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Kevin Neilson

6 Reasons Why Purpose Is Good For Your Health

May 13, 2015

1. Longer life.
Having a strong purpose in life is correlated with lower risk of mortality, disability, and Alzheimer’s disease.


2. Less stress. Living life in a full and satisfying way is correlated with lower stress.


3. Less inflammation. Living a meaningful and purposeful life is correlated with less chronic inflammation.


4. Pro HDL. Living with purpose and meaning is correlated with higher levels of “good” cholesterol.


5. Sweet dreams. Living life in a full and satisfying way is correlated with improved REM sleep.


6. Unlock potential. Living life with meaning and purpose can help improve your engagement and performance at work.


Fredrickson, B.L. et al. (2013) (Online references: 1, 2, 3, & 4)
Ryff, C.D., Singer, B.H., & Love, G.D. (2004)
Wrzesniewski, A., Dutton, J.E., & Debebe, G. (2003)

Janxin Leu

One Word Holds the Key to Health and Happiness

April 6, 2015


Eudaimonia: if the word is new to you, it might sound like a style of electronic dance music or a pharmaceutical. No, eudaimonia can’t be downloaded from the cloud or packaged in a pill. But eudaimonia is a remarkable type of experience that can improve health and well-being, for yourself and others.

Sounds important, right? It is.

What is eudaimonia?

Definitions of eudaimonia date back to ancient philosophers. According to Plato and Aristotle, eudaimonia is the sense of living life in a full and deeply satisfying way, beyond fleeting emotional states. Think of it this way, if you answer “yes” to the question, “Am I living in alignment with my values and purpose?” you’ve certainly had a eudaimonic experience or two. Aristotle considers eudaimonia the highest human achievement. The ultimate goal of existence, he believes, is human flourishing.

Now, most of us are quite familiar with a different kind of happiness: hedonia, or the sense of satisfaction that comes from the pursuit of pleasure.[1] When we answer “yes” to the question, “Are my needs and wants being met right now?” we’re often having a moment of hedonistic satisfaction. Like eudaimonia, hedonia delivers a certain type of happiness that can be rewarding. But science suggests that the effects of hedonia on our health and well-being are different than the effects of eudaimonia. More on that in a bit.

Mixing the two

Although eudaimonia and hedonia are different, they’re highly correlated experiences, which often overlap in interesting ways.[2] Eating a piece of cake might put a smile on your face, but it’s not terribly meaningful in the long run. On the other hand, eating a piece of cake in celebration of a friend can be a deeply satisfying experience, one that’s more meaningful than simply feeling good.

Eudaimonia doesn’t always relate to happiness in the moment. Navigating difficulties and challenges in life—struggling through a job search, nursing a sick relative, studying for a tough exam—can connect us to a satisfying sense of meaning and purpose during tough times. Intriguingly, there’s evidence that eudaimonic experiences, even when they’re uncomfortable, can be good for your health.

The health benefits of eudaimonia

As researchers explore the connection between psychology and biology, scientific evidence increasingly points to the health benefits of eudaimonia. People with a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life report greater life satisfaction, stronger emotional ties with others, and less stress, anxiety, and depression.[3] Clearly, eudaimonia is good for your mental health.

But the benefits of eudaimonia stretch even further, affecting not just your state of mind but even your physical health at the genetic level. Research suggests that eudaimonia, compared to hedonia, is associated with less inflammation in the body, lower levels of stress hormones, better sleep, healthier weight, and lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.  [4] , [5]  Not only is eudaimonia good for your well-being, it’s good for your physical health, too.

So if you’re going to chase one type of experience—eudaimonia or hedonia—choose eudaimonia.

Your mind and body will be more resilient for it.

Originally published on Huffington Post 

[1] Ryff, C. D., Singer, B. H., & Love, G. D. (2004). Positive health: connecting well-being with biology. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 359, 1383-1394.

[2] Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., Aaker, J. L., & Garbinsky, E. N. (2013). Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(6), 505-516.

[3] Zika, S., & Chamberlain, K. (1992). On the relation between meaning in life and psychological well-being. British Journal of Psychology, 83, 133-145.

[4] Ryff, C. D., Singer, B. H., & Love, G. D. (2004). Positive health: connecting well-being with biology. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 359, 1383-1394.

[5] Frederickson et al. (2014). A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. PNAS, 110(33), 13684-89.


Say What? How Power Words Reveal Our Resilience

March 10, 2015

Guest blog post by Lusann Yang 


When I met Dr. Steve Cole, I didn’t know what to make of his hypothesis. It’s easy to imagine poetic, heartfelt words as a window into the soul, but can the way we speak every day reveal meaningful insights into our health and well-being? Cole is the VP of R&D for HopeLab and a professor of medicine at UCLA. At HopeLab, he develops tools to promote human resilience, an innate capacity that enables people to thrive in the face of adversity. Drawing upon research by Dr. James Pennebaker, Cole hypothesized that data analysis of a person’s natural language style—not what they say, but how they say it—could provide a measure for the key psychological ingredients of resilience. And he was going to let me dig into the data.

What Makes Us Resilient

Psychologists who study resilience have identified three attributes that are common among resilient people: a sense of purpose in life, meaningful connection with others, and a sense of control or agency in shaping our future. The first ingredient in this resilience formula, having a sense of purpose in life, is related to what’s known in academic circles as eudaimonic well-being. The second, connection, is the experience of deep connection with others – the opposite of loneliness. The third is self-efficacy, a can-do spirit reflecting a person’s confidence that they can take action to overcome challenges and reach their goals.

Psychologists often measure these markers of resilience through surveys. But surveys are notoriously unreliable—people interpret questions differently, or answer in the way that they think will please the researcher or present themselves in a positive light.

This is where Cole’s idea came in: he wanted to borrow the big-data analytics tools we use in my field, applied physics, to explore resilience and natural language. He theorized that people’s word choices in essays about mundane things, like descriptions of images or places, could provide insight into resilience markers. This idea grows out of research by Pennebaker that suggests that how people say things might be as revealing as what they say.

 Investigating New Measures of Resilience

Cole collaborated with Pennebaker’s group at the University of Texas, Austin, to collect survey data and natural language samples from 800 resilience2undergraduates, including demographic information, self-reported survey measures of loneliness, self-efficacy, and eudaimonic well-being, and five essays written by each student. The essays included stream of consciousness writing, responses to an ambiguous picture (the Thematic Apperception Test), and descriptions of places.

Our first step toward analyzing the language data was to look at it through the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) toolkit developed by Pennebaker, et al. The toolkit counts the number of times specific types of words are used, and includes a dictionary to categorize words, such as personal pronouns, self references, and terms that connote positive and negative emotions.

Once we had the LIWC data, we developed language-based prediction algorithms for the three resilience markers (purpose, connection, control) using support vector machines (SVM), a classification tool popular in machine learning. Our goal was develop a system of data analysis for language that could match, and therefore potentially predict, the outcomes of standard psychological surveys about loneliness, eudaimonic well-being, and self-efficacy measured through self-reported data by subjects. Figure 1 shows results using a metric called “percentage swapped,” in which values below 50% mean our data is more accurate than chance. There was a definite signal, especially for the stream-of-consciousness writing samples. Our algorithm showed as much predictive power as demographic information, including age, sex, ethnicity, health, religion, and employment.

The Predictive Power of Our Language Analysis Algorithm To Match Psychological Surveys













Exploring Opposite Extremes

Psychologists are especially interested in people on the ends of the spectrum—those who are extremely resilient and those who struggle. With this in mind, we wanted to explore the accuracy of our SVM language predictors to identify the top and bottom 20% of students in each trait of our resilience formula. A perfect algorithm would achieve 100% accuracy; random chance would achieve 20%. Our SVM algorithms far outperformed chance (see Figure 2), especially when we analyzed creative storytelling (the Thematic Apperception Test) and sample essays that described places.













Glen Coppersmith, a scientist at Johns Hopkins’ Human Language Technology Center of Excellence, gave us another inspiration. He suggested that we explore the specific words that are more or less likely to be used by the 20% of our sample with the highest resilience scores, compared with the lowest 20%. These results were especially intriguing. Cole noted that the people who scored high for resilience used words that suggested being in motion – striving and moving forward.

Some Key Words Used by Resilient People


Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 2.46.08 PM

Next, we moved from words to phrases, so we divided our sample essays into word-windows, analyzed phrases for their relationships to the markers of resilience using LIWC, and put the data through our SVM-rank model. For the samples in Figures 4 and 5, we coded the phrases associated with loneliness in red; phrases that are less lonely are blue. Stand back and squint, and you get a good picture of which person might be lonelier.



Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 2.47.19 PM


Finding Resilience in Natural Language

Our exploration of natural language through the tools of big data analysis yielded intriguing results. We found clear links between the words people use and psychological measures of their well-being, which opens the possibility for supplementing notoriously problematic psychological surveys with a new strategy for measuring resilience.

For Cole and his colleagues at HopeLab, this new approach to resilience measurement might be used both to create new resilience-promoting interventions and to evaluate their efficacy. That’s exciting, ground-breaking work – a great example of how insights from scientific inquiry can be translated into practical tools for people everywhere.

Words, as it turns out, may indeed be a window into our well-being.

Works referenced

Pennebaker, James W., R. J. Booth, and M. E. Francis. “Linguistic inquiry and word count: LIWC [Computer software].” Austin, TX: liwc. net (2007).

Vladimir N. Vapnik, The Nature of Statistical Learning Theory. Springer, 1995.

T. Joachims, Training Linear SVMs in Linear Time,Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining (KDD), 2006.

Janxin Leu

Purpose: How to Help Kids Find Their Way in the World

February 20, 2015


If you’re curious to know what purpose is and how you or a loved one can get it or discover it, you’re not alone. The topic has grabbed the attention of everyone from psychologists to HR managers, making a splash in self-help books and influencing corporate recruitment practices. And why not? Cultivating a sense of purpose early in life is a powerful way to support long-term psychological and biological health, even at the genomic level.

Pursuit of purpose

Last week, Echoing Green—a nonprofit best known for sourcing and supporting social entrepreneurs—hosted the world’s first 360 degree review of a burgeoning, new field dedicated to purpose. Thought leaders from different sectors—ranging from business and religion, to higher education, and beyond—gathered at the event to map the emerging field of purpose and identify themes and opportunities for future exploration. I attended with avid curiosity, feeling on the edge of a social movement.

There is emerging consensus: Purpose is a way of living, a north star, a steady goal that’s meaningful to an individual yet, importantly, reaches out into the world.

Finding what is right for you and right for the world has long-term health benefits. So how might we help teens and young adults find theirs as they explore their way into adulthood? It seems like such a noble yet daunting goal, even for ourselves.

Here are a few ways you can encourage the development of a purposeful life among kids, whether you’re a parent, mentor or a friend.

  1. Ask questions, listen deeply

While friends, hobbies, and interests may change, there are deeper patterns to what enlivens us. But it’s tough for a teen or young adult to recognize those patterns in themselves. Ask big bold questions and listen deeply to their answers: What would you change about the world if you knew you could not fail? What makes your heart sing? Encourage kids to find opportunities for stillness in their lives (i.e., hiking, cooking, journaling, worshipping, etc.) so they can wrestle with those big questions and begin answering them, slowly, over time.

  1. Just do it

Doing is often a fantastic path to purpose. Especially for kids who are starting out in life. They cannot be expected to think or reason their way to a meaningful path. They have to live their way on to it. Do first, reflect second. By behaving as though they hold a particular purpose, teens and young adults can try, fail, and learn from life, while envisioning what that future looks and feels like from the inside out.

  1. Disrupt tradition

Just as we can mindlessly drive a car, we can mindlessly live our lives. Encourage teens and young adults to break their routines in ways that expand their perspective: Volunteer at a national park or a retirement home; study abroad for a year; join a summer program. By immersing themselves in new experiences, teens and young adults snap out of their routines and discover new ways to engage the world and discover themselves.

  1. Get out of the way

Parents are great at many things – including putting many well-intentioned roadblocks in their children’s way. Love and worry are powerful drivers of adult behavior. But at the end of the day, there’s only one person who will make your child’s decisions for the rest of their lives. And it’s not you. So kindly get out of the way. Let them try, fail, and learn, with you nearby for support.

  1. Don’t confuse purpose with happiness

Happiness is sometimes about feeling good, like when I buy a new dress. But feeling good in the moment isn’t the same thing as the satisfaction that comes from leading a deeply meaningful life. A purposeful life can be profoundly gratifying without always being pleasant. No one wants their child to suffer, but learning to successfully navigate life’s challenges can be deeply rewarding in ways that a rush of happiness is not.

Originally published on Huffington Post


Belonging: Why Making People Feel They Matter Matters

February 8, 2015


For the past several years, my husband and I have traded the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions for a new tradition constructing individual collages of our intentions for the coming year. There’s no plan, no agenda, no pre-determined outcome. We clip photos that appeal to us, grab words and phrases that resonate or remind us of our deepest values. We’ve done this for three years now. It’s a remarkably fun and illuminating process.

What emerged from my collage for 2015 was a visual depiction of areas in my life that are deeply meaningful to me. My roles as a mother, a wife and a leader at work each found a place, as did a beautiful array of fresh fruits and vegetables (symbolic of my commitment to my personal health and well-being).

Holding a place of honor at the center of my collage, I placed a quote from and image of Maya Angelou that touched me deeply: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Only one month into 2015, I’m already aware of how this quote has influenced my engagement with others. In my experience, the way people feel about themselves is directly related to whether they feel fully seen, respected and loved – in short, whether they feel they belong.

The search for a sense of belonging seems at the center of many news stories that have dominated our headlines in recent months. Incidents in Ferguson, Staten Island, Oakland, and beyond reveal a violent tug-of-war to resolve profound otherness-belongingness tensions.

From outrage to compassion

The killing of cartoon satirists, shoppers at a kosher grocery store, police and hostages in Paris have brought this struggle into stark and tragic relief. Angry and alienated individuals struck out at what they perceived to be the agents of their disengagement. The response to these attacks was a profound and predictable outrage. My own reaction was in utter opposition to my commitment to fully see others: I saw the perpetrators as only sick criminals, committing horrific acts. Given their crimes, this was not a huge leap in logic; I joined millions of people around the globe in this response.

But then, a young man who was identified as an accomplice in the Paris shootings turned himself in. He was 18. Suddenly, as a mother, my judgment became more nuanced. I began to wonder: How could this boy come to follow this path? What happened during his short life that so damaged and alienated him? I have since pivoted back and forth in my judgments of the young men involved. One moment I see them as irreparably dangerous; the next minute they are someone’s sons, and my view of them as “the other” is upended.

It’s all too easy to see people whose behavior confounds, dismays, or horrifies us as “the other.” We’re biologically wired this way. When our ancestors roamed a physically hostile earth, our brains developed a remarkable capacity to quickly categorize and respond to a host of alien threats. To misjudge the threat meant certain harm or death.

Small steps, big change

How might we temper this innate behavior? How might we minimize our reactivity, increase our capacity for insight about others, and mitigate our destructive spirals of suspicion, isolation and hatred? Certainly, we need not accept or condone acts of violence. Nonetheless, how might we hold ourselves personally accountable for creating a world of belongingness rather than one of alienation? What can we do to take personal responsibility for the world we are creating?

My 2015 collage captured this intention as “Small steps, big change.” Through small steps taken in our everyday lives, we can cultivate greater clarity, become more discerning and less reactive. This is not the only answer, of course, but it’s a place to start, a way in which we can be immediately accountable for the quality of relationship and belonging in our communities. Consider this wonderful example from Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York blog, where a beautiful image of a young boy on a Brooklyn street was recently posted with the following exchange:

“Who’s influenced you the most in your life?”

“My principal, Ms. Lopez.”

“How has she influenced you?”

“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

Ms. Lopez, doesn’t use the term “student” to describe the children under her tutelage. Instead, she calls them “scholars” to demonstrate that she sees in them their capacity to achieve. She underscores the fact that they matter. With acts such as this, we begin to re-wire our minds and the minds of those with whom we interact to be less reactive and more confident in their worth and their essential place in our world. In small ways and large, we let individuals know they matter, that we are diminished without them.

Remember, people will never forget how you made them feel.

Just ask Ms. Lopez’s scholars.

Originally published on Huffington Post

Chris Murchison

Ditching Performance Reviews For Authentic Conversations

January 8, 2015

Performance management has a bad rap. Mention the topic and a common reaction is “Ugh!” followed by anecdotes of unfair reviews, reviews that never happened, 360s gone awry, and so on. Most are quick to say that performance management needs some serious help.


Performance management is a core system in most organizations, a process for driving both optimal human and organizational performance. However, “more than 70% of all organizations dislike the process they have,” says Josh Bersin, Founder and Principal of Bersin by Deloitte, “and I have yet to talk with an employee or manager who likes it at all (one client calls it a ‘soul-crushing exercise’).” Bersin’s team additionally reports that “only 8%of companies report that their performance management process drives high levels of value, while 58% said it is not an effective use of time.”

Reimagining performance in organizations

There are alternatives and it might be easier than you think. Recognizing the limitations of traditional performance management processes, Adobe has undertaken a courageous experiment by abolishing performance reviews altogether and replacing them with the Check-In, an innovative, “form light” and empowering performance management approach that focuses on real-time feedback and recognition.

Like Adobe, we have also dismantled the traditional performance review and replaced it with what we call the Annual Conversation, a process inspired by an innovative practice introduced by Planned Parenthood of Southern New England over 10 years ago. It’s intended to inspire a reflective and generative conversation about performance between a manager and her direct reports, at a deeper level than might occur in regular supervision meetings throughout the year.

Here’s how it works:

Questions. We’ve created questions to help guide Annual Conversations. The questions are like landmarks, useful ways to get oriented and inspire future-focused thinking about life and work. Examples include, “What are you working on when you feel the most purposeful? Why is this activity meaningful to you?” Or, “What would you attempt to do in the next year if you knew you could not fail? We crowdsource questions from the entire organization and employees can add any questions they like to the basic list.

Reflection. Prior to the conversation, employees are invited to think about the questions and prepare responses. Some employees start weeks in advance, recalling successes and challenges, taking notes about goals and aspirations. Other employees prep just a day or two in advance. The point is to prepare in whatever way works best for you to engage in an open, honest conversation.

Location. Place has everything to do with how comfortable we feel in conversation. Do you want to talk inside or outside, at a café or a park? Whatever the case may be, employees choose a location for the meeting, one that will support the kind of conversation he wants to have with his manager.

Time. It’s not uncommon for some Annual Conversations to last four to six hours, depending on the location, scope and depth of the conversation. But typically most last anywhere from two to four hours. There’s no set timeframe – it’s up to the manager and employee to decide what works best for them.

Non-evaluation. The Annual Conversation is not an evaluation of past performance; it’s a chance to reflect honestly and deepen understanding of what’s working and what’s not, with an eye to setting future goals and enhancing growth and performance. There are no letter grades or performance rankings of any sort.

Merit. Unlike traditional performance reviews, the Annual Conversation is not coupled to merit or incentive pay. These decisions are made separately and communicated outside the framework of the Annual Conversation.

Manager. The manager’s role is to ask good questions and listen deeply. There is nothing for her to prepare. All the prep a manager has to do is to clear her mind of distraction, focus her attention on her direct report, listen, and ask questions to help deepen reflection.

Getting results

Our staff look forward to their Annual Conversations and the impact on our culture has been profound. Employees report that they feel seen, heard, appreciated, and supported. As a result, some staff, including managers, make astounding leaps in focus, growth and productivity.

Experiments like Adobe’s Check-In and HopeLab’s Annual Conversation serve as an important reminders that performance management does not have to be a dreaded exercise. It can be soul enlivening and a win-win: a win for the employee and the organization.

Originally published on Huffington Post


Simple Gifts to Make Your Holidays More Joyful

December 19, 2014

I am 30 minutes early for a breakfast meeting on this late December morning, so I take advantage of the moment to experience the energy of people enjoying the season, savor a quiet cup of tea, and take in the beautiful holiday decorations. Within a few minutes, snippets of nearby conversations make their way to my table, and I find my holiday reverie colliding with a cacophony of drama, dread and disappointment.

“My in-laws are coming in for the holidays. We’ll get through that and then go on vacation for New Year’s. Thank God.”

“I really look forward to the holidays, but then I just want them to be over. Especially when my right-wing father shows up.”

“A lot of holiday time is fun, but it doesn’t have that sacred feeling to me anymore.”


This dread and ambivalence stand in such contrast to the sense of wonder I associate with this season. At their best, the holidays are infused with awe and wonder, and we revel in it. We add sparkle to everything – our food, our clothes, our tables. We lie on our living room floors, squinting to transform tree lights and candlelight into blurry kaleidoscopes. We prepare foods that conjure powerful memories. We carefully choose gifts and lovingly write cards.

In the midst of all this joy and wonder, why, then, do we also prepare for the holidays as if preparing for battle? We anticipate crossing paths with friends and relatives we seldom see and with whom we are eager to take exception. We envision conversations related to highly charged stories dominating the latest news. We plan our offensive as if it’s the Normandy Invasion. If he sits there, then I will position myself here. If she says X, then I’ll say Y. Our daily news consumption becomes a fact-finding mission to buttress arguments we know we’ll be having (or inciting!).

Why are we so willing to hold objects, music, food and decorations in such awe around the holidays, while we approach our fellow humans (our families, even) with such suspicion and trepidation? Might we approach the breathing human beings gathered around our holiday tables with the same reverence that we offer the flickering candles and beautiful flowers? Curiosity, wonder and humor are simple gifts that can transform your experience this season.

Practice curiosity

Even if you don’t feel especially curious, you can still practice curiosity. Instead of finding ways to make your point of view known to Uncle Harry, find ways to illuminate his interests and positions. Listen to understand, not to debate. This is hard work. It takes skillful practice and a genuine willingness to take the perspectives of others with whom we might strongly disagree. So how do we do this?


First, let others tell their stories. Rather than plunging headlong into a recitation of the world from our perspective, we simply commit to listening to others first, curious about what leads them to their perspective. Think of it as an act of generosity (to the host and everyone else in the room) to simply give folks a chance to speak and be heard. Rather than coming to the gatherings “armed” with our facts and arguments, we come bearing the gifts of respect and curiosity.

In my work, I’ve come to appreciate the remarkable and transformative power of cultivating an authentic sense of curiosity and wonder. My colleagues and I have learned that assuming a stance of curiosity helps us open up to new and differing perspectives and supports a more collaborative, creative and productive work environments. Yet when we attempt to use these same notions at family gatherings it can be a very tall order. Why?

Perhaps because we are so certain our perspectives – on immigration Ferguson, fracking, global warming, taxes, gay marriage, Cuba, etc. — are right. Not only are we right, we are certain we are more enlightened than those with whom we disagree. We’re stuck – incurious, unyielding and humorless. (We certainly would not want to be seated next to us at dinner!)

Be your “best self”

So what to do? How do we break our self-righteous stance? First, we can remind ourselves of whom we aspire to be in the world. I do not aspire to be an unyielding, humorless jerk. I do, however, aspire to be thoughtful, loving and respectful.  I want people to know they are fully seen and heard in my presence. I want to be a life-long learner, a person who embraces wonder. When I remind myself of these things — preferably before dinner begins — I invariably talk a lot less, listen, and learn a lot more and have more fun.

I also confess my doubts in these conversations. This can feel very risky, especially when it comes to topics about which I am most sure and most passionate. Confessing doubts in those moments feels like I’m abandoning my principles or revealing a weakness to my opponent. But, I remind myself: this person is not my opponent. She is my great Aunt Louise (for you, perhaps it’s your stepfather Geraldo). If I listen deeply to what is being said and what is left unspoken, I invariably gain perspective and insight. And I do not have to agree with them in order for this to occur.

But what if all of that fails? I’ve tried to be curious, I have reminded myself of my best self and remained open to wonder, and I still find I have created escalating, exasperating conversations, defending my position and jockeying to make points. What then?

Use humor!

Humor is a great lifeline back to curiosity—and self-deprecating humor is especially powerful. It reminds me and my conversation-mate (note to self, not “opponent”) that this discussion is between people – people who are multidimensional, unsure, funny, struggling, good-willed, respectful, flawed. Human.


Remember the goal is to understand, not to convince. If you go into a conversation with the quixotic goal of persuading Cousin Marta that climate change is real, you’ll likely fail and most assuredly will be angry by dessert. But, if you assume a stance of curiosity, you might actually learn something, including what leads Cousin Marta to her point of view. Wonder also absolves you of the self-imposed need to know everything, as well as the need to show others that you do. Relieving that pressure is a gift you can give yourself.

So, before sitting down at your holiday table, take a hard-earned tip from me. Draw a small question mark on the palm of your hand and a smiley face. Look at them occasionally to remind yourself to stay curious and laugh. Remember your best self. The result? Pure magic! Imagine, a family holiday gathering infused with wonder, reverence and joy.

It’s the season of miracles after all.

Originally Published on Huffington Post

Chris Murchison

The Art of Listening

November 19, 2014

“Listen first, speak last.” –Peter F. Drucker

Listening is core to our work at HopeLab. Listening is how we understand the needs of customers, the goals of our partners and the passions of our employees. Our success depends on our ability to truly understanding the interests of other – what we call “deep listening.”

We’ve recently turned the mirror on ourselves, inviting Monica Worline, an organizational ethnographer, to listen in on the day-to-day at HopeLab. For the past year, Monica has documented how we engage and connect as colleagues in the workplace and with people outside our organization. Her work is now being developed for publication, offering insight on how organizations support environments of creativity, innovation and compassion.

Inspired by the experience of being heard, a member of our staff who was interviewed by Monica penned a Haiku in honor of her exceptional listening skills. That poem of gratitude recently found its way into this gorgeous piece of original artwork by Sheri Jarvis, which HopeLab presented to Monica. Beautiful, just beautiful! We just had to share.


Chris Murchison

7 Tips for Asking Highly Effective Questions

November 4, 2014

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” –Stephen Covey

Business leaders support individuals and help them perform their best. But providing guidance and feedback to others can be challenging. People have shifting interests, concerns, and worries. So as a leader, you cannot support people unless you know what they think and how they feel. And this can only be done by asking meaningful questions and listening deeply.


Inquiry of this kind does not come naturally to everyone. Like most things in life, it takes practice and effort. The tips below, inspired by the Quaker practice of discernment, can help you hone your skills and become a better leader, in business, at home, or anywhere in between.

1. Powerful questions are simple. Complex inquiry can obscure what is really being asked. Keep it simple.

2. The best mark of a great question is that you cannot predict the answer. If you know the answer to a question you pose, then you are voicing a statement or opinion rather than an open and honest questions.

3. Ask questions that help people name what they already know. If we listen closely and carefully, answers to most questions come from inner experience. Allow space for people to connect to this experience.

4. Ask questions that expand exploration. Your questions should open up and expand inquiry, rather than narrow it down too quickly.

5. Ask questions about perceptions and feelings, not just the issue at hand. Sometimes answers aren’t found in our words but elsewhere in our body, a gut feeling, for example. Ask questions that allow people to connect with this experience.

6. Avoid storytelling or bringing attention to yourself. When listening to others, our heads can get filled with reactions to what a person is saying rather than listening deeply to their words. Stay focused on the other person and their story, not your own. Listen to understand.

7. Make room for silence. Responses to good questions can be like peeling an onion. There may be layer upon layer of answers until something deeply meaningful is revealed at the core. Getting through these layers requires time. Wait. Be patient.

The presence of a great thought partner and listener can be profound and highly influential in a person’s development. When people are truly heard, they feel a deeper sense of belonging, inspiring trust and loyalty and improving engagement and overall work performance. And when employees are engaged and performing at their best, you create the potential for positive impact on your organization’s culture.

Originally published on Huffington Post

Kevin Neilson

The Dark Side of Sympathy

November 3, 2014

If you think reason is the better angel of our nature, think again.

According to Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, the noblest aspect of human nature is revealed in our sympathetic dealings with others. Sympathy, not reason, is the royal road to overcoming selfish and destructive behaviors. Yet even sympathy has a dark side, as indicated by the title of the book. But before we explore the dangers of sympathy, here’s a quick overview of Haidt’s fascinating work.

The Righteous Mind

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt plumbs the latest in neuroscience, genetics, social psychology, and evolutionary theory to provide an account of how people think and the evolutionary forces that have shaped our thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, he advances three principles of moral psychology:

1. Intuitions come first, strategic reason second

“We don’t reason about moral matters to discover the truth,” says Haidt. “We reason to justify our beliefs.” In the early 90’s, Haidt conducted interviews to probe reactions to the morality of harmless but offensive stories. Thirty eight percent of those he surveyed claimed someone was harmed even though the stories were carefully crafted to exclude harm. He found the people quickly condemned the action in a snap judgment. Haidt construes this as evidence that reasoning often serves intuitions, not the other way round.

2. There’s more to morality than harm and fairness

In the Western world, we’ve embraced an ethic of autonomy, which protects rights and liberty and balances justice for individuals. We tend to think that actions are permissible so long as they don’t harm anyone else. But there are other moral frameworks in the world, as a simple matter of fact.

Statue of Liberty

In an ethic of community, moral concerns center on duty, hierarchy, respect, and patriotism. Here people are viewed as members of a group, not as separate individual people. Tribes, groups and families are worthy of moral regard, independently of what a person thinks or feels.

In an ethic of divinity, central moral concepts include sin, sanctity and purity. People are seen in relationship to God, gods, or something supreme that’s worthy of worship. In this worldview, moral concerns focus on the need to protect the “divine” dimension of life.

Now if you’re like me, you’re at home in an ethic of autonomy. But before you shrug off the moral language of community and divinity, ask yourself, “Is it OK for a brother and sister to have consensual yet 100% protected sex?” Or, “Is it OK to use a dead chicken for sexual gratification?”

Well, is it?

Like Haidt says, there’s more to morality than harm and fairness.

3. Morality binds and blinds

Morality has a light and a dark side. On the one hand, morality enables people to get along within a group.

“When I say that human nature is selfish,” Haidt explains, “I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our own interests, in competition with our peers. When I say that human nature is also groupish, I mean that our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group’s interests, in competition with other groups. We are not saint, but we are sometimes good team players.”


On the other hand, morality, in enabling us to overcome selfishness and form cohesive groups, creates a new problem, namely, out-group tension and conflict.

“Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings—but no other animals—to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship. But at the same time, our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralistic strife.”

Beyond the righteous mind

One of the finest aspects of Haidt’s work is that he suggests a path forward, a way for us to accept the brute facts of in-group and out-group dynamics, while identifying areas where interventions, both technological and educational, can help minimize the effects of our moral blind spots.

One such area of focus is emotion regulation. Because human nature is an emotional elephant with a rational rider, building social and emotional intelligence can help people recognize, understand, and shift how they’re showing up in the world, how they’re acting and behaving.


Another area of focus is the cultivation of belongingness. By promoting authentic social connections, emotions and thoughts are nudged in positive, healthy directions. This in turn impacts belief and action further downstream, in this case, yielding greater sympathy and compassionate behavior.

Lastly, in education, it’s important that we’re honest about the limitations of individuals to reason their way to truth or moral decency on their own. This isn’t something that can be done in isolation. Social and emotional learning programs can help people empathetically relate to one another, enabling them to bridge group divides—social, racial, religious, and political.