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On this episode of Dare to Lead

This is Part 2 of my conversation with Dr. Susan David, author of the bestselling book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. In Part 1, we talked about how emotional granularity and agility benefit us as leaders. This episode is another “emotions researcher extravaganza!” Susan and I talk about how to build emotionally agile teams, how to lead from a place of awareness, and the power of the choice that we can find in the space between stimulus and response.

About the guest

Dr. Susan David

Susan David, Ph.D., is one of the world’s leading management thinkers and an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist. Her #1 Wall Street Journal best-selling book Emotional Agility—based on the concept that Harvard Business Review heralded as a Management Idea of the Year and the winner of the Thinkers50 Breakthrough Idea Award—describes the psychological skills critical to thriving in times of complexity and change. Susan challenges a culture that prizes positivity over emotional truth and explores how the way we deal with our emotions shapes everything that matters: our actions, careers, relationships, health, and happiness. Susan’s TED talk on the topic of emotional agility has been seen by more than 8 million people. She is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal and guest on national radio and television. Named on the Thinkers50 global list of the top management thinkers, Susan is a sought-after keynote speaker and adviser, with clients that include the World Economic Forum, EY, United Nations, Google, Microsoft, NASDAQ, and many other national and multinational organizations. Susan trained as a clinical psychologist and completed her Ph.D. and postdoctorate at Yale University on emotions research. She is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and is a co-founder of the Institute of Coaching (a Harvard Medical School/McLean affiliate). Susan lives outside of Boston with her family.

Show notes

Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David, Ph.D.


Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is the Dare to Lead podcast. This is part two of my conversation with Dr. Susan David. She is the author of the best-selling book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life. Last week on part one, we talked about how emotional granularity and agility benefit us as individuals and as leaders. We also talked about toxic positivity and how it’s killing us, and I can tell you that I posted about that across my social media, and the response was huge. And I was so impressed with all the folks who said, “Oh God, I’ve done that. I’ve been with someone who shared something hard, and I tried to find the silver lining, or I tried to look at the bright side instead of just being with people and their emotions,” and I just want to say for all the people who said, “Oh, I’ve done that,” let me just say loud and clear, as an empathy researcher — me too. I find it especially difficult sometimes with my kids to not want to make things better and fix things, and I think the first step in understanding how to just be with people where they are is acknowledging that we struggle to do that sometimes. We struggle to fix and make things better from a good place.

BB: It doesn’t feel… People don’t feel seen. So, I love the conversation across social about part one of this podcast. And we’re going to continue to dig into some of these really hard topics. And we’re going to talk about how we lead with emotional agility, how we hold space for people that we’re leading, for colleagues and teammates in environments where we have to keep getting stuff done. But the two are not mutually exclusive. Again, it was such a powerful conversation with Susan that we made it into two episodes. This is part two.

Before we jump in to the second part of this conversation with Susan, let me just tell you a little bit about her in case you’re listening to this before you’re listening to part one. She is one of the world’s leading management thinkers. She’s an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist. Her book is Emotional Agility, and it is based on a concept that Harvard Business Review called “A management idea of the year.” Her work on emotional agility versus fragility and what does that mean and debunking a lot of myths about how pretending that we’re not feeling leads to fragility, owning feelings — including hard ones — leads to agility.

BB: She’s got a great TED talk on the topic that you can watch. She’s a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, the Washington Post. You can see her sometimes on TV and radio. You can hear her on the radio I guess, talking about her emotions research. She is the CEO of Evidence Based Psychology, on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, and a co-founder of the Institute of Coaching, which is a Harvard Medical School McLean affiliate. She’s also on the scientific advisory boards of Thrive Global and Virgin Pulse. She lives outside of Boston with her family. Let’s welcome back for the second part of our conversation, Susan David.

BB: All right — this turned into a two-parter because, first of all, Susan and I are geeking out as researchers, and we’re just having so much fun, and I’m learning so much, and I know that y’all are too. So, this is part two. Let me start by saying thank you and welcome back.

Dr. Susan David: I’m delighted to be here.

BB: And thank you so much for episode one. I want to start with a question for you. It’s a statement and then a question. And I’m going to “Susan David” my statement first, which I’m going to say, I am feeling concerned that — as we vaccinate and start to move back through spring and summer — I’m feeling concerned about another pandemic that no one is talking about. Which is, I’m worried that we’re heading into a very serious mental health crisis. What are your thoughts? Am I alone in that? My feelings are fine, whatever they are, but is my intellectual concern off base do you think?

SD: My husband, who’s a physician, and I know yours is too, when the pandemic first started — this was actually in December last year — he came to me and he said to me, “Susie, we are about to go into a pandemic.” He had been reading the science journals, and he said to me, “This is going to be one of the biggest experiences in our lifetime.” And he tends to be a very balanced logical doctor type, and so I thought he was being a little bit over-dramatic, but I humored him. And then came March and I realized that what he was saying was, of course, the case. And what I’ve been concerned about since then is true — that that original pandemic that he spoke of was part one. Because even prior to the pandemic, the World Health Organization was already telling us the depression was the single-leading cause of disability globally, outstripping cancer, outstripping heart disease. And there is no demographic, there’s no organization, there’s no geography that is protected from this. And the most recent data are frightening, in terms of mental health and well-being, suicide ideation, and it goes on.

BB: First of all, I have to say that I have the worst kind of goosebumps. I’m looking at Barrett who’s in the room with me right now, and I will say that I was in bed one night in December and Steve came in the room and just laid down next to me and was looking straight up at the ceiling and said, “I am really worried.” And I said, “About what?” And he said, “I think we’re going to go into a global pandemic.” And I said, “Come on.” I can feel very anxious, I can struggle with anxiety, I’m a catastrophizer sometimes. He’s just very balanced and very calm and I said, “You’re kind of scaring me.” And he said, “Yeah, I don’t want to scare you, but I’m scared, and I want to be able to talk about it with you.” Actually, I just thought, “Fuck, like, h my God.”

SD: Yeah.

BB: Yeah. And then it happened, and then I put tremendous pressure on him to be a soothsayer, “Tell me what’s going to happen next,” and he’s like, “I’m just… ”

SD: Oh my gosh!

BB: Yeah, I’m one epidemiological article ahead of you. I don’t have any answers. But I think what I’m seeing in my life and what I’m seeing in the data is that depression and anxiety.

SD: Yeah.

BB: I think we are collectively untethered. And, Susan, what do you make of the crises within the crisis, which is like domestic violence. Addiction is just skyrocketing and without talking about our emotions and without this emotional agility that you’re talking about, how do we get re-tethered? What are your thoughts?

SD: I think that the un-tethering is… The roots of it have existed long before the pandemic. Our capacity as a society to speak about even the most human experiences… So, I’ll give you an example, which is, we know we’re all going to die. We know we’re all going to die, and yet there is a collective refusal to talk about that. And when we have a collective refusal — and I literally mean across communities — to talk about that, there is an impact then in terms of how we enable humane death. There’s a pushing aside of what we don’t want to do, what we don’t want to go to. And we know, for instance, that when people are feeling really fearful… There’s this beautiful body of research on mortality salience, which is this idea that often we have these fears. We have a fear of death as an example. We have this fear, we try not to think about it, we expend an awful amount of energy as a collective not talking about this reality. And we know that when we as a collective have this and then people start saying things like, “Oh, there’s someone who’s going to come across the border and rape you,” or whatever it is. What it actually does psychologically, is it leads to an augmentation of stereotyping of “us and them.” There’s actually these profoundly interesting psychological processes that happen when we push aside difficult realities.

SD: And then there’s fear on the periphery. So that’s not an exact answer to your question, but I suppose what I’m trying to get to is — I think that so much of what has happened, for many years, has been a segmentation rather than an integration.

BB: Integration.

SD: Yeah, yeah. What do I mean by this? When I think about segmentation — segmentation is an organization that focuses on productivity and has this idea that human beings are machines, and even though they know logically that they’re not, the whole structure and the whole system of the organization is profoundly dehumanizing, and where millions upon millions upon millions of people are in de-humanized work situations.

BB: For sure.

SD: So, you’ve got segmentation where there’s this almost machine-like orientation towards human beings. When people say things to you like, “I can’t bring my emotions to work. I can’t be an emotional being at work.” You’ve got segmentation. So, when we think about emotions as being good or bad emotions, we’ve got segmentation. And I truly believe that one of the most important aspects of psychological health and well-being is integration. Integration.

BB: Yes.

SD: As soon as we have segmentation, as soon as we have, “We can talk about this, but we can’t talk about that. We’ve got these good emotions, we’ve got these bad… ” Both-ness, the idea that the sun is shining and the birds are singing and forests are burning at the same time. Both-ness, the idea that I can hold grief and joy, and I have to in order to walk through life. That is both-ness, that is integration. And so, I actually think that our whole psychology, the idea that emotions are soft skills, that emotions are feminine skills, the…

BB: Weakness.

SD: Yes. So, this whole idea, in a very long-winded way, is my way of saying that I think we are headed for a fall and that the pandemic is only exacerbating the roots of something that has been there for long.

BB: I write a lot about integration and I love the whole Latin root of it — integrare, to make whole. There’s a wholeness. And so, this pandemic just revealed cracks and fissures in our compartmentalized, not-whole way of being in the world. And when you talk about organizations and I hear terms like “human capital,” like…

SD: And you want to just literally…

BB: Punch somebody. Yeah, I do. I wanted to share this with you in talking about organizations and leadership — and then we’ll get back to the pandemic and what we do — but we got into a geek-out nerd fest like you and I have gotten. So, it was me and Jim Collins, and Jim is also a grounded-theory researcher. So, we were talking about methodology, but I wrote a note down to talk to you about, because he said… He’s a pretty serious guy, he just said in his serious way, “We do not fundamentally operate at the level of thoughts and analysis. We fundamentally operate at the level of emotion.”

SD: Yes, yes.

BB: And the denial of that, I think in many ways — and I try to make sure that I haven’t lost my mind just because I study emotion for a living — but I think you can track everything from dehumanized work to the actual dehumanizing of people to our inability and unwillingness to embrace both the beauty and tragedy that lives within us as both emotion and experience, right?

SD: Yes, yes, yes. I, many years ago, had a really fascinating conversation with a sociologist, and we were talking about how is it that we’ve got to this place where these fundamental aspects of humanness have been pathologized? How is it that emotions are good or bad or you’ve got to be positive or that you can’t be a human in the workplace in a real way? And it was such a fascinating conversation, and it was this idea that really if we think about the history —and how emotions have become gendered over time — what you have is a history in which education was open to males. And so, the formal methods of education, whether sciences, mathematics, and so on. And so, what happened as a counterbalance to that is, males would be taught these formal lessons. And everything that was not that —everything that was difficult to add together, everything that felt illogical — was associated with females.

BB: Jesus.

SD: So, you have this historical, literally through the educational system, a gendered experience of emotion. Now, we might look at that and go, “Oh well, what difference does it make?” It makes a difference because we talk to our boys about what they did today. They become focused on task and they feel that they are unable to cry. We speak to our girls about how they feel, and we know that these gender differences exist in parenting. And then we’re raising children who are struggling to connect emotionally with their own emotions and with other people’s emotions. We’re putting kids in school, where even in a Zoom class, you can go and you can learn mathematics, but if you are struggling to cope in a pandemic, if you don’t know what to do because your parent is beating your other parent up? You have nowhere to go “There is no Khan Academy for emotional skills in the way that it really needs to be.” There’s some…

BB: That’s right.

SD: And then in organizations, we call these soft skills.

BB: Oh God, somebody just…

SD: These are skills that are foundational to engagement, to culture, to motivation, to well-being, to every aspect of our capacity. So yes, both-ness, integration.

BB: And integration of everything. I keep trying to understand the power of the “yes and,” the power of straddling the tension of opposites, the power of the paradox. I always think of the Carl Jung quote, that paradox comes closer than anything else to explain the real human experience. And you talk about the gender binary. I remember as a first-year doctoral student I loved qualitative research. And we had a one mandatory qualitative class, but everything else was like 15 hours of multivariate linear statistics, and then the one diversity equity thing you have to do, right? And I just remember the textbook for that class was peach, for the qualitative class, and all the professors called it The Pink Book, because I wanted to do qualitative research, and even the qualitative quantitative thing was like “I’m a girl researcher so I’m going to study story.” And the irony is… I have to say this, the irony is… I’m going to get a little bit political here, but I remember these photos of this Trump boat parade here in Texas, and I remember all the boats that had flags, like 20 of them, that said, “Fuck your feelings.”

BB: And I had to laugh a little bit because, A) a couple of those boats sunk and no one was hurt, but it was funny that the boats sunk actually. But in the end no one was hurt, of course. But why I had to laugh was that “Your F your Feelings” flag is the most emotive flag I’ve ever seen in my life.

SD: Yes.

BB: It is filled with your rage. It is filled with your fear. It is the most feeling flag of all the flags.

SD: This is why when I’m talking about this idea with emotional agility, which is that it’s about showing up to our difficult emotions, so honoring them, getting that stepping-out experience where we are able to be effective with them. But ultimately, we aren’t living into our emotions. We are being guided by our values.

BB: Okay, wait, wait, you’ve got to stop. You’ve got to say that again. You’ve got to say that last sentence again.

SD: Emotional agility is the recognition that when we stop hustling with the “Should feelings be fucked?” — the idea is “Feelings are there.” Saying, “I don’t go to work with my feelings,” or “I’m a very logical CEO” is the equivalent of saying, “I’m a CEO but I choose to leave my hand at home when I go to work.” Do you know what I mean? It just boggles the mind. But this idea that these emotions exist, they are with us, they are beautiful. We need to step into this idea that we’re stopping to hustle with how we think people should or shouldn’t feel. And when we show up to emotions in that way, when we do away with how we think we should feel and we instead, say, “This is how I do feel.” And we write it down. We use journaling. We do whatever it is. We label. We’re understanding where our employees are at. What you do there is you create the space now — the Viktor Frankl space — that means that you are not being driven by your feelings. Rather, you are using the wisdom of your feelings to guide you in your values. If I’m angry with my boss and I go to someone and I say, “Should I speak about that anger or should I be quiet?” What is the right answer? The right answer depends on your values and on your context.

SD: Sometimes speaking up, if you’re speaking up in complete rage, is not actually aligning with who you want to be as a person, and sometimes being completely quiet is also not aligning with who you want to be as a person. So, in order to be emotionally agile, what we’re doing is we’re moving away from this idea of “What’s the right versus the wrong answer?” And you’re instead starting to say, “My heartbeat of my why, my heartbeat of my values is that when I’m not being driven by my anger here, when I’m trying to understand that the anger is signposting. Or, I’m calling it anger, but when I get more granular, I’m recognizing that this thing that I’m calling anger is actually that I’m voiceless. And that my voice matters and I need to find a way to bring my voice to the situation.” Now, you can see you’re being guided by the value of what it is that you might be doing in that situation. And it might be that you’re having a conversation. Or it might be that you’re doing something different, but you’re not being guarded by the right or the wrong of like, “What does the textbook tell me?

SD: Oh, anger’s a bad emotion, I just push it aside.” Rather, you’re being guided by the values of what’s going to bring you into the wisdom of the space right now. And you’re getting there not by listening to emotions, you’re getting there by unpacking the data that your emotions are signposting.

BB: God, that’s so good. It’s just so good.

SD: It’s data, not directive.

BB: It’s data, not directives. Yeah, it’s so good. So, when you see the “F Your Feeling” flag, what do you think as an emotions researcher?

SD: When I see the “F Your Feelings” flag, I see, similar to you, that there’s so much emotion in that. And also, what I see is just very sad. What I see is very sad, and the reason that I say that is because I see little boys.

BB: Yeah, yeah.

SD: I see little boys in those people, and I also see little boys and little girls, and little people growing up in those families…

BB: Hurt.

SD: Hurt. And internal pain always comes out. Always. And who pays the price? We pay the price. Our communities pay the price, and to circle back to what you were saying about the pandemic, our psychology — our health — is paying the price.

BB: I used the word “untethered,” and I was thinking about back from our first episode when you were asking me how I’m feeling, and I gave you that list of words when we were talking about the Post-it note exercise. And I think of all the words that sum up how I’m feeling, I notice often these days that I’m feeling untethered and that I was barely tethered to begin with. Like you said, a lot of the systems that we’re seeing are not broken. We’re just starting to understand they were designed this way, which is really hard, especially around race and… What do we need to do to start healing collectively, as we can come back together, as we come out of quarantine? Are we short on therapists? What’s going to happen?

SD: So many of us, I think, are in grief. And not everyone is. I don’t want any aspect of this conversation to kind of come across like I’m anti-happiness. I love being happy. In fact, I’m quite a happy person. It’s just more, again, the segmentation. And I think if I have to see one article come out on how we can regain our productivity now that we are out of the pandemic? No. There needs to be space. There needs to be space for breathing. There needs to be space for recognition, there needs to be the capacity for us to see the other, to see the loss, to see the pain. And I think that in the desire to get back to normal, for every person who’s listening, there is also very often the recognition that some parts of normal weren’t working. I know for me, a lot of my nonstop travel, it wasn’t working for me.

BB: Oh God, amen. Me neither.

SD: So, we all get — in this Viktor Frankl idea — we get this opportunity to say, “What part of normal wasn’t working, and how can I start creating new ways of being that are part of a more intentional normal?” Because I think one of the great misunderstandings in so much of transformation is this idea that in order to make big change as human beings, we’ve got to make a big change. In other words, if we’re unhappy we’ve got to sell up and go, live on a wine farm and if we… You know, there always needs to be… ” But actually, we know that so much of the change that happens as individuals — I’m talking at an individual level. I think there’s grand-scale systemic change that needs to happen. But as individuals we know that most of the power that comes about is actually through tiny tweaks. It’s about the small changes that we make as individuals that our value is aligned. It’s about the connection with the person that you feel disconnected from. It’s about what I call “social snacking,” this idea that if you’re feeling lonely but you also feel like you don’t have time to just be more intentional with reaching out to people.

SD: There are so many ways that we can make these tiny values align changes in our lives. As long as we forget about those. We kind of focus on the big transformations. But I also think… I don’t know if you’ve had this experience. I know that lots of leaders listen to this podcast as well. I’m feeling that a lot of leaders are having conversations with me around mental health and well-being, that two years ago, three years ago, they weren’t having. And I’m talking CEOs of major organizations where they are recognizing that this is not something where it’s just the person’s well-being and it’s something we don’t need to think about. There is a recognition, I think, at a fairly large scale, that how people feel impacts on everything.

BB: There’s no question. I don’t think I was in a meeting in 2020 with a group of leaders, — again, C-suite leaders from Fortune 100 company leaders — where at least one or two people were not in tears, and where people were saying, “We’re falling apart. I’m falling apart. I don’t know if I can keep doing this. I don’t know how to take care of my people.” And the first question I always ask, back to your story of growing up, the first thing I ask is, “Do you think your people feel seen? I don’t know that you’ll be able to fix everything that your people are going through, but do they feel seen?” And we work on that. The first thing is “How do we see people?” How do we say “I see you; I see the struggle. I get it. You’re not alone.” And I do believe there is a shift that I’m witnessing that there’s a part of me that wants to believe it’s big enough that we can’t un-see it.

SD: I hold to that too; I hold that too. As you talk, we spoke about Viktor Frankl earlier, and not to be completely focused on very depressing things, but I’m reminded of this beautiful story which is just so heartbreaking. Levi, Primo Levi, who also was in the Nazi camps, and he described this experience how when he was in a Nazi camp and the camp was liberated, and he had spent years basically in this camp in trauma, and how he boarded a train back to his hometown along with his fellow ex-prisoners. And he described how he got off the train when he arrives in the town and their people — townspeople — waiting for them. And the townspeople look at these emaciated figures in front of them, and then they turn and they walk away, unwilling and unable, un-wanting to see the trauma that is in front of them.

BB: To process the trauma, yeah.

SD: Unable to. And Levi describes how, in many ways, that experience that he had of being unseen was even more traumatic than his experience in the death camps. Because it was such a profound turning away. And so, I think they’re these leaders who struggle. And it’s this idea that if you can keep seeing and please don’t see you with your performance or that you don’t see with your mandated or feinted conversation that you’re now having — you know, that’s in your checklist.

BB: Right.

SD: Like it’s a see. If you can see, if you can stop saying to people “We’re in the same boat,” because we are not in the same boat. If you can just see, if you can see, I think that there’s so much that happens. We know that when children are in distress, often as parents we want to jump in and we want to say, “It’ll be okay. I’ll bake cupcakes. I’ll phone Jack’s parents and I’ll speak to them about why Jack acted to you in that way.” We want to jump to solution, but before we go through emotions, we need to go to emotions. Effective processing of emotions is to emotions and then going through emotions. And going to emotions, we know that when a child is upset, that a parent who just says, Sawubona — I see you. I see you. — that immediately there is a de-escalation of their child’s physiological anxiety and response. And I think for so many people there is a that that is needed here.

BB: Boy, you’re taking me to a big learning that was very difficult for me early on. I was definitely the — you know, you didn’t get invited to the slumber party, we’ll throw a bigger slumber party and I’ll invite New Kids on the Block. And then I was reading Pema Chödrön, the Buddhist nun, and I remember reading her definition of compassion, and it said compassion is not a relationship between the wounded and the healed. It’s a relationship between equals. It’s knowing our darkness well enough that we can sit in the dark with others. Isn’t that beautiful? And I remember thinking I have this legacy, Susan, from my mom, who had a lot of hard things growing up. And as a child, I remember that no matter how hard it was and how awful it was, we were taught “You do not turn away from pain. You look people in the eye.” So, if there was a terrible death in our neighborhood where a child was killed, we were the first family there. We were at the funeral. If that child had a sibling in our grade, we had to pick up the phone and call. We had to volunteer to be the person to walk with them in school the first day they would come back. And my mom used to tell me, all of us, all the time, “Don’t look away from pain, because one day when you’re in pain and people look away, it will tell you that you’re alone. And you’re not.”

BB: And so, after reading that Pema Chödrön definition, I remember Ellen coming home from school one day and she was in fifth grade and she was in tears, and it was about not being invited to something. And she was sitting, not metaphorically, but literally in the dark in her room.  And I walked in and I could see that she had tears coming down her cheeks, and my response was to flip on the light and say, “Hey, let’s go get a fro-yo, let’s go… ” And I remember sit in the dark, sit in the dark with others, and I just remember not flipping on the light and just sitting with her and saying, “This feels hard.” And she’s like, “Oh God, it’s so hard.” And the only way I got through it, I’ll confess — I’ve never talked about this, I think maybe I’ve told my sisters — but the only way I could do it was to keep looking at the light switch and saying, “It’s not my job to turn on the light. It’s my job to sit in the dark. It’s not my job to turn on the light, it’s my job to teach her to sit in the dark.”

SD: So beautiful.

BB: And I have to say, as a young woman now, when hard things happen, she has a skill set.

SD: You’re giving me chills. Because I, last night, had a sobbing conversation. I’ve got a 7-year-old, and I’m about to go off for the first time for four days to film something. And she was sobbing. And just that feeling of being with the child. And this is a core reason why when I talk about emotional agility, you said to me at the beginning, “What is it?” And I said, “It’s about being healthy with yourself,” and then I said, “There are different components to it.” There’s this ability to be curious with your emotions, “What are my emotions telling me?” There’s the ability to be compassionate with yourself and other people. And then the third part of it was courage. And the reason that the third part of it is courage is because often when we are facing into our own or other people’s emotions — it’s tough. It’s tough. We’re facing into the reality that a relationship isn’t working out. Or we’re facing into the fact that this person in this job role isn’t happening. Or that a project is going to be lost, or that our child is in pain, or that we are in pain. And doing that takes courage, and so often, again, we think of courage as being…

SD: As a leader, especially in organizations, courage is about transformation. And it’s about writing resilience into a job description. You don’t get to write resilience into a job prescription. Agility is born of behaviors of individuals in the organization who feel that they are psychologically safe and able to bring themselves and the best of who they are to the workplace. And so, courage is the courage of the leader who says, “I don’t have all the answers.”

BB: Amen.

SD: Who doesn’t say, “Trust my map.” The leader who says, “Trust my compass. Trust my compass that I’m going to do my best in this situation, my values. But don’t trust my map, because I don’t… ” That beautiful quotation: “You can never step into the same river twice.”

BB: Oh God.

SD: We often think that we as leaders know what to do and we’ve got the strategy, but no. We don’t have all the answers. We don’t know. This didn’t come with an instruction manual. And so, what do we do as parents? I feel like I’m jumping around between leaders and parents.

BB: No, yeah. Let’s do it. It’s fine.

SD: I think these are the same skills, very often. It sounds very paternalistic, but what is it that we’re talking about here? The first is this showing up, this Sawubona. In children, it’s not trying to make them feel good about something that they don’t feel good about. We’re showing up to the child and we’re saying, “This is tough. This is tough. Jack didn’t invite you to his birthday party. This feels tough. This is hard.” So, you’re showing up, then what you’re doing is you’re helping a child to step out of those emotions by helping them to label, “Is the thing that you’re calling angry — it sounds like you’re really sad. It sounds like you felt rejected.” That’s stepping out. The third part of emotional agility in this model that I’ve got, which is separate from the definition that I gave, is “walking your why.” What is the heartbeat of your why? What are your emotions signaling? So, for a child, that pain of rejection, what value is signposted? The value might be the value “I care about friends.” So, you as a parent get to have such a profoundly beautiful conversation with your child about what does friendship look like to you. How do you want to be a friend? How do you want to show up as a friend? What you’re doing in that moment is you’re helping your child to establish their moral compass.

BB: That makes sense, yeah.

SD: That is what you’re doing, you are helping them to establish their moral compass, their character. And then we can go through it and we can say, “What do we need to do? What might help you in this? And same with the leader, the leader who says to people, “You’re either on the bus or you’re off the bus! You’re either with me or you’re against me!” What that leader’s doing is they’re creating a lack of psychological safety.

BB: For sure.

SD: The leader who says, “I’m showing up too and I can see this is tough. And I can hear this is tough.” And who helps people to understand and label what’s tough for them in this situation. Walk your why. The person, the leader, who says not “I’ve got all the answers,” but “This is tough, and we don’t have all the answers. Who do we want to be in this situation? How do we want to come to each other as a team? Then we can move through it.”

BB: So much space needed for this work. It’s about holding space. It’s about creating space in our own lives. It’s about creating space between moments. And people often say to me, “There are 456 things you want me to do when I’m feeling something.” And I think there’s probably 456 measurable movements when you make a left-hand turn in your car, but you learn how to do that, and it becomes practice, and it becomes habit. And I think there really has to be some intentional creating of space for the conversations like we’re having. I just see so often in organizations that people will say, “I don’t have time to feel. I don’t have time to have these conversations.” And I think, “God, if you could only track what not having these conversations is costing you.”

SD: Yeah.

BB: Do you know what I mean? If you could only see what I see from the outside — the distrust, the corrosive trust, the meetings after the meetings, the things that are literally melting down your culture. And I think it requires an investment in humanity to do this work in some ways.

SD: That’s so beautiful, Brené. As you were saying earlier about your daughter, and about how you always wanted to try a bigger slumber party if she didn’t get her party, I thought “You’re BB. You’re Brené Brown. You’re B squared.” So, if…


SD: But your square has become channeled into this investment. It is an investment. It’s an investment in humanity. I think that’s such a beautiful way of putting it and it’s so urgent. And for every leader who says, “Oh, but what I care about is the bottom line,” what is just so profoundly illogical is that we know that these things impact the bottom line. We know, just as an example, that when someone feels like they constantly need to surface act. Okay, so they’re going to work. They have got to put on a smile, and they’ve got to say, “Your strategy is great,” even though they feel like upending the table. And they’re doing this emotional labor, so they’re coming to work and they’re doing the human labor and they’re doing their emotional labor. And then you look at the cost of their emotional labor over time. And we know that the cost of emotional labor over time is burnout and lower capacity and culture and lower levels of effectiveness. And always say to leaders “You say you want innovation, but innovation dances an intimate dance with failure. You say you want a collaboration. Collaboration dances an intimate dance with conflict. So, you don’t get to have real collaboration or innovation in your organization unless you’re willing to go to the difficult emotions of discomfort.”

BB: That’s right.

SD: And then the leader says, “But I don’t want the stress. I don’t want the stress.” And I get it. I get it, but the only person who doesn’t have stress is dead. These are dead people’s goals, when you say, “I don’t want disappointment. I don’t want the difficult conversation, or I don’t… ” These are dead=people goals!


BB: You know what? I’m going to start using that, because you have no idea how many times I have leaders say, “Look, I love your work. Cannot wait for you to talk to our people. We really need some help. We’re not going to do vulnerability. We don’t do that.” Now, I’m not start saying, “Well, according to Susan David, you’re looking at dead people goals there.” To be human is to be vulnerable, for people.

SD: These are dead people’s goals. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.

BB: Hello! Come on! Let’s get it. I’m got to get one of those tracks where everyone goes apeshit crazy when you say that. You know, it’s so funny, I’ve been before you in doing some corporate work with people. I’ve come behind you, and sometimes I come behind you and I start they go, “Oh man, did you talk to Susan about us?” [laughter] And I’m like, “No, but I’m going to say the same thing around — you want innovation and creativity, but you don’t want vulnerability.”

SD: Yes, good. Good.

BB: It’s like, “Yeah, come on”.

SD: Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life. You do not get an agile organization if you do not have agile people, and it’s as simple as that.

BB: All right, are you ready for our Dare to Lead rapid-fire questions? Are you prepared?

SD: Oh my goodness, I don’t know if I am. Do them.

BB: I think… Oh God, please. I mean, you just are going to rock it. Fill in the blank for me: Vulnerability is?

SD: Death.

BB: What is something people often get wrong about you?

SD: They think that I’m really heavy, whereas actually I’m a very, very happy light person, but they think I’m heavy.

BB: They think you’re heavy because you talk about emotion. I mean it’s so crazy.

SD: Actually, I’m a very happy person.

BB: What is one piece of leadership advice that you’ve been given or that you’ve heard that’s so remarkable you need to share it with us, or so shitty that you need to warn us?

SD: I think it is, “Help people to trust the compass, not the map.”

BB: That’s so beautiful. God, that’s so beautiful.

SD: Because there’s values and there’s so much that brings people together in that, but without this artifact of pretending that you know everything or that you can control everything in a world that is unnoble and uncontrollable.

BB: So beautiful. What is the hard lesson in your life that the universe just keeps putting in front of you, that you just have to keep learning and relearning and unlearning and relearning?

SD: Does it have to be rapid-fire, or can I give you a quick story?

BB: Oh no. You think I’m ever going to stop a story? No chance.

SD: All right, I’ll speak about emotions, I’ll speak about… So, at around the age of five kids become aware of their own mortality, and so when I was about 5 years old, I would go every single night into my parents’ room and I would climb between the two of them and I would say to them, “I’m scared that when I wake up in the morning, one of you is going to have died.” And my father hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer at that point. Neither of us knew that in 10 years he would be gone. My father would comfort me, he would comfort me, but he never lied. So, he would never say to me, “Don’t worry about it. Everything’s okay. Everything’s fine, I’m healthy.” He kept on saying to me, “It’s normal to be scared. Susie, I love you.” He would comfort me. He would pat me. He would kiss me. He would say, “It’s normal to be scared.” And what I took from what he was teaching me through those long dark nights is this idea that courage is not an absence of fear, courage is fear walking. So, courage is not an absence of fear It’s fear walking. It’s about feeling your emotions and moving forward towards what matters. And I think that what I keep on needing to learn is walking with courage, is walking with courage in so many ways. Around relationships, around illness, around just so much. I’m learning to walk with fear in the one hand and courage in the other.

BB: Yes. I love that. It’s my big lesson too. I can be brave and afraid in the exact same moment. That’s so hard, because we’re just not taught that very often. Boy, that was an incredibly beautiful and insightful thing from your dad.

SD: He was beautiful.

BB: Beautiful. What’s one thing that you’re really excited about right now?

SD: I’m actually excited about the opportunity that exists in bringing emotional skills in real, practical, tractable ways to children. I think this is one of the first times ever the technology exists, the evidence exists, and there is such a need. And I’m excited about that opportunity.

BB: Are you going to be doing some of that work?

SD: It’s something I’m exploring.

BB: Oh, I love that. Oh, I hope so.

SD: Not actively enough that it’s not just a fallow interest, but yes, that’s something I’m really interested in and passionate about and excited about, and there’s just such a need for it.

BB: I love it. Go to the head of the river. We can stop pulling people out and go to the head of the river and teach. I mean, that’s powerful.

Okay, you gave us five songs that you can’t live without. Jennifer Rush, “The Power of Love.” Joan Baez, “Forever Young.” Leonard Cohen, “Anthem.” Fun, “Carry On.” Johnny Clegg?

SD: “Asimbonanga”?

BB: Yes. With Mandela? With Nelson Mandela?

SD: It’s about Nelson Mandela.

BB: Okay. In one sentence, what is this mini mix tape say about Dr. Susan David?

SD: I don’t do one sentences.

BB: That’s great. Me neither. [laughter]

SD: It’s My Life, Jennifer Rush. Song that my mom used to play when she was scared. She would be lying with my father. She knew he was going to die. Joan Baez, “Forever Young.” The joy that I have in my children and my wish that they will always see the world with beautiful curious eyes. “Carry On” was the Fun song and that song became very popular. I live in Boston and the Boston Marathon. The Boston bomb blast happened, and it’s just a very powerful song, because it talks about how this memory of feet on the ground. And it just reminds me of these people who were hurt in the marathon and they’re carrying on and they’ve got this memory of their feet on the ground. Johnny Clegg — just this remarkable, remarkable singer who was called the White Zulu in South Africa because he had a Zulu band, and he was a white person and they had this… What was said at the point to be one of the first integrated bands in South Africa, and who was just a kind of iconic figure in my childhood. And then there’s one that I left out.

BB: You didn’t tell me Leonard Cohen and before you tell me the one you left out.

SD: Leonard Cohen, “There’s a crack, and that’s how the light gets in.”

BB: The light gets in. Beautiful. And what’s the one you left out?

SD: The one that I left out is Zulu lullaby called “Thula Baba.” It reminds me of the story that I told at the beginning of these beautiful matriarchs, this beautiful woman, and honestly, I have so much passion and I believe so much in the power of this idea that if emotions have become gendered, well, let them be gendered, let females take up their power with these emotions and move forward with it. And I think we’re starting to see that in some places in the world.

BB: Me too. Thank you so much. We waited a long time, and man, was it so fun.

SD: Oh my goodness, I feel like I’ve got a new best friend.

BB: I know. It was so fun. I know we’ll talk again. I can’t wait to see what you’re doing next. We’ll have you right back on here and talk about more of it.

SD: I love it.

BB: So, thank you so much.

SD: Thank you. Thank you.

BB: So many helpful ideas, so many helpful things to think about. I have not stopped since I read this quote — I don’t even know how long ago Susan and I both fell in love with this quote, many years ago — “That space between stimulus and response is where choice and power lie.” That’s the key to everything, y’all. Especially not just in living, but in leading. When there is a stimuli, when something happens, when a hard decision is made or failure is… The space between the thing that grabs us and how we respond to it is, in my opinion, what differentiates leaders. Leaders blow air into that space. They make it bigger. They stay in the quiet. They stay in the awkward. they stay in the cringey. They stay in the vulnerable and really think through the response. Again, the book is Emotional Agility. You can find it wherever you like to buy books. We love our indie booksellers. You can find Susan online at SusanDavid_PhD on Twitter and Instagram. She’s Susan David PhD on Facebook and LinkedIn, and her website is Don’t forget that we have episode pages for all of our episodes. They share links, how to find people, how to find books, and about five business days after the actual podcast, we release transcripts of the podcast for you to use. And we’re coming up with something new, y’all Dare to Lead.

BB: Just to give you a little sneak peak, we are going to start writing and giving you one-page PDFs that are Listen, Lunch and Learn. So, teams can listen to a podcast together and then discussion questions to review and talk about as a group. There is so much power and knowledge-building in listening, and then skills-building and knowledge-embedding and discussing what you’ve learned, and how you want to show up differently or try on some of these new behaviors.

Just a reminder that both Dare to Lead and Unlocking Us are on Spotify. This community of daring leaders, changemakers, culture-shifters, disruptors — thank you for listening. Stay awkward, brave and kind, y’all. And I’ll see you next week.

The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and by Weird Lucy Productions. The sound design is by Kristen Acevedo and the music is by The Suffers.

© 2021 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Brown, B. (Host). (2021, March 8). Brené with Dr. Susan David on The Dangers of Toxic Positivity, Part 2 of 2. [Audio podcast episode]. In Dare to Lead with Brené Brown. Parcast Network.

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