Discovering the Importance of Emotional Agility: An Interview with The Montessori Event 2023 Keynote Speaker Dr. Susan David

“Sawubona” – Discovering the Importance of Emotional Agility: An Interview with The Montessori Event 2023 Keynote Speaker Dr. Susan David

Have you ever wondered why we sometimes feel overcome with emotions? It may be a story we hear about on the news, something we read, the image of a character we have invested in on tv or a movie, or the lyrics of a song. Our feelings can often be overwhelming. No doubt at some point during the pandemic you may have experienced strong emotions, as we all worked to comprehend something which we had never gone through before, and we yearned for life to return to normal.

Susan David, PhD, has dedicated her life to studying emotions. Originally from South Africa, she is a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, and she currently lives in Boston with her family. She is the author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life (2016).

For a TEDWomen talk delivered in New Orleans in 2017, Susan David focused on The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage. She began the talk by welcoming her audience with the Zulu greeting Sawubona, meaning hello. Literally translated, however, it means “I see you… and by seeing you, I bring you into being.” This is a beautiful expression and a perfect way of introducing the work of Susan David who aims to help others live with more intention.

As a keynote speaker for The Montessori Event 2023 to be held in Boston, MA, March 16 – 19, Susan David hopes to inspire in us the theme of this year’s event: “Reunited & Reignited” by helping us to “see” ourselves in a new way.

In mid-December, I was privileged to participate in a conversation with Dr. Susan David. This article will provide brief excerpts of the Q & A which took place. Please note that the conversation was edited to weave in some highlights of her published work and for flow.

What is Emotional Agility?

In her book, Susan David introduces the concept of Emotional Agility by explaining that “being flexible with your thoughts and feelings… you can respond optimally to everyday situations.” She goes on to share that it is not a matter of controlling your feelings or forcing yourself to think positively, but rather the key to well-being and success is more about “loosening up, calming down, and living with more intention.”

Lilia C. DiBello: You explain in your book that one of the cornerstones of emotional agility is embracing “the beginner’s mind,” in order to approach novel experiences with fresh eyes. This assertion might remind some people of Maria Montessori’s work where she expresses “[The Absorbent Mind] which receives all, does not judge, does not refuse, does not react. It absorbs everything and incarnates it in the coming man.” Maria Montessori studied children carefully and she analyzed the importance of significant periods in a child’s life—which would then establish patterns for later life. When you encourage us to embrace “the beginner’s mind” in order to be more emotionally agile—how do you envision this happening in a classroom setting?

Dr. Susan David: The way the mind often works is that it employs a mechanism of self-protection. So often as children grow up and engage in exploration and curiosity, it is enculturated for them to think “am I part of this” or “not part of this” or “is it working or not?”

This reminds me of a story I heard once about Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. He would describe that, at times, his very talented music students would make a mistake and they would come down very hard on themselves. That’s the “judgment mind” talking—“right vs wrong.” But, Zander described a phrase that he often used in his teaching—“how fascinating.”

The beginner's mind or a curious mind is really about this idea of “how fascinating.” The core idea is that so much of what happens in the classroom relies on the personal interactions and relationships that are built. There's something about the beginner's mind, the mechanism involves intentionally bringing this sense of “how fascinating,” and we can call it a curious and interesting experimentation to the way we are “languaging” with children.

There’s another aspect children are learning about themselves; they’re not just learning about the world outside of them, but they are also learning about their emotions and their values. As children learn about their reactions to the world, teachers play an important role in helping students develop a curiosity. For example, if a child feels sad because they are being excluded, what would you say to them? An educator may be tempted to jump in too quickly in order to make the child feel better in navigating their feelings of rejection. It’s just as, if not even more important, for educators to apply the beginner's mind to help the child deal with and be curious about the full range of their own emotional experiences. That becomes a core part of their wellbeing and resilience through life.

Sometimes a more interesting approach can actually be firstly showing up and employing that idea of sawubona and that being with a child in their discomfort helps a child to feel seen. Allowing a child to feel that there is space for their emotion and that there is no wrong or right emotion. There is no emotion that is allowed or not allowed. So, that's a beginner's mind when it comes to emotional experience.

When children are feeling challenged emotionally, we can prematurely try to solve things for them and help them to move on. However, something extraordinary happens when we experience those difficult emotions. These difficult emotions are often signposts of things that are important to the child. For example, feelings of rejection, can signpost that the child cares about friendship, and this can give rise to a beautiful conversation about what friendship looks like, what real friends are, and how you want to come to your friendships. In this way, emotions are not to be gotten over, but rather a core part of a child coming to understand themselves, what matters to them, and how to move forward with that knowledge. In that way, through emotions, we facilitate in the child a sense of their values and how they want to approach the world: their character. It’s really crucial in a changing world to help our children identify who they are and what they stand for and what's important to them. It’s probably one of the greatest gifts we can give our children.

Why is Emotional Agility Important?

When focused on being more effective with your thoughts and emotions, your intentions and your insight will impact your choices. Educators and parents play an important role in establishing a strong foundation for emotional agility. “The skills of emotional agility allow you to recognize what you’re feeling, understand what it is, not be driven by it, be more intentional, and, ultimately, close the gap between the things you’re trying to do and the outcomes.”

Four Essential Movements to Gain Emotional Agility

Susan David shares that the process of gaining emotional agility involves engaging in actions which allow you to “unhook” yourself from emotional rigidity (thoughts, feelings, and behavior that don’t serve us).

  • Showing Up: Instead of ignoring difficult emotions or overemphasizing “positive thinking,” learn to face thoughts, emotions, and behaviors willingly, with curiosity and kindness.
  • Stepping Out: Create distance between the thinker and the thought and recognize that emotions are data, not directives. Step out of the struggle against your emotions and into the empowering experience of processing them.
  • Walking Your Why: Identify your own personal set of values and use them as a compass to keep you moving in the right direction.
  • Moving On: Appoint yourself the agent of your own life and approach your daily actions, interactions, and habits mindfully so that you can bring your best self into the world.

Lilia: In the book, when you tell readers about these four “essential movements” to gain emotional agility, I appreciated your choice of words—because in using "movement"—it highlighted that there is a required action. In other words, Olympic athletes could never have made it to the biggest stage to compete without intense practice. In fact, there is so much practice that there is muscle memory involved. Can you expand on the idea of emotional agility movements?

Susan: Ultimately, what we're trying to cultivate is values-aligned action in our lives. Let’s take self-confidence as an example. We can’t think our way to self-confidence. We need to move our way to self-confidence.

For children who may be feeling a little bit less confident, we want them to get out of their heads and into their lives. Doing is ultimately the best way to develop confidence. A child who takes on challenges, explores, and little by little moves to learning things that seem tough, will develop that confidence. It’s important for educators to help children develop the pathway by doing the thing that’s difficult.

Another example of a “movement” orientation is found in social situations. Often when a child is struggling to make friends, the child will say “Jack doesn’t like me” or “I don’t like Jack”—that child is in “judgment mind” which often brings with it a lack of agency. Similar in concept to Carol Dweck’s work (when she discusses growth mindset vs fixed mindset), we can help the child to move away from an all or nothing judgment mindset and to instead adopt a growth orientation.

With friendships, it can help to suggest that, yes, sometimes we have “fast friends” but we also have “slow friends.” Fast friends are friends that you immediately connect with on the first day of Montessori school and then are inseparable from day one… it’s easy! But more often than not, we have “slow friends.” Slow friends are your undiscovered friends. They are all around you. Slow friends are friendships that develop over time. It's a process of discovery. We see what we have in common with them, we learn from them, and then they become friends over time. Providing that kind of language becomes really important because it helps the child to move away from dichotomous, all or nothing thinking, into a mindset that stays curious, agentic, and growth-oriented with others.

Lilia: In your book, when thinking about children specifically under the age of 13, you mentioned the Disney movie Inside Out as a clever way of helping children call out emotions. Do you have any specific pieces of children’s literature you can recommend that would put to work our need to practice the four “essential movements?”

Susan: There are many good book recommendations.

When it comes to books, the one that immediately comes to mind is We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, written by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury in 1989.

“We're going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one…what a beautiful day…we’re not scared! Uh oh…We can’t go over it…we can’t go under it. Oh no…we’ve got to go through it.”

I love this book as it is a reminder that, yes… you've got to go through it. The only way through emotions is through them. The only way through difficulty, through learning, is through it… there's no going over, there's no going under… it's only going through.

There are many other books that support key emotional agility skills. I’ll first mention some of these core skills and then speak to other books and resources. A core emotional agility skill is being open to the full range of emotions: As children walk through the world, they’re going to experience a full range of emotions. There is no emotion that is good, there is no emotion that is bad. Our emotions help us to adapt to the world. Our emotions are functional and signal things which are important to us. In our culture, we don’t always message that and we often want to quickly move children back to feelings of happiness. In bypassing difficult emotions, we are signaling to students/children that there are some emotions that are good and there are some which are bad… which essentially then establishes “display rules.” We create unspoken rules about what emotions are allowed to be felt and which ones are not allowed to be felt. When we create space for the difficult emotions, we create space for ALL emotions. This then supports children with other emotional agility skills, including recognizing that:

  • All emotions pass.
  • There are things that I can do as they relate to my emotions that help me move forward.
  • I don’t need to be scared of my emotions.

It’s important to build a comfort with the discomfort that sometimes emotions bring. This is a foundational and fundamental skill set that all children need.

Children's Literature that Supports the Development of Emotional Agility

There are many books and stories that help with this, and over time it’s helpful to build a library of resources to help provide the language needed to normalize the experience for children. The short list below (compiled after our interview) may help readers connect with different feelings. These stories bring language to emotions through storytelling.

Lilia: When discussing the essential movement of “Showing Up” in your book—you noted that a good question to ask yourself when you’re trying to learn from your emotions is “What the func?” What is the function or purpose of this emotion? I could not help but think of the many emotions we all felt recently during the pandemic and how this has impacted the social/emotional development of so many of our youth. Can you speak to trends you may have been noticing recently in your work and how the pandemic might be playing a role in our society?

Susan: When you look at the data, undoubtedly there has been an increase in people's levels of struggle. One of the scary things we are seeing from the early data is that individuals who had not experienced depression or anxiety before began to experience these things during the pandemic. One might have expected that as things began to go back to normal (relatively speaking) that these rates would return to the baseline. But the early data are indicating that this is not the case. In other words, those people are staying at risk.

Even when their circumstances change and normalize, we're still talking about a mental health crisis. In the past couple of years, nearly 3/4 of people have described themselves as having decreased well-being. People describe themselves as being completely burned out. We know this is happening to educators as well. However, there's also a greater openness to exploring these kinds of emotions in ways that previously was not the case. There are some organizations willing to speak about emotions and how you are feeling burnt out now; it is front and center. It's very, very difficult to show up to a child and to be empathetic, to be kind, to sawubona the child, if you are not doing the same for yourself. I encourage educators to show even the difficult emotions and accept when they’re burnt out or completely exhausted. There is no hierarchy of emotional suffering. In other words, just because other people may have it worse than you doesn't mean you can't show up for yourself and acknowledge yourself and see yourself and be kind to yourself.

For educators, showing up for yourself and understanding what your emotions are signposting is really powerful. Someone who is running from school day to school day can be surrounded by a whole lot of people and still feel lonely. That loneliness is often signposting that you need more intimacy and connection in your life. When you are feeling burnout and you keep leaning into doing more and more, that exhaustion might actually be signposting that you need more creativity and silliness in your life—less leaning into doing and more leaning into being. Difficult emotions signpost things we care about and need. This brings a level compassion and curiosity to our own emotions and needs.

Lilia: I noticed on your website that you have developed an Emotional Agility Quiz. What do you anticipate doing with the data you collect from that tool? How else might you see your work evolving?

Susan: We aren't using the quiz data specifically at the moment. We are generating and sending a free report to quiz takers that they may find useful. One of the things that I am developing is a resource website.

During the pandemic, it really struck me how a child who was struggling with algebra could go online and find 10,000 lessons to help with algebra. But if the same child was struggling emotionally or feeling lonely or left out, they could not find those resources on the same scale. This also applies to parents, educators, and leaders. There are so many courses and strategies on how to teach better, but there is almost nothing on how to develop these core emotional skills. One of the ways that my work is evolving is recognizing that there's this absolute, ubiquitous need for the development of social, emotional skills in ways that are accessible.

I believe that these skills are learnable; I believe these skills are scalable. I think they are practical. They are powerful and I also think that they are the bedrock of healthy human beings in a changing world and so the thing that I've been focused on for the past year or so is the development of a platform which is really a human skills platform that helps educators, healthcare workers, and professionals develop these micro skills in ways that are scalable and powerful. This raises questions about what kind of knowledge is needed to be successful today—curiosity, creativity, flexibility, adaptability—all emotional skills. From an approach perspective, if we think about how to meet the moment of a changing world, the World Economic Forum identifies emotional agility as the skill of the future.

Has this piece made you wonder how emotionally agile you might be? You are invited to take the Emotional Agility Quiz to learn more.

Lilia: Your book is available in Spanish as well, Agilidad Emocional, in fact, I think I read somewhere that it has actually been translated into 30 languages. Have you noticed cultural differences in the reception of your ideas?

Susan: It's such an interesting question. I haven't noticed specifically. My book did very well in Brazil, for example, but I don't know if it did well in particular places because of cultural differences or if it was more about the specific market. I do think that there's a little bit more of a focus in western culture on forced positivity—a sense that happiness is all that matters. It's all about joy, and the idea that being sad or angry become experiences which are abnormal. This orientation does not serve our wellbeing.

Lilia: The Montessori Method has been thriving around the world since the early 20th century. Montessori educators strive for their students to have a strong sense of self, the ability to connect with others, and the potential to be productive throughout their lives. In her work Education and Peace, Maria Montessori wrote “The child is both a hope and a promise for mankind.” I felt that same message stemming from Chapter 10 of your book which focused on “Raising Emotionally Agile Children.” What message do you have to share with educators and parents about the critical role they play in supporting the development of emotional agility?

Susan: Sawubona is a fitting end. What is sawubona? At its core, it’s the Zulu word for hello. But literally translated it means “I see you and by seeing you, I bring you into being” and I think it's profound from a Montessori perspective because, you know, what is seeing? Seeing is about seeing potential, seeing is about seeing possibility, and seeing is also about seeing what is in front of you. In other words, honoring the child for who the child is enables the flourishing of autonomy. I think this is really foundational to Montessori. For me, it's about the sawubona. There's a sense of wholeness and potential, but there's also a sense of empathy, connection, and respect for what is in front of you.

The author wishes to thank Dr. Susan David for taking the time to partake in an interview. She was gracious with her time and willingly responded to many questions. Readers are encouraged to participate in her keynote address at The Montessori Event in March 2023.

About the Author

Lilia DiBello

Lilia C. DiBello, EdD, is an associate dean in the Adrian Dominican School of Education, Leadership, and Human Development at Barry University in Miami Shores, FL. Barry University offers Montessori teacher education programs at the Early Childhood, Elementary I – II, and Secondary I – II levels. All credentialing levels have pathways to graduate degree programs. Contact her at

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