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Brain Say What?

Brain Say What? Emotional Agility in a VUCA world

Brain Say What? Emotional Agility in a VUCA world


Emotions. We all have them. They are a part of our shared human experience. But, what do we do with them when they creep up at work and sabotage our productivity, relationships, and reputations? I frequently work with clients who tell me their goal is to eliminate {insert emotion here}. My typical response to this goal is that they have “dead people goals”. Our emotions are impossible to suppress. In fact, the more we try to suppress them, the stronger they will become. Anxiety, anger, guilt… these are all examples of emotions that are often uncomfortable, but important indicators of our internal condition. And while there may be prevailing wisdom that says emotions have no place at the office, the truth is, all humans (in the office or not) have an inner stream of thoughts and feelings that include doubt, fear, and self-consciousness. In fact, this is just how our brains were designed to operate: to use facts to make sense of the world, problem solve, and avoid danger.

According to Susan David, founder of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching and faculty at Harvard University, we see leaders stumble not because they have undesirable thoughts and feelings—that’s inevitable—but because they get hooked by them, like fish caught on a line.” The ways we often get hooked by our undesirable thoughts and emotions include believing the thoughts/stories we tell ourselves and treat them as facts (and avoid situations that bring them up), or we try to rationalize them (and force ourselves into situations that may go against our values). Either way, the thoughts and emotions from our internal chatter take up an excessive amount of our cognitive resources and have unintended results like overworking and underproducing, avoidance, and distraction.

What can we do if we find ourselves hooked in our undesirable thoughts and feelings?  Approach them in a values-driven, and productive way. Instead of having “dead people’s goals”, practice this emotional agility model (adapted from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy [ACT], originally developed by the University of Nevada psychologist Steven C. Hayes) ALIVE.

ALIVE stands for:

Awareness: recognizing your patterns

Label: label thoughts and emotions

Invite: invite all emotions and thoughts in and ACCEPT them (make space for them)

Values Enactment: consider your values and act accordingly



The first step in changing any behavior is awareness. You must notice when you’ve been hooked by a thought or emotion. This can be hard to do, but examples include: repetitive thinking (thinking the same thought over and over), familiar story (a “go-to” story you tell yourself in response to others’ behaviors), a feeling of “dread” or being “stuck”. Before moving forward, we have to realize we are stuck.


Meditation creates space in our minds to become aware of our internal incessant chatter and helps us to realize that our inner dialogue is just that…chatter. An effective approach to building emotional agility is to use that same observation technique and label our thoughts and emotions as just that- thoughts and emotions. This can also be helpful for recognizing what facts we have and what stories our brains make up as a result of these facts. We may recognize thought patterns here as well.

For example, when we label our thoughts and emotions, the thought “My colleague is completely wrong- he is making me really angry” becomes “I’m having the thought that my colleague is wrong, and I’m feeling anger.” This also helps us to take ownership of our experiences and gain control of our responses.


It may seem counterintuitive, but the more we try to control our thoughts and emotions, the more out of control we become. The opposite of control is acceptance. Inviting our most uncomfortable emotions in and making friends with them by paying attention and allowing ourselves to experience them. This may not make us feel better, but it provides an opportunity for us to show ourselves and others compassion. Then we can take an honest assessment of the situation and, instead of taking some of these squelched feelings out on others, we can respond in a more meaningful and productive way.

Values Enactment

When we aren’t consumed by our internal condition, our options expand and our values can be honored. We are then open to answer important questions about how we may want to respond. Consider asking these questions to get at your values and how you can productively respond:

“What is really important to me about this… situation, relationship, project?”

“What do I really want for this situation, relationship, project?”

“How would I act if that result is what I really want?”

“What response would serve my organization, relationship, project…?”


The mind may have incessant internal chatter that changes frequently. Our values, however, are less likely to change frequently and fortunately can be called on in any situation. If you can remember that having unpleasant thoughts and emotions is normal, you can stop having dead people’s goals and become ALIVE.


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