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  • Writer's pictureErma Steyn

From Emotionally Reactive to Emotionally Agile

By Erma Steyn

Despite our best intentions, we can act and speak in ways we later regret when we find ourselves at odds with others or with our circumstances. We intuitively know that being emotionally calm, skilled and agile is a good thing. Yet, when people or situations upset or frustrate us, we can get emotionally triggered and hooked (like a fish caught on a line) before we quite realise it. From there it is a short step to saying or doing something unproductive - like lashing out in irritation. Our emotional reactivity and how we speak and act when triggered is often the source of disconnect, distress and conflict in our relationships, work teams and families.

The good news is that we don’t have to live at the mercy of our emotional experiences. We can take charge of our emotional lives if we are able to catch ourselves in the moment and work to make an emotional shift in real time. When we succeed at shifting our emotional space, a different world appears for us and a whole new range of possibilities become available.

Emotional Learning

From an ontological perspective, we humans are always in some emotional space or another. Although our feelings are always with us, our fast-paced lives mean we are often seldom not "with" or present to them. Yet it is our emotions that mobilise and move us – towards some people, experiences, situations, and away from others. When we lack awareness in the moment of what is happening for us emotionally, it can feel like our emotions are happening to us and "run us" – like we are at their mercy. However, if we expand our capacity for emotional learning in real time, we can substantially improve our work and home lives.

It is worth remembering that we have been doing emotional learning since birth. We already know how. According to Sue Gerhart in her book Why Love Matters, human babies are the most socially influenced creatures on earth: biologically primed to be completely open to learning about what their emotions are and how to manage them. It is our social brain and nervous system that learn how to manage feelings and it does so in relationship with other people.

As adults our emotional learning centres around the second order learning processes of:

  • becoming more emotionally literate – i.e. adept at recognising, accepting and being with what we are feeling and experiencing in the moment, as it is happening;

  • considering whether our current emotion is indeed the one we want to act and engage from; and

  • becoming skilled at working with our emotions in real time to shift into resourceful emotional spaces from where we can act purposefully and productively. This however, takes practice.

What is Emotional Agility?

Emotional Agility is the processes that allow us to be present in the moment, choose our feelings, thoughts, words and actions deliberately and respond optimally - so that we can live in ways that align with our intentions and values.

When we are emotionally agile, we come to our inner world with acceptance, courage, compassion and curiosity. Instead of our inner experiences holding us hostage, shrinking our lives, or clouding our interactions, emotional agility supports us to learn from them, evaluate the situations we face, be clear-sighted about our options; and move forward with purpose. In coaching where the focus has been on developing this critical skillset, clients have been able to make real changes, substantially improve their relationships and thrive in their work and home lives. What would be possible in your life if you developed greater emotional agility?

Five Emotional Learning Processes that leads to Emotional Agility

Let’s look at how we go about building the habits and skills to achieve agility in real time. It is helpful to see the road to emotional agility as a series of five complementary and cumulative emotional learning processes. The final processes are only accessible to us if we managed the initial processes and conversely, mastering the early processes make the critical final two not just possible, but probable. With practice, continuous learning from and reflection on our emotional responses, we become more able to access them in "the heat of the moment".

1. Notice & Name

We cannot influence nor change what we cannot see. To notice and recognise our emotional experience in the moment is the foundational emotional skill. As we do so, we also want to notice our accompanying breathing and locate where in our body we are aware of the feeling. Realising that our emotions are embodied means we can use our body as a valuable source of learning.

A growing body of research reveals that labelling or naming an emotion as closely and specifically as we can, tempers that emotion and reduces its impact. This is because the cognitive process of labelling an emotion decreases the response in the amygdala and increases activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex which is where we process emotions and inhibit behaviour, or "hit the brakes" on our responses. To do this well - to granularly name exactly what we are feeling - we need a nuanced and expanded emotional vocabulary, according to Susan David. The next time we experience a strong and distressing emotion, she advises us to consider what word best describe it. Then she advises us to come up with two more words to describe what we are feeling. Doing this connects us to the breath and layers of our emotion: we might even unearth a deeper emotion buried beneath the more obvious one.

Incorrectly diagnosing our emotion leads us to respond incorrectly, while accurately naming our emotion enable us to use them as information about our current situation, figure out how to best go about modifying how we feel, and work out what to do next.

2. Allow & Adjust

Now that we can name exactly what we are experiencing, we want to press the "pause" button to allow for the emotion to be what it is, without trying to fix or avoid anything. We want to accept, and even welcome what it is we are feeling - without getting overwhelmed or engulfed by it. With slow steady breathing we can hold a calm presence which gives us the capacity to let the feeling pass through us ... and to keep going ... into the space beyond, losing its hold on us. In doing so we are creating a gap - an open, non-judgemental space - between how we feel and what we do about the feeling. This is what makes emotional agility possible.

Sometimes breathing is not enough and we also want to call on the skills to adjust and regulate our emotions. Emotion regulation means we monitor, guide, modify and moderate or decrease the intensity of overwhelming emotional responses to a workable level. We can deploy mindful breathing, meditation, self-soothing, humour and other body techniques. We can also use cognitive and linguistic strategies like positive reappraisal, situation modification, perspective, positive refocusing, planning and healthy distraction. Adjusting our emotional experience to a manageable level allows us to be fully present to our emotions in the moment without letting them run us. We have now managed ourselves into a position to start a learning conversation with our emotion.

3. Investigate & Learn

At this point it is worth remembering that our emotions (particularly strong ones) are our body’s signalling system. They are signposts to what matters to us. Regardless of how distressing an emotion is, we want to thank it for bringing our attention to something important. If we legitimise what we feel we can hear its message, interpret it and learn from it. As we enter into conversation with our emotion we want to attentively ask it questions like: What are you trying to tell me? And: What do you want to take care of for me?

Because particularly strong emotions give us shortcut access to what matters deeply to us, we want to mine even the most difficult emotions for data and insight that can help us make better decisions and take more productive action. As we appraise, investigate and aim to understand an emotion, Dan Newby suggests that we focus on three areas:

  • What is the story that goes with this emotion? What have I been telling myself that has resulted in this emotion?

  • What is the impulse of this emotion? What does this emotion move me to do (or not do)?

  • What is the purpose of this emotion? What job is it trying to do for me? What aspect of my life is it trying to take care of?

With the insight from this inquiry, we are now ready to orient ourselves to the future, using what we learnt about our emotion and concerns to inform where we go to from here.

4. Choose & Cultivate Resourceful Emotions

Having unhooked and then learnt from an emotion, we now find ourselves at a moment of choice. This is where we realise that we have options and can choose what emotion we want to operate from going forward. Now we can design what we want to we say or do from that emotion.

Victor Frankl said, "Between stimulus and response there is a space ... In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." We now want to intentionally choose a resourceful emotional space to progress from and then inhabit it. This is only possible if we have successfully applied our learning from the first three processes and have calmed our nervous system sufficiently to give us access to our lateral, creative and problem-solving capacities.

In effect we are choosing who and how we want to be in the situation. A productive choice of emotion at this juncture is one that is aligned with our emotional and relational goals. Zooming out to gain some perspective is helpful here. We can ask ourselves: What is the bigger picture here? What really matters to me? What do I want for this relationship? We can use the answers to these questions to design what we will say or do next and to choose an emotion that would best position us to do this.

Each emotion is associated with a typical predisposition for action, which provides a range of perceptual and behavioural possibilities, and provides us with a set of ways in which we can take care of our concerns. For example, from an emotional space of blind rage, forgiveness seems inaccessible. Lashing out at the person we are so angry with is a much more likely outcome. However, from a chosen emotion of compassion for the differences between me and another, forgiveness might be easier to get to. According to Dan Newby, the story of compassion is that "I am with you in your challenges, I see your difficulty, as well as my own and we are in this together". Compassion moves us towards others in the moment, supports us to care about and orients us to partner with others.

We can creatively devise strategies to cultivate our chosen emotion. Using our body and postural adjustments, using our breathing, and using music and movement are all examples of ways to shift into helpful emotional spaces. To enable the shift into compassion for example, I could start with breathing out anger/rage and breathing in understanding, curiosity and compassion for myself and the other with every breath. I could focus on letting go of the tightness and muscle tension associated with rage (e.g. in my face and jaw). I could aim to unclench my hands and extend my arms slightly, so my upper body is not hunched, but expanded and open hearted. This could help me be more interested and possibly ask some questions (instead of making accusations). This in turn is sure to bring new information into play and as I start to engage more and learn more, my rage subsides more, and I am more empathic. What strategies have you tried to shift into more resourceful emotional spaces?

5. Design Resourceful Action

So far we have quietly been buying time, calming ourselves, figuring out what is really going on and started to move ourselves into a more helpful place to deal with things. Only now do we actually do or say something. Now we design what words we want to speak and what actions we want to take. Instead of indulging in what our stories and emotions are insisting on (e.g. defend yourself, get even, or push back), we could rather choose behaviours based on our values and objectives. Our values are constant a¬nd can act as navigational tools for our actions.

Shifting into more resourceful emotions, means a whole new range of actions and conversations become possible. In our earlier "rage to compassion" scenario, let us assume the rage stems from an assessment that someone acted unfairly towards me. From that raging anger I have access to a very limited range of responses, many of which could lead to conflict. I am also likely to betray my values of for example, dignity and respect. If I choose and work to make the shift into compassion (for my own distress and for the other person), I have access to a whole range of new responses and I can act and speak with both dignity and respect.

It is important to acknowledge that our capacity to learn from and work with our emotions in real time gets a lot better with practice. We cannot expect ourselves to get this right the first time we try, nor every time. These processes do however provide us with a how to map to guide us as we experiment, practice and learn to not get trapped in unhelpful emotions as often and for as long. Encouragingly, the learning we do working with one troublesome emotion lays down the neurological pathways and builds emotional habits that we can access with every subsequent effort.

An Invitation

We humans are relational beings and our emotions are primarily relational. Most of our emotional experiences are linked to our involvements and interactions with others and to the degree to which what matters to us are being addressed in our relationships. Therefore, the emotional condition we find ourselves in are constantly influencing others – and their emotional states in turn influence us. Our capacity to apply our emotional learning and to become more emotionally agile find its most valuable application in our significant relationships. This is the why it is so worthwhile to pay attention to and expand our emotional repertoire, make more deliberate emotional choices and ultimately to skilfully shape our emotional responses. When we are able to do so, we create richly connected relationships and meaningful, productive lives. Alice Walker recommends we: "Look closely at the present you are constructing - it should look like the future you are dreaming."

Erma Steyn is an experienced professional Executive Coach and Facilitator with 25 years’ expertise - specialising in Leadership & Team Development, Conversational Excellence, Relationship Robustness and Emotional Agility.

A registered Developmental Psychologist and an ICF accredited Coach, she is passionate about learning, eternally curious, inspired by how clients shape their stories and energised by exploring new possibilities for a fulfilled, quality life with them. This forms the foundation from which she partners with herclients to discover how they realise potential and overcome obstacles to creating the work and home life they desire.

Erma has an established coaching practice in Cape Town. Prior to becoming a full time coach she had a corporate career as an Organisation and Leadership Development consultant that culminated in a Senior Leadership position as Head of Talent Management at a large retailer. She can be contacted at

Erma’s latest offering is a 2 part "HOW TO" workshop called Emotional Agility: Thriving in Trying Times - where she guides participants through the learning processes that enables us to be emotionally agile in real time, despite the disruption, uncertainty and difficulties we face in our daily lives.


Emotional Agility by Susan David Penguin Random House, UK: 2016

The Unopened Gift – A Primer in Emotional Literacy by Dan Newby & Lucy Nunez Published in US: 2017

Why Love Matters – how affection shapes a baby’s brain by Sue Gerhardt Routledge: 2004

Buddha’s Brain – the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom by Rick Hanson New Harbinger Publications, Inc: 2009

"Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation" by Jared B. Torre, Matthew D. Lieberman. First Published March 20, 2018.

"Feelings Into Words: Contributions of Language to Exposure Therapy" by Katharina Kircanski, Matthew D. Lieberman, and Michelle G. Craske Psychological Science. 2012 Oct 1; 23(10): 1086–1091.

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