility is more than just an acceptance of emotions, we also know that accuracy matters. In my own research, I found that words are essential.
We often use quick and easy labels to describe our feelings. I'm stressed is the most common one I hear. But there's a world of difference between stress and disappointment or stress and that knowing dread of I'm in the wrong career, when we label our emotions accurately, we are more able to discern the precise cause of our feelings and what scientists call the readiness. Potential in our brain is activated, allowing us to take concrete steps, but not just any steps, the right steps for us, because our emotions are data.
Our emotions contain flashing lights to things that we care about. We tend not to feel strong emotion to stuff that doesn't mean anything in our world.
If you feel rage when you read the news that rage is a signpost, perhaps, that you value equity and fairness and an opportunity to take active steps to shape your life in that direction. When we are open to the difficult emotions, we are able to generate responses that are values aligned. But there's an important caveat, emotions are data, they are not directives we can show up to and mine our emotions for their values without needing to listen to them, just like I can show up to my son in his frustration with his baby sister.
But not endorse his idea that he gets to give her away to the first stranger he sees in a shopping mall. We own our emotions.
They don't own us. When we internalize the difference between how I feel and all my wisdom and what I do in a values aligned action. We generate the pathway to our best selves via our emotions. So what does this look like in practice? When you feel a strong, tough emotion, don't raise for the emotional exercise. Learn its contours, show up to the Journal of Your Heart's. What is the emotion telling you? And try not to say I am, as in I am angry or I am sad when you say I am, it makes you sound as if you are the emotion, whereas you are you and the emotion is datasource.
Instead, try to notice the feeling for what it is. I'm noticing that I am feeling sad or I'm noticing that I'm feeling angry.
These are essential skills for us, our families, our communities, they are also critical to the workplace. In my research, when I looked at what helps people to bring the best of themselves to work, I found a powerful, key contributor, individualized consideration when people are allowed to feel their emotional truth. Engagement, creativity and innovation flourish in the organization. Diversity isn't just people, it's also what's inside people, including diversity of emotion. The most agile, resilient individuals, teams, organizations, families, communities are built on an openness to the normal human emotions.
It's this that allows us to say, what is my emotion? Telling me which action will bring me towards my values, which will take me away from my values. Emotional agility is the ability to be with your emotions, with curiosity, compassion, and especially the courage to take values, connected steps. When I was little, I would wake up at night terrified by the idea of death. My father would comfort me with soft pets and kisses, but he would never lie.
We all die, Susie, he would say. It's normal to be scared. He didn't try to invent a buffer between me and reality. It took me a while to understand the power of how he guided me through those nights. What he showed me is that courage is not an absence of fear. Courage is fear walking. Neither of us knew that in 10 short years he would be gone. And the time for each of us is all too precious and all too brief.
But when our moment comes. To face our fragility in that ultimate time, it will ask us, are you agile? Are you agile? Let the moment be an unreserved yes. A yes, born of a lifelong correspondence with your own heart. And in seeing yourself. Because in seeing yourself, you are also able to see others to. The only sustainable way forward. In a fragile, beautiful world. Suburb, honor and thank you. Susan Davids talk is so comforting, I feel I can breathe again after listening to it, it helps validate the fact that we all hold in so much we brewed bottle up and carry around the heavy weight that comes with needing to be positive, even though there's so many situations around us that are sometimes sad or difficult or even tragic.
Many of Susan's examples focused on how this response can weigh us down in our personal lives. But I want to focus on what it can look like in our work lives where emotional agility can be even more complicated to start. I want to identify two systems of thinking outlined by behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman.
Simply enough, they're called System one and System two. System one is a mode of thinking that is quick, instinctive and emotional. It tells us that we want to eat the chocolate cake in the fridge, that we should sell stock when its value plummets, that we're angry when someone has given us negative feedback, in contrast system to a slower, more logical and more deliberative. It tells us we should wait until after dinner to eat the chocolate cake to be patient.
The stock market can be volatile. That negative feedback is warranted. Since you did make a few mistakes. The advice in business contexts is often that we should learn to disregard and ignore the emotional, fast acting system. One Instead, we should be logical, steady. The ultimate professional is supposed to be stoic, but like Susan said, emotions are their own form of data. And when we ignore our emotions, we're missing important data points.
So how then should we bring our emotions to work? The reality is we need both systems one and two, and we need to engage them. When your emotions are going haywire, you can use your logical system to to choose to slow down, to pay attention and to understand what that emotion is trying to tell you, rather than following your instinct and pushing the difficult emotions away. Engage both systems so that you can make thoughtful decisions with your emotions in mind.
Remember when I said I hadn't cried in a meeting with work colleagues I've talked with for over seven years? That's because most of my life I've suppressed my emotions at work and often not at work. I felt like that cartoon character, the one with the steam coming out of their ears because they're so frustrated.
Now, imagine that steam just building up inside of you. Why? Because I'm often the only woman in mostly male environments, the only black person in all white environments. And when you're in these situations, it's so easy to stay quiet because you don't want to say something that makes you even more of an outlier. Should I say this? Will they get it? Is this perspective unique to my gender, race or something else? You're so focused on making sure you fit in that everyone around you is OK and happy and cool.
You're so tuned in to everyone else's emotions that eventually you end up losing touch with yourself and often with your own emotions completely. And that's what happened to me, which means I've missed a lot of signals in my life staying in a job longer than I should have doing work. I wasn't passionate about making life decisions based on other people's needs, not my own.
Then an acupuncturist gave me the exact same advice as Susan gave us here. Identify my feelings with precision and practice, just sitting with them. So I've developed a process that's my own form of Susan's blank notebook, a process for sitting with my emotions and being present with them on a daily basis and just noticing them, using them as data, telling me whether I need to act in some way or another. And seven years later, the signal I got in that group meeting is that I was sad, angry and upset.
And being aware of this helped me decide that the right thing to do at that moment was to share these emotions with my colleagues.
In the past, I would have kept the steam inside building up, fearing I might offend if I spoke up. But this time I spoke up through tears, which allowed us to push through a very difficult conversation. It also showed us that when we're in touch with our emotions at work and when we're thoughtful about how we engage them, this provides data your team can use to collectively problem solve.
Thanks for listening. This show is produced by Kim Netafim, Pietrzak Dandala is our mixer and special thanks to Colin Helms, Michelle Quint, Angela Chang, Corey, Jim and Anna Feeling.
I'll talk to you again next week.