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Emotional Flexibility + Coach People, Not Numbers

October 18, 2017

Interesting Thought: Emotional Flexibility 

Life is messy. 

Though there may be times when everything is clicking and going well—or the reverse: times when everything seems downright awful—we almost always find ourselves somewhere in the middle. Good stuff and bad stuff, all at once. We PR in a big race; get promoted at work; get m


arried; or have a child the same week that forest fires destroy the lives of thousands; policies roll back basic rights for large parts of the country; mass shooters murder in cold blood countless innocent people; or a close family member dies. Should we feel guilty if we still feel a little happy during these periods? Should we feel guilty if all we feel is sad? 

There is no "right" answer; thoughts and feelings are highly personal and almost impossible to alter, let alone control. And yet there is a concept, emotional flexibility, that can be helpful during complex times. Emotional flexibility describes the capacity to produce context-dependent responses to life events, and to respond flexibly to changing emotional circumstances. In a nutshell, emotional flexibility is about holding everything at once—happiness, joy, and enthusiasm at the same time as anger, sadness, and frustration—and being able to feel differently at various points throughout the same day and perhaps even the same hour.

Emotional flexibility is integral to living a considered, thoughtful, and whole life. It's also a hard trait to practice. Far easier and requiring a lot less mental effort is to simply say "everything sucks" and focus only on the negatives (a quick route to depression) or to ignore the tragedies in your life and the world and focus only on the positives, pretending everything is hunky-dory (a quick route to delusion). But those endpoints—depression or delusion—are not good places to be. They are extremes when in reality the human experience is lived on a wide and murky spectrum. 

Embracing the murkiness—and cultivating the emotional flexibility required to do so—yields large dividends. Resilience comes from deliberately practicing joy, even during awful times; happiness is intensified by experiencing and feeling deep sadness. 

Emotional flexibility is also freeing. It says that you can still enjoy a long run through the woods on the same day something terrible happened in the world. It also says that you can feel sad and down even though there may be a lot that is good in your life. On many days you should feel all of these emotions—because all of these emotions exist. 

As for how to become more emotionally flexible? The first step is giving yourself permission to feel what you are feeling, and to not feel bad about it. The second step is to practice being present in all that you do. The more present you can be the less baggage you carry from the past or from thinking about the future. If what you are doing/thinking about is making you sad, be sad. If what you are doing/thinking about about now is making you happy, be happy. The more you can be in the moment—and be with your feelings in that moment— the fuller your life. 

One last note: While it's completely normal to feel down/sad at times, it's not normal to feel down/sad all the time. Nor is it fun. A great first line defense for getting out of a rut is exercise. If you force yourself to move your body, your mind often follows. For a few additional strategies, see this story. If self-treatment doesn't work, seek professional assistance. When you're really feeling down, the strongest thing you can do is ask for help.


Coaching Corner: Coach People, Not Numbers

In his fascinating documentary Vietnam, director Ken Burns briefly profiles Robert McNamara, former US Secretary of Defense under John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson. McNamara focused exclusively on the measurables, believing that everything imaginable should be quantified. What we measure gets managed, as the popular saying goes. McNamara took this to the extreme, demanding quantification from his entire agency, and developing his strategy for victory in Vietnam with these numbers in mind.

Of course, we know that this strategy, and many others, did not work in Vietnam. In the documentary, Burns attributes much of McNamara's strategy's failings to a simple explanation: it was useless; because there was so much data and complexity, it couldn't be analyzed and no one truly knew what it meant. In other words, McNamara collected data for the sake of collecting data. This idea, that we should make decisions based solely on data, is now called the
McNamara fallacy.

With the advent of gadgets and gizmos that allow for quantification of every aspect of life—from sleep to steps to calories burned—the temptation is to track it all.

What often occurs, however, is that we let the numbers dictate our behavior. Instead of focusing on improving as a person, we focus on improving the variable we measure. When we track sleep, the goal becomes increasing the little number that shows up on our watch, only to realize that in so doing, we've decreased our quality of sleep due to the anxiety of trying improve a number!

In coaching parlance, we start "coaching to the numbers," and not the people. In my line of work (run coaching), we let miles per week, speed of interval workouts, and impact variables dictate our training plan. We all too easily forget that the person standing in front of us is a complex human being that resists the easy quantification and simplicity of any single variable, or even combination.

This isn't to say that we should all become luddites, and track nothing. Instead, we need to start not at what we can measure, but at why we are measuring something and how it will impact the bottom line: whether that is performance in a race or work, or happiness in our broader life. As eloquently argued in Fergus Connolly's book
Game Changer, our world is dominated by chaos, not predictability, and the quantification of sport often relies on assumptions that we fail to see. If the measurement doesn't have a true purpose, if it doesn't bring insight to a malleable behavior, then is it really worth measuring?

Before measuring, I ask three simple questions:


  1. How does this measurement translate into an actionable behavior change?

  2. What assumptions am I making in measuring this variable?

  3. Does it matter?


I'd recommend you consider asking these questions too.

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