Over 20 years ago, this quote inspired Carol Courcy, MCC, to study the ways in which people think and behave in different emotional states. She wondered if she could make it easier for her clients and herself to be in the “right emotion” more often. She discovered how different emotions redirect us to a more productive professional life and a more satisfied personal life, which is the basis of her new book, Save Your Inner Tortoise!
We sat down with Courcy to get some insight on emotional agility in coaching.
Q: Why the focus on emotions? Isn’t our conventional coaching wisdom enough?
A: Absolutely… until it isn’t. Let me say more. In coaching, it is logical when a client is emotionally overwhelmed to think all they have to do is simply say ‘no’ more often, improve their time management skills or take a weekend off. However, they may ignore that wisdom, work even harder and complain more. Or perhaps they hear the familiar urging from bosses, colleagues or family to “get over it” when we are grumpy, frustrated or burned out—only to increase their upset. Sometimes we (and our clients) know EXACTLY what we should say or do and yet we do not do it. It is not a character flaw.
Q: So how do we fix it? What is missing?
A: Emotional agility. Revisiting the Aristotle quote may help you understand what I mean. I define emotional agility as being able to enter and exit emotions with intentionality. In other words, if you think that anger is the wrong approach, can you shift into a “more right” emotion (firmness, calmness, curiosity, acceptance) at the right time, to the right degree, with the right person and for the right purpose?
Q: How is emotional agility a key component to effective coaching?
A: When they are stuck our clients are missing the right emotion for the task or relationship at hand. Here’s an example. If plagued by procrastination, a client is likely activating too much openness and flexibility (not optimal for completion) and missing “deadline making” emotions like focus and determination. Being agile means shifting to determination long enough to complete the project as promised. Return to openness when creativity or possibility thinking is the goal.
Luckily for me in 1994, emotions, as a domain of learning and coaching, were a key component in my coach training with The Newfield Network. I learned two important factors.
1) Emotions are pre-dispositions to action. My studies looked carefully into four basic emotions: resentment, ambition, acceptance and resignation. Every emotion has patterns: What is automatic? What do we often say, do and feel? What is predictable in tone of voice? For example, when immersed in resentment we tend to look for who or what is to blame; not focusing on solutions. However, it’s quite the opposite when in ambition where we eagerly seek opportunities or new answers. When acceptance or satisfaction is activated, more calmness is evident and one is able to leave a situation as is—for now or forever.
2) We can learn new emotions. Although we are quite predictable in our old emotional patterns, we are not condemned to repeat them. Two books fueled my curiosity. A General Theory of Love (Lewis, Amini and Lannon) introduced emotional reverberation – where a dominant emotion influences what is seen and not seen; done and not done; said and not said. The second was Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. It showed that even if pessimistic, we could learn to be more optimistic. I was fascinated. How can we be pre-disposed to new behaviors? Learn and practice a different emotion. We ARE what we practice! Moving from resentment to acceptance means practicing acceptance daily until it takes hold in you.
Q: How did those books lead you to writing a book of your own?
A: At the time, something was missing in those and other books. I was left wondering, “How DO I/we do it? Where’s the roadmap?” Thus began the development of my unique methodology for increasing emotional agility. Save Your Inner Tortoise! is a guidebook full of practices, activities, ideas and lessons. My mission in life is to add plenty of refreshing visits to satisfaction, joy and peace for those plagued by doubt, self- criticism or a nagging sense of insufficiency.
Along the way I discovered my own pattern of resentment. While mostly pretending to be OK, I silently blamed the economy, my employer or my clients for my unhappiness and discontent. Although it was an uncomfortable realization at the time, going from resentment to lightness was my first emotional agility “learning project”!
Q: How did you personally change from resentment to lightness, and how is that expressed in your book?
A: In my book I feature four steps to more emotional agility. Step 1 is awareness. I noticed the pattern to my resenting. I was always complaining but not to the person who could resolve anything. I never offered ideas or solutions. At executive team meetings, our agenda always included identifying mistakes and who was at fault—BEFORE solving them. With people defending their positions, we often went over time without solutions and scheduled more meetings. And then came
my “aha moment.” No wonder I was a skilled resenter! I spent most of my day there! If I wanted more lightness, I needed a lightness habit, and that’s Step 2. I began to log my resentful ways and over the next few months I began doing the opposite. At my own team meetings I proposed we find solutions to mistakes BEFORE discussing blame. I skipped break room complaining by taking “centering” breaks or walks to avoid the temptation to whine and blame.
Q: That’s the trick? Doing the opposite?
A: Yes—one of many tricks. To build confidence and self-trust, my client’s first task is finding simple ways to do the opposite of what they are pre-disposed to do and know is off target.
Q: How did you develop Steps 3 and 4, and what are they?
A: Steps 3 and 4 help you design a wider variety of emotions for your emotional wardrobe. More choices = more agility. Undoing my decades old resenting habit for more lightness took practicing a variety of emotions. I wasn’t used to my being lighthearted nor were my family and co- workers. I had to learn playfulness, patience, dignity, determination and trust as well as healthy anger, distrust and sadness. From resenting’s muteness those new emotions helped me say yes when I meant yes, no when I meant no and speak up for myself. (It wasn’t always smooth sailing. Sometimes I wanted to be right instead of happy.) I practiced each one of these emotions for as long as I needed to sustain my growing habit of happiness and satisfaction.
Q: This topic is an appetizer to a great meal! What will you leave us with?
A: I’ll leave you with this from Gabriel Garcia Marquez “Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them; life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”