The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage

Psychologist Susan David shares how the way we deal with our emotions shapes everything that matters: our actions, careers, relationships, health and happiness. In this deeply moving, humorous and potentially life-changing talk, she challenges a culture that prizes positivity over emotional truth and discusses the powerful strategies of emotional agility.

Susan David is the author of Emotional Agility, a “Wall Street“ bestseller that unites research in the field of psychology with the practice of self help.

It began with the Harvard Business Review’s publication in 2013 of some of her findings from the 20 years she spent as an executive coach. „The article went viral, completely crazy,“ she says.

The idea that business leaders could mine their emotions and manage their negative thoughts in ways that align with their values went on to be named by the review as a Management Idea of the Year.

David’s clients include Ernst and Young Global, the World Economic Forum, the United Nations Development Program, BHP Billiton, JP Morgan Chase, GlaxoSmithKline, and Nestle.

And you can see why David’s ideas would catch on in the workplace: employees are being asked to adapt and retrain at a time of lightning-fast technological change.

But the ordinary person can live a more “authentic life“, too, by making a few changes to their mindset, David says. One way is to disengage with social media, which she damns as offering „one of the most toxic ways to be in the world“ – living life by “social comparison“.

First there are some buzzwords to learn: „stepping out“, that’s facing your thoughts in a non-judgement way; „walking your why“, that’s where our behaviours are motivated or find expression in our values or moral compass.

The Tiny Tweaks Principle is the idea of making small changes to break habits and the choice point – do you binge-watch Netflix or get much-needed sleep?

Some of what David says is good old common sense. Make small changes, not large…..


She goes on to explain how her road map to emotional dexterity was shaped and sharpened by David’s „gnawing sense of horror“ growing up in Johannesburg in apartheid-era South Africa.

A friend was gang raped, her uncle murdered. It dawned on her that the nanny who was a second mother to her had her own children. „She was legislated through apartheid not to be able to live with her children who lived hundreds of kilometres away. She got to see them for 48 hours over Christmas.

„There was this bizarre context of complete legislated hate and legislated divisiveness, so from a very early age I became interested in what does it take internally to thrive in the world, in the world as it is, not in the world we wish it to be,“ she says.

“The world as it is where life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility and where you can be young until you are not seen; unseen, you can be well until you are brought to your knees by diagnosis.“

David’s father died of colon cancer when he was 42 and she was 16, leaving her mother with a mountain of debts to clear.

Her ability to get beyond her grief, indeed the catalyst for her entire career, she puts down to a remarkable English teacher, Meg Fargher, at Waverley Girls High School where she studied. Fargher had invited her students to keep a journal the year of her father’s death.

So began, what David says was a secret, silent correspondence. „Everyday I would write about my guilt, my sadness, the fact my family life had been changed forever.

„This woman would write back to me questions and poetry. She did something so profound. She showed up to me and she helped me show up to my own emotions.

„And I realised afterwards it was going to, and showing up to, my difficult experiences and labelling them and putting language around them that ultimately helped me not only to get through the experience but to thrive.“

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