Book review: ‘Emotional Agility’ by Susan David


It’s seldom I read a book and say it’s potentially life-changing, but this is one of those books. Many psychology books can be so caught up in their academic provenance and methodology that they don’t connect with a wide enough audience to really make a difference. On the other hand, ‘pop psychology’ books can become best-sellers in the hands of clever writers, yet lack the robust first-hand knowledge that a practising psychologist can bring to the text.

Susan David is a psychologist (at Harvard no less) who, with this book, has pulled off the feat of making sound psych research accessible, everyday and practical. The reader definitely doesn’t have to have studied psychology to get heaps of benefits from working through this book.

I was fortunate to be in the audience when Susan spoke at the RSA earlier this year (you can see the edited highlights here), when she outlined the basic premise of ‘Emotional Agility’: that most of us are unwittingly ‘hooked’ by our own dubious internal stories and narratives on a regular basis and allow ourselves to stay hooked – ultimately becoming emotionally rigid. When we get hooked we can become a ‘bottler’ or a ‘brooder’ – neither of which are helpful.

So how do we get ‘unhooked’? Thankfully, we’re not advised to get all happy-clappy – indeed, there’s a section entitled ‘the upside of anger’ – we need to ‘show up’ to our emotions, and recognise them for what they are. They may be old scripts we have learned and installed; they may have good intentions (but bad results). Once we face up to the scary things our old narratives were trying to protect us from, we can break free of the internal tug of war and as Susan puts it, ‘drop the rope’.

From here, the book takes a more practical turn, with simple methods to ‘step out’ (of old patterns), ‘walk your Why’ (align with our values), and ‘move on’ by making ‘Tiny Tweaks’. There’s sound advice for all kinds of everyday situations, from eating more healthily, to emotional agility in the workplace and parenting. All this is peppered with common-sense tips along with great coaching questions that encourage reflection.

Highly recommended, ‘Emotional Agility’ can be ordered via this link.

For a flavour of Susan David’s writing, her highly popular Harvard Business Review article can be found here.

You can also listen to her HBR Ideacast here

You may also find these blog posts useful:
Tune into your self-talk
‘Sleight of mouth’ suppresses our emotions.


Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’, available at selected branches of WH Smith and on Amazon.

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