Building Agency: 4 phrases to Empower your Teammates

Deaf children singing the  Star-Spangled Banner . ( Photo :  Library of Congress )

Deaf children singing the Star-Spangled Banner. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Into the 1900s, there were two deaf communities in Massachusetts.

One had graduation rates lower than the hearing students. This district was rich with deaf social services, aids and other forms of support.

The other deaf community had graduation rates on par with able-bodied students. What’s most surprising - the community didn’t have services. Instead, all community members learned an old form of sign language, and treated the deaf students as equals.

Here lies the paradox:

attempts to support can disempower

The social services - while well intended - can define your identity by your deficiency. They can create a sense of dependency. Framed poorly, their focus on “fixing you” or “solving your problems” can shadow the capacities you can cultivate.

We can face a similar challenge in the work place. Bosses strive to help employees thrive. But often, employees leave meetings with feeling disempowered.

As a leader, the language we use should inspire employees to feel confidant in themselves. Our language should recognize their gifts and talents. It must create agency rather than dependency. We have to treat people has equals.

Thankfully, a few careful shifts in phrasing can achieve exactly that:

4 Empowering Phrases

Phrase 1: “Could I share some thoughts?”

Before sharing your thoughts, ask your collaborator for permission to share. Asking for permission may sound silly. But it gives them power: have the option to say no.

This question is especially important when discussing personal or emotional situations. Issues of burnout, employee conflicts, projects going poorly are sensitive topics. Your managee may just want to air a concern or vent. Let them. They don’t want to hear your steamrolling perspective.

Asking for permission has benefits outside of sensitive topics. Your managee is more bought in to listening after responding “yes”. The question also subtly shifts the tone to a two-way dialogue rather than the manager delivering authoritative claims.

Instead, give them a choice.

Phrase 2: “Consider/Recommend/Suggest”

Communication has multiple parts: what you say, and what is implied subtly.

Asking them to “consider” something implies that you trust their thinking. You simply are providing a new perspective to digest. You have faith they will reach the best conclusion on their own. Over time, this dynamic can subtly build their confidence.

Saying “I recommend we …” or “I suggest …” is a bit more opinionated than asking for consideration. Here, you might explicitly share what you believe is the best course of action.

All these phrases put the ball in their court rather than shoving your thinking forward. Saying “do this” “that’s wrong” or sharing flat out opinions can subtly imposes your superior knowledge onto them. You are creating dependency.

I recommend that you (see what I did there!) use “we” while making suggestions rather than “you”. It implies that you are a thought ally.

Phase 3: “Delegate to me”

This phrase reinforces their power to loop you in to do work on their behalf. The delegation could be actual work or giving feedback. This statement may be a shock to younger employees used to top-down management structures.

If the colleague is super new to delegation, this five point framework is super useful.

Phrase 4: “I’ll support whatever option you decide”

Managers have power. They can delegate, raise salary, fire employees. Managers must work against these typical power dynamics to build employee agency.

Phrase 1 gives employees a power piggy bank

Phrase 2 and 3 puts in a dollar

Phrase 4 sends them out with more bills

The phrase “I’ll support whatever you decide” closes the conversation with the ultimate delegation of power. It reminds them of their agency. It emphasizes that you got their back.

Important things must be repeated

The road to building agency is long. Employees need multiple positive experiences and reinforcements before fully stepping into their power. Each Phrase 4 statement is a vote of confidence. You are dropping another dollar in their agency bank.

If you don’t trust what they were hired to do, then maybe they aren’t a good fit for this role.

Back to Massachusetts…

Our fast paced work culture tempts us to fix things quickly. We may feel impatient with teammates. We might solve their problems instead of letting them figure things out on their own.

The thriving deaf community in Massachusetts got it right. They didn’t solve the challenge with a quick fix. Instead, they had the patience to learn sign language and integrate. In doing so, the whole community could fully utilize their the talents, gifts and influence.

The road to developing a team takes patience.

The language of creating agency may feel foreign. But fluency is the ultimate way to a happy and empowered team.

Re-Thinking Fear

If I had a nickel every time I thought about “facing my fears”, I’d buy a large gumball machine.



I’d put in that machine a picture of a clown - my big fear growing up – and every time I bought a gumball it would spiral down, bloop the clown’s nose and I’d feel better about myself.


This coping strategy won’t work for most people. And probably not me.

So, it's time for us to think differently about fear.

“Facing fears” or “reduce fears” is a misguided adage.

It assumes that fears can be extinguished like a flame throwing clown. But fears always come back. In fact, a total absence of fear is pathological.  The reality is that we have to live with fears rather than demolish them. As Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

The second problem with the “reduce your fears” approach that our incessant focus on fears can strengthen them. Ironically, the more you saturate your mental space with fears and thoughts of incompetence, the more afraid you may become!

Instead, we should focus on our positive intentions that are inhibited by fear. What good thing do you want to do that is restrained by your fear? This small change in framing makes a big difference. You start to act despite fear. You start to accept yourself more. You show a little self-compassion.

From here, you can think practically about how to manage the fear. Reducing it becomes easier because you are facing them in the name of a good cause.

CLICK HERE to donate to my Clown Gumball Machine Non-Profit (Just kidding!)

Face your Fears: A Better Framework [Template]


I have a confession to make.

I’ve been afraid to make YouTube videos of Positivity Dan – the silly character who does daily motivation dances. I stopped making these videos because I got self-conscious. I worried they’d come off as attention seeking or be perceived as weird. (Let’s face it, many of the videos are weird)

For months I tried to reduce my fears. I tried giving myself pep talks, consoling friends for advice. Nothing worked. I couldn’t muster the courage to create the videos. I beat myself up over feeling sensitive about something so small. I felt defeated.

Then I realized I was thinking about it wrong.

My “facing your fears” mental model had got me stuck. I over-identified with my fears and ruminated over my negative feelings and thoughts.

Instead of trying to face my fears, I decided to look at my situation through another lens: “Driving and Restraining Forces.”

Driving forces are what motivate you to take action.

Restraining forces are what inhibit you from taking action.

I like this framework because it approaches fear more practically. By identifying the “Driving forces”, you anchor your thought on something positive. This positivity can give you the strength to overcome unpleasant emotions. You now have a good reason to act despite fear. From here, you can accept fear and strategize how to minimize it.

Here’s the framework spelled out.


First, I centered my thought on what I wanted to do: make and share Positivity Dan videos.

Second, I listed out what motivated me to do it… There were so much negative news stories in my social media newsfeed that I wanted to contribute something more positive.   I wanted to make people laugh and feel good about themselves. I wanted to be a little eccentrically positive in hopes that I’d be a role model to help other people embrace the authentic weird parts of themselves.

Third, I listed out what inhibited me from doing it. Despite all the positive reasons, the videos were exhausting to make every morning. I was far more interested in other creative projects - like writing for this blog. And my self-conscious feelings took up a lot of mental space.

Fourth, after seeing everything plotted out, I came to the conclusion that I’d rather focus my attention on other projects I considered more. Plus, if I wasn’t passionate about making the videos they’d be of lower quality. After coming to this conclusion, I wrote that confirming thought as my affirming force. When I feel unsure about my feeling I come back to this statement. When my feelings change I revisit it.

The framework helps you see the love behind your fears. It takes you to a logical end. Your fear can rest.

As a therapist once told me,

“Think skillfully so you

can come to a conclusion that

lets you feel good

and move on.”

Here are examples of this framework applied to fear of public speaking, dating, and sharing your work with the world.

The Origin Story of Positivity Dan

Positivity Dan was birthed in the sunshine swamps of social media. 🙌🏼📲

Conceived in the belching muck and gurgling goo, he rose with tap shoes on his toes and a big smile on his nose. 👯‍♀️👞

He sprung to life out of negative strive. The right kind of plight to turn a tumultuous morning bright. 🌥🌤☀️

You see, most start their mornings marred unmotivated stirring around their sheets in a rumble tumble bed ridden gloom. Positivity Dan turns the morning room into something new.

Just pop on the video and hear the chant, pant, and rant as this dancing baboon shows you a vibe to groove to. 🦍🕺🏼

Positivity Dance is what they'd call it. Play it at bar mitzvahs and weddings, they would. And at funerals they would ball with it.

You see, these videos have found their way into our hearts

Into that little part of us

that wants a positive start

Religion for Secular Folks

How an atheist stumbled into religion without god.

I grew up religiously confused.

My mom is jewish. My Dad is a Christian turned buddhist. I said I was all three religions. Nobody believed me. The Jews said, “You are jewish because your mother’s bloodline is Jewish.” The Christians said, “You aren’t Christian because you don’t follow the teachings of Jesus.” The Buddhists did not respond because they were busy meditating.

Thus kicked off my way-word journey through religion. What began as lighthearted misunderstanding quickly nose dived to chaos. I read of violent crusades, intolerance of homosexuality, and tense turf wars.

The past 4,000 years turned me away from religion.

Until I accidentally got looped back in.

My freshman year my roommate Harry wanted to find a church. I joined him. We went “church hopping,” attending a new congregation every Sunday until he found a good fit. Over the next year I also spent time immersed in other religions. I studied Taoism, immersed myself in my fiance’s Jewish community, practiced a hindu-based mediation in India for three weeks.

What I found surprised me: religion has distinct benefits that seemed oddly … secular.

Even more fascinating: many secular folks discount these benefits because of religion’s baggage. They resist considering the value of these concepts because of traumatic religious experiences growing up or a bias that someone is trying to convert you.

The rest of this post outlines 5 practices of religion for secular folks: prayer, tradition, community, religious leaders, faith.

My hope is that these can help you evolve in our world.

🙏 Prayer

To many religions, prayer is communicating with a higher power. Prayer results in feeling good, filling a holy duty, seeking redemption, or perhaps bending life in their favor.

We get so afixed to this version of prayer that we miss the benefits of a secular version of prayer.

Prayer has utility. You spend focused time thinking and hoping for others of yourself. You shape your subconscious.

We can use our own version of prayer - fixing our attention on a hopeful intent - in order to subtly shape our psychology.

Try this 10 minute secular prayer: sit in meditation with the idea that all people in the world are growing in faith and love. Faith is not necessarily religious, but whatever faith means to them. As your mind wanders, which it always will, gently guide your attention back to the main idea that all people are growing in love and faith. Do it for 10 minutes.

As you meditate, you’ll notice people from your life come to mind. Perhaps a friend, colleague, someone who frustrates you. Your random thoughts of these people fuses with the guiding idea that they will grow in love and faith. You begin to subconsciously coat your frustrations, worries, and feelings about these people towards love. You subtly feel softer towards those who frustrate you and even more joyous for those you love. These feelings ripple into your interactions.

This prayer is no answer to a holy call - but it does build the holiness within you.


noun - an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom)

Each religion has it’s laundry list of traditions.

Each tradition fills one of three utilities: creates value, identity, and/or community.

Many traditions are valuable. Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, prohibits people to us technology, creating space for community and study. The weekly act of listening to a church sermon reinforces the points in the Bible. The cadence of daily, monthly, yearly traditions can give people a grounding regularity in a life of flux and uncertainty.

The traditions can create a sense of shared identity. Jews can feel a common understanding and togetherness, similar to the way you may feel with people from your same home town, country or as fans of the same sports team.

Identity is also created in shared objects and symbols. For religious groups this may be a hijab, yamaka, an idol, a Christmas tree, religious books, Matza or a sacrement. We associate these objects with experiences and part of the story of who we are.

Tradition can ground us in our values and ourselves.

Together, this value and identity manifests itself in community.

👩‍👩‍👦‍👦 Community

Community. The first time I went to church someone greeted me at the door, another person walked me to a pew, passing me off to another person who helped me find a seat. The friendliness exceeded any conference or commercial attempt at community. People can construct amazing social systems around a purpose. In our increasingly isolated world we are in need of such community.

We can create our own community and and traditions around a purpose.

Start celebrating yearly holidays of your own creation. For when someone changed jobs, had a baby, finished a project.

Typical tradition is great: birthdays, baby showers, etc. But coming up with your own versions, based on your group’s unique personality can be a source of extra value and distinct identity.

Here are some examples of self-made traditions:

  • Cook dinner together every Sunday night

  • Have a reverse book club every quarter: each person summarizes the book they read

  • Meet monthly to discuss career challenges and opportunities

  • Have a yearly sports in the park day

  • Creating your own versions of Bar Mitzvah’s, Quinceañera, Anniversaries

Here’s a starter kit for community tradition creation:

  1. What are the top three things you all value?

  2. What activities do you all do individually to express that value?

  3. Is there a place, time, or moment that best captures the value?

  4. Could you all do that together on a weekly or monthly basis?

  5. What objects, visuals, or insignia could capture your community’s spirit?

  6. Schedule your traditions on the calendar


👤 Religious Leaders

This is the Imam/Monk/Priest/Rabbi/Pujari/etc.

People turn towards these leaders for guidance. The leaders have a deeper understanding of religious texts and (potentially) stronger morals.

I think it’s unhealthy to see any person as “above others,” “more holy,” or “superior”. Your community, however, likely has individuals with different areas of expertise.

Call out the talents and areas of expertise of each member. These skills may be professional, domestic, interpersonal, etc. Secular communities can see themselves as having many “leaders” who can give guidance guidance.

Make a pact to open up “trade” to ask each other for help. American culture is too isolated; we overvalue self reliance and miss opportunities to collectively thrive. We can strengthen our collective groups by tapping into the expertise of each other more frequently. The Hive Mind wins.

You need to have an explicit conversation to open the trade routes - or else, the social norms will pull you back to … normal.

💨 Faith

There’s an atheistic assault on faith.

Maybe you’ve heard one of these:

  • “What proof do you have that god exists?”

  • “How do you believe a book that tells of impossible magic?”

  • ”Don’t have faith in god, take action and responsibility yourself!”

The negative discourse on faith is mainly centered on the impossibilities of religious tales.

But before you discount faith, consider this: atheists have faith too.

This may feel foreign to you. But I assure it is not. You have beliefs in something. Maybe just that “things will workout” or “things will be ok”.

Faith is essentially hope in the unknown. It pulls you from the rubble of life like a safety harness. Many see faith as a source fo reliance “when things go wrong” - you can always fall back on faith.

Secular folks can find this faith in Rational Reality. Reality is the objective facts in life. Reality is almost always ok. Most Americans have food, water, and shelter. It’s the storylines about Reality that cause our suffering: “I’m not good enough,” “I’m a failure.“

Reality is more powerful than our stories.

Secular Faith sounds like this:

  • “Even though x happened to me, I know everything is ok”

  • ”I’m anxious, but I’m ok.”

  • “My mind is making the problems bigger than they are”

You put your faith in something. Might as well pick objective truth rather than the stories that twist and bend our mind.

We can have faith in Reality - the objective truth of life. I think this is potentially even more powerful than having faith in God.

Needless complexity


Gym instructors teach you every machine.

Music streaming services give custom jams recommendations.

Health restaurants serve the latest Brazilian Superfood.

If you want to “get fit”, “enjoy music”, or “be healthy”, what you claim you want may be masking a deeper need. Most of these goals can be achieved without spending a dime. Just do sit-ups and jog at home, listen to the free tunes on YouTube, and buy your own basic natural ingredients and cook them.

The hidden need behind many services to feel good about yourself. Feel supported. Be disciplined. Feel like you are doing something high quality. 

What if you could get that without spending money?

Dear self-help skeptics

If you read the Bible, Quran, or Torah then you read self-help.

If you use cookbooks then you read self-help.

If you read any book that espouses some advice then you read self-help.

Most of critics of self-help are actually active readers of it.

What they reject in self-help, I believe, is the notion that someone else has the answers to your success and happiness. Critics say that nobody can teach you how to be happy.

I agree.

I use self-help books consultatively rather than authoritatively. I explore a book’s offering of new ideas, new perspectives, and new ways to approach the world. I take some ideas and trash others. If millions of people buy the book and find it useful I have the humility to set aside my pride and read.

Self-help books are valuable - as long as you as you see them as suggestions for consideration rather than a truth to follow.

Community: a cure for Depression?

When I lived in Gabon, Africa for 5 weeks I was amazed by the strength of community. In the rural village of Oyem, children were raised with 60 family members within walking distance from their home. They grew up surrounded by uncles, aunts, cousins all of whom knew their name and cared for them like parents. They roamed freely between houses, always exploring with a loving guardian within sight. Their aunts and uncles were considered equals to their mother and father. For real – many kids spent months and years living with relatives, away from their nuclear family.

It’s hard for me to imagine growing up in such an environment and feeling seriously depressed. Of course families all have their issues, and I’m sure that life is never all kumbaya. But I’m beginning to believe that much of our suffering comes from our isolation. Our isolation in location. Our isolation in mutual understanding. Our isolation in thought. Together, but isolated.

Surrounded by dozens of people who love you certainly won’t be a cure for depression. But it certainly won’t hurt.

Flaws of "Willpower"

Could the idea of willpower be a hoax?

Willpower is an American holy grail: control your impulse, control your actions, control your life. Willpower is the American Dream: “pick yourself up from your bootstraps,” “build your own destiny.”

As a lead coach of a 100+ student college, I’ve heard dozens of students lament over shortcomings of their willpower. “I can’t motivate myself” “I can’t change my habits.”

After a years of complaints, I asked, “Could we be thinking about the concept of Willpower all wrong?”

I decided to design some experiments. What I discovered surprised me.

The whole concept may be misguiding.

Origins of Willpower

"Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

In 1830, a young Ralph Waldo Emerson sat next to his sick wife. Faced with her mortality, he began to work on an essay. The resulting Self Reliance praises the power of individuals to take responsibility over their life. This idea spawned the Transcendentalism movement and the need for willpower.

In the 1990s, researcher Roy Baumeister began to research the concept. His experiments observed that people quit faster, perform worse, and become passive in tasks that require high willpower. He concluded that our willpower is a limited resource and can be used up from a common source. He coauthored a book with New York Times columnist John Tierney, whom I had on my podcast. I learned through our conversation that willpower is behind many modern movements such as Life Hacking, Essentialism, and more. The narrative on willpower is set. Or is it?

The Problem with Willpower: Internal Conflict

Take these 3 examples that require willpower:

- not eating the cookie in the office

- getting up early to go to the gym

- having a hard conversation with a friend

Each example is based on a model of internal conflict: part of you wants to do the healthy things, but part of you wants to eat sugar, lay on the couch, and retreat to be alone.  This portrayal of internal conflict is the core problem with the willpower model: it framed our problems as a draining battle when in reality we can take a more frictionless approach.

Managing these two conflicting sides of yourself is exhausting!

Beyond Willpower: Pleasure

Here’s a better model.

My dad is an eccentrically health man. He steams broccoli and drinks the leftover green  liquid afterwords. He’s 70 years old and works out so hard that he lightly moans on the exercise bike while jamming to Ariana Grande. 

He does not live with internal conflict to be healthy. He’s beyond that. 

Instead he learned to find pleasure in the things of which most people require “willpower”. 

He changed his mind to appreciate the taste.  He focuses on the biological high that results from exercise.

What we really need is not willpower  to overcome our lesser selves. What we need is to discover and experience the pleasure behind what we previously wanted to “will” ourselves to do.

My dad doesn’t have to will himself to the gym because he wants to go. 

Designing for Pleasure

 Instead of willpower we should focus on finding pleasure in the things we want to do.

Here are three ideas: 

1. Intellectual - What is the logical reason it will be valuable? What’s the logical reason you could enjoy this? What aspect of this activity do you appreciate? The goal is to be honest with yourself and appreciate new aspects of your activity. 

2. Bite size experiences - do something so small you will feel like a win. To emphasize this may be VERY small. I had a friend who wanted to loose 150 points. After months of failed and shameful trips to the gym he decided to change his approach. He decided to start small: intentionally walk 5 minutes every day. He did this for a whole month. The task was so easy that he felt like a win every day. That created pleasure that carried him forward. Next month he walked 10 min intention, next month 20 min, then ran 1 min intentionally, then 5 min, 10 min, 15 min, 20 min. After two years he lost the weight because he learned to love the exercise. And, the habit stuck! This brings me to the next tip... 

3. Play the long game - Like mentioned before, finding pleasure takes a while. Don’t rush! 

Finding pleasure, I believe, is a better path towards empowerment, agency, and transforming your life.


I’ve began putting “willpower” in quotes. It’s something that can trigger shame, inability, and angst. Instead I focus on creating pleasure - because when you do that, the rest of the action takes care of itself. 

Reject Hollywood Romance

Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment

Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment

In the movie La La Land, Emma Stone pirouettes like an adorable sneezing daffodil. Ryan Gosling does that inevitably cute I’m annoyed at you but also interested – and our night will digress us to a bliss filled finale.

Welcome to the Hollywood Romance, a storybook connection-by-fate as enchanting as it is unrealistic. Even though La La Land has a nontraditional ending, Tinseltown is flooded with “destiny” love stories like The Notebook, You’ve Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally.

Stories like these set a high bar for what love looks like. Even if you know that real life happens differently, these stories still make their way into your subconscious standards.

Love doesn’t need to be an epic story. In most cases, it’s not.

It’s just someone meeting someone, enjoying it, and then hanging out again. And then, again. And again.

And then love happens or it doesn’t.

We need to divorce the magical “falling in love moments” and instead focus on a question: would I like to see this person again?

Widening Your Circle

The work of a soulful life is to widen your circle. 

The circle is the lasso you toss around those in your life. It is the concern for friends,  hopes for yourself, consideration for people in your immediate life. It is the composite of your mental space.

In a state of depression, we are often the only person the lasso reaches. Our fears, angst, and sadness are too overbearing for our energies to reach others.

Upon more solid ground, our lasso reaches our friends and family.

Even stronger, it can reach our colleagues and strangers we pass on the streets. 

... this is the natural reach of our lasso. It is natural because one can live a blessed life of meaning and joy with their lasso thus far. 

But in this state, one has a choice - will you extend your lasso further? Will it reach the homeless on the street, the animals you eat, the people on computers far off in distant towns, kids you do not know, generations yet to be born. Extending the lasso this far is not natural; we did not evolve to toss our reach beyond our immediate tribes or past our lifetimes.

And yet we have a choice - do we extend our lasso? And how will our one precious life change if we do. 

The Numbing of San Francisco

A student of mine moved from rural Georgia to the Tenderloin. He got off the plane, hopped on BART, shook hands with the BART attendant with a big southern, “thank you sir” handshake. This was his first time in a big city. He arose from the escalators at Powell BART to the sun bending past sky scrapers. The succulent trees seemed to hug to the iconic cable cars. Tourists laughed. Wow, he silently mouthed.

Then he walked 2 blocks into the Tenderloin. Shit on the streets. Needles. Shooting eyes that begged for relief.

He fell into desperation. His church-going heart broke. In distress, he moved into the nearest corner store. He spent most of his cash (of which he had little) on water bottles and Nature Valley bars. He gave them to everybody down the block.

He left helpless. Desperate. Urgent.

Most of us do not have the desperation of someone seeing our city’s problem for the first time.

We’ve become numb.

Decoupling Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations are ... difficult.

Why? You must simultaneously:

  • Create a positive outcome for you

  • Create a positive outcome for them

  • Create a safe space

  • Understand what you want

  • Request what you want

  • Listening to their wants

  • Manage unpleasant feelings

  • Deal with uncertainties

You can juggle all 8 dynamics at once (and make a mess).

Or you can be like these wonderful monkeys...

These monkeys are picking up each aspect of the conversation one by one, instead of all at once. They are simplifying their communication. Clever orangutans.

This post outlines a constructive (and linear) way to approach difficult conversations...

By the end you’ll have an actionable framework to bridge conflict with a partner, friend, or colleague.

PART 1: Lay the Foundation

1.) Hopeful outcome for you

Conflict is difficult because you don’t know what the other person is thinking. There’s a mixing of your intent and their intent, past actions and miscommunications. So before you talk, think about your ideal ending to the conversation. What – if achieved– will you feel good, regardless of other outcomes?

What you want can be deceptive. Many stay on a surface level: “I want you to put your socks away,” or “I want you to be friendlier to Laura.”

But our ideal outcomes often involve deeper needs … Acclaimed negotiation expert William Ury once helped two battling billionaires resolve a conflict (listen here to my conversation with Ury). The two business partners were consumed in a decade long battle for control of their 150,000 employee company. Both gave Ury a typical answer for what they wanted from the negotiation:  "I want the stock at a certain price, i want a non-compete clause and the company headquarters ..." William pushed back, "but I want to know what you really want … If there's one thing - what do you most want?" The billionaire thought carefully and said, "My freedom. Freedom, that's what I most want." He finally identified his deeper need. William asked, "what does freedom mean to you?" The billionaire wanted freedom to go on to other business deals and spend time with his family. Building off their deeper needs, the business partners were able to resolve the conflict while upholding their dignity.

Focus on your ideal outcome. What will it take for you to feel good?

Our ideal outcome often relates to our deepest needs. See this NVC needs inventory to identify what needs of yours aren’t currently met in your relationship. Maybe you want to feel more respect? Maybe more stability or trust?

2.) Hopeful outcomes for them

We enter difficult conversations with a mix of emotions. Anchor on the positive ones. Write down your positive intention for them in the conversation. Be ready to voice your this intention at the start of your conversation. It loosens the tension. You establish your desire for a WIN-WIN. Ask them to voice their intentions for you.

This exercise of exchanging intentions syncs you on the same team - even if both of you feel hurt; you know that the whole conversation is aimed at mutually beneficial goals. If you have trouble finding a positive intent, take some space or evaluate if you are in a toxic relationship.

3.) Create conversation ground rules & commitments

Lay down your intentions for how you want to conduct your conversation.

These could include:

  • try to understand each other’s perspective

  • favor a constructive future instead of belabored past

  • allow room for silence

  • have one person speak at a time

  • respect other person’s perspective

  • take pauses and patience as needed

  • acknowledge our win-win intentions

With your partner, fill in the blank: “This conversation will be successful if we do ________________ while talking.”

Voicing this may feel cheesy, but these commitments creates safety. Even if it is cheesy, please note that some monkeys do like cheese …

Laying the groundwork (your intentions for yourself, for them, for the conversation) makes the rest of the conversations exponentially easier. I’ve used this method with half a dozen couples and they all said the groundwork make the conversation be the most comfortable they had been in discussing their conflict in months.

You always have this foundation to return to if feelings get out of hand.

PART 2: The Conversation

4. Request what you need to achieve the outcomes:

Nonviolent Communication has a 4-step process to make peaceful progress in difficult conversations.

Share your:

1. Observations of the relationship

2. Feelings related to the relationship

3. Needs of yours not being met

4. Requests for others to meet your needs

This approach works because it allows you to speak your truth without playing the blame game.

As NVC founder Marshall Rosenberg puts beautifully, “First, we observe what is actually happening in a situation: what are we observing others saying or doing that is either enriching or not enriching our life? The trick is to be able to articulate this observation without introducing any judgment or evaluation—to simply say what people are doing that we either like or don’t like. Next, we state how we feel when we observe this action: are we hurt, scared, joyful, amused, irritated? And thirdly, we say what needs of ours are connected to the feelings we have identified. An awareness of these three components is present when we use NVC to clearly and honestly express how we are… follow immediately with a fourth component – a very specific request ‘Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?’ This fourth component addresses what we are wanting from the other person that would enrich our lives or make life more wonderful for us.”

The conversation becomes simple: can we meet each other’s needs, or no?

Blame focuses on how the other person’s actions feel wrong. The NVC approach articulates what you need for the situation to feel right.

Blame assumes the other person’s motives. The NVC approach makes no assumptions.

The truth is, as demonstrated by David Bradford's model below, you can only speak to your perspective - the reality of your emotions, motives, and intention (reality 2) as well as the irrefutable facts and behaviors of your interaction (reality 1).

Visual courtesy of  Innerspace , a Startup Founder support community

Visual courtesy of Innerspace, a Startup Founder support community

Blame lies in speaking from reality 3 – the other person’s motives. Only they can speak to reality 3.

The organization Innerspace has a communication rule to  “stay on your side of the net” – speak only to your intentions (reality 1) and actions you perceived (reality 2). Allow them voice their interpretation. This framework, coupled with the NVC approach, allows you to respect each other’s perspectives and focus on productive action.


5. Listen to their request

Hear them out. What are their needs? What do they want?

If they blame you, ask them what they need to feel better – now and in the future. Don’t take it personally; As Rosenberg says, behind any blame is an unmet need.

6. Validate that you understand them correctly

Use the “mirror listening” technique - repeat back to them your understanding of what they just said. This step helps you two identify any miscommunication and clarify the situation. You can now respond to each other’s requests effectively.

Whoa this is exhausting. Here’s a video of an adorable baby monkeys doing cute things. Please take a break and enjoy.

7. Respond to their requests

Our natural inclination is to be defensive when we hear a request. We want to justify our past actions or argue that their request is unreasonable or impossible.

If you can’t accommodate a request, you need a way to address that respectfully.

One way is to use the LARA framework. Created buy civil rights activist Bonnie Tinker, the LARA framework helps you acknowledge the other person’s perspective while sharing your own. (You’ll notice that we’ve already covered the first two steps of the framework).

1.     Listen – already did

2.     Affirm their perspective – already did

3.     Respond – After the first two steps, respond directly to what the person said. Share your interpretation and opinion of their request. By saying this, you convey that the other person’s perspective deserves to be taken seriously.

4.     Add Information – then share any additional ideas, suggestion, thoughts you have on how to handle the situation. This step is sharing your unique perspective on the situation.

Some people listen and then immediately plow over the other person’s perspective by adding their own thoughts (just “listening” then “adding” their perspective). LARA helps the other person feel heard and understood – a critical step to them becoming receptive to your ideas.

8. Pause and slow down

If your head is hurting I don’t blame you. This is a lot to digest.

Don’t rush the conversation. To slow down, take a break and cool down when either of you need it.

9. Resolution – the conversation can result in a few outcomes:

1.     You can meet each other’s requests – in this case, write a commitment plan to make your intentions and desires explicit. This will make your foundation to support each other stronger.

2.     You can’t meet each other’s requests – in this case, you may need to evaluate if you need to break up or change the parameters of the relationship.

3.     You need more time to clarify your needs and identify new ones – sometimes we leave the conversation feeling more confused then when we entered it. This is often a symptom of not being clear about your own needs. In this case, return to step one and update your needs list.

The nine steps give you a practical approach for difficult conversations.

So if you feel like your next conversation is juggling 10 balls – slow down, walk through these steps to approach each ball one by one.

If all else fails, get a friend facilitator to help you.

How to Love Networking

Everything You’ve Learned about Professional Networking May Be Wrong.

We need to radically transform the way we think about networking. 

As the head of Professional Development at a new innovative college, I’ve seen hundreds of students uncomfortable with the idea of networking. They know the gains - learning, mentorship, business contacts, potential employment (some estimate networking results in 85% of hires) - and knowing so muddles their thinking. 

The hope of gains mixes into a toxic concoction. The other ingredients: fear of “using people,”  self consciousness of “asking for too much” and feeling “unworthy of help”. This concoction spoils authentic connect. 

Approaching people at events begins to feel like a hollow transaction for even the most personable and selfless students. They see people’s titles and companies over their humanness and passions. Other professionals become a resource to forward your career. Even if we consciously think we are genuinely connecting, our subconscious is often driven by these ulterior motives.

That sounds like a big load of selfishness!! 

I don’t want to meet that person at a networking event - I want to meet someone who is kind, considerate, wants to support and help other people … not for their own gain, but because they genuinely want to help.


Forget the traditional and tired methods. Show up caring for others with no expectation of gain. Everyone wants to ask for something - why don’t you offer something. Everybody has needs. As so and so said, “If Bill Gates came in room and I looked him in the eye as he spoke and listened to him, I could offer him something. Yes Bill Gates has money, but you have something money can’t buy.” Everybody has something to give - even if it’s just undivided attention by someone who cares.

Show up with the intent to give instead of gain.

The intent to give opens you up. One of my students was told this advice before attending SXSW. He said it made him less nervous, he had more fun, and he built relationships that will last beyond the conference. What’s most shocking - he returned with 10 scheduled calls with recruiters and collaborators. Why? Because companies want to hire people who genuinely care about others!

You’ll hate networking and won’t be effective if you think about yourself the whole time. Focus on giving instead of gaining, and you’ll receive more than you ever imagined. 

Rethinking Networking

Here are three new rules of networking, thought up by my wonderful friend Bethany Hinton:

1. Find their brilliance

Everybody has something that lights them up. A passion. Hobby. Their work. Find that. You’ll learn about their world view and the other person will feel appreciated and valued.

2. Network for other people

Don’t network for yourself. Network for your friends and community. Be a hub for connecting new people you meet to old contacts. You can facilitate new hires, clients, customers, community members. You can pass along articles and resources. This mindset opens you up your intent to gain to give. 

3. Be a Medium on a Mission

Are you working to benefit the world? If so, view networking as a way to allow other people to extend their impact through you. Great missions have a gravitational affect, people want to help those working to create good. Be that medium.

Finding people’s brilliance, networking for others, and being a medium on a mission breaks us out of our overthinking minds so we can network with heart.

Relationship Hierarchy of Needs

My friend Rajesh created what he calls the Relationship Hierarchy of Needs...

Drawing by  @ me_lem   for a friend's wedding present

Drawing by @me_lem for a friend's wedding present

Like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, his framework illustrates the components to a thriving romantic partnership.

At the base, you need to enjoy spending time with the person. Great conversations. Laughs. Lovely sex. Kissing, hugging, nushing. Romantic attraction. The one-on-one relationship feels nourishing. This need is foundational for all other aspects of the relationship. 

The middle section is the need for integration. You can explore the outside world together –hobbies, interests, adventures, mutual friend groups. You can also bring your world back home to the person ­– talk about what excites you, work, and life independent of the relationship. Your partner listens and engages, even if they don’t share your interests. You feel like you can express your full authentic self.

The next section is the need for growth – growth in emotional connection, trust, communication and personal development. Life is not stagnant. Things change and you need to learn and adapt with the person next to you.

Finally, the top is a radical pursuit of honesty. You can identify your deepest needs and communicate them to your partner. You can have the hard conversations to strengthen your relationship. This takes a tremendous amount of introspection. Often, we may need a framework to make our thinking more productive.

The ideal romantic relationship, in my mind, earns high marks in each of these categories.

A friend can excel at one of these categories and not in others.

Hopefully, this framework can give you another lens by which to look at your relationships.

Embrace relationship conflict

40-50% of married couples in the United States get divorced.

Basically, the officiator should hand you divorce paperwork to file away on your wedding day. You can keep it in your bottom drawer with a coupon for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream as collateral and a bag of Cheetos (they won't be stale 20 years from now!)

I’m not pessimistic about relationships. I’m just voicing how without deliberate work, even the most wonderful relationships can wane. This is as true for our love lives as it is at work.

My social circle has a tendency not to voice relationship difficulties. Nobody wants to admit that they face conflict with the person they love most. That’s scary.

But conflict is inevitable in any relationship. As we change, our relationships change. We must adapt. Or break up. As the protagonist in the movie Her aptly said,  “It was exciting to see her grow and both of us grow and change together. But that's also the hard part: growing without growing apart or changing without it scaring the other person.” We must accept that conflict is a natural part of relationships.

How will you deal with the inevitable change?

I’m in a great relationship now. We have difficult conversations almost weekly. We recognize that our needs and wants are always changing. We must reset boundaries and address new conflicts. We have a weekly-checkin that provides a proactive and constructive way to adapt to change.

The larger problem is that our culture paints relationship conflict as bad. When was the last time a friend turned to you and said, “I just had the most wonderful disagreement!”

We need cultural role models who recognize that addressing conflict is part of life.

Instead of Maury Povich and Jerry Springer, there should be a TV host called Jerry Lover – a sweet man who helps people strengthen their already thriving relationship. Jerry has jerry curls. He gives homage to the fact that all relationships need work. Jerry wears pink overalls and looks adorable.

Imagine billboards with the National Mother of the Year, helping her children overcome stressful experiences. We should hear from the couple who “fights fair” and helps other people do so too. There should be public forums where couples can work through their issues.

What if people felt comfortable exposing their relationship’s underbelly without feeling like a failure?

It’s not about you [Poem]

You want to impact in the world, ey?


Stop thinking about yourself.


Stop thinking about if you are right,

if you are qualified

if you have good ideas

if people like you

if you’ll be successful


The more you think about yourself,

the less space you have for others,

their problems,

their issues.

Others – understanding them

is the only way to have an impact.


So instead,


Ask people how you can help

show up and listen

angle your mind towards support

pick a good intention

let attitude lift you higher than self-interest

and act.

let go and say “well, I had good intent.”


Most anxieties, worries, and stresses come from thinking about where you stand. Let that go. And see what happens.

Success is how you show up

Success is often portrayed as some tangible accomplishment: awards, dollars, press.

Here’s an alternative perspective:

 “The planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”

- David Orr

The Feedback Meter: Communicate Better with Employees

We need to tailor feedback to peoples' emotional states.

Since emotions always follow us into the workplace, this post will equip you with the scripts to ensure that your coworker feels supported - and not triggered - no matter their present feelings.

The Feedback Meter, displayed below, provides a qualitative framework for you to respond effectively to your coworker's emotional state.


Let's apply the Feedback Meter to your 1-on-1 feedback session with your hypothetical direct-report named Jimmy:

PART 1: What's On Your Mind?

Start your conversation by asking, "What's on you mind?" This open ended question allows your coworker to voice what is truly pertinent in day and/or the project. 

The employee will take his answer wherever he wants. He may dive confidently into the project discussion, in which case you can talk shop. He may voice emotional frustration - in both body language and words - in which case, you can use the following scripts to add an extra layer of support.

PART 2: Tailoring Feedback

Below are Jimmy's five emotional states and scripts for an effective response.

Depressed (-1) Jimmy had a rough day. He just found out that his daughter is failing a few classes in school. His wife just lost her job so he feels an extra financial weight. He can barely pay attention to his new work project, let alone perform.

Body Language: His posture is hunched, he laughs a little too much or too little. His eyes dart away from yours as he mumbles. His caught in his head.

Your Script: "I've noticed you seem stressed recently. I can say personally, when I'm very stressed I'm way less productive at work. I’d love to listen or support in any way I can. No worries if not."

The passive offer of support allows him to choose whether it would help or not. Your vulnerability to mention your past stressful experiences gives the coworker encouragement and permission to voice their own. The "what do you think?" puts your offer as a choice in their hands.

Unsure (0) Jimmy is unsure about his approach to his new project. He just joined the team, read a bunch of articles, but his strategy feels like a shot in the dark. He feels like a failure.

Body Language: A glimmer of hope shines through between intermittent stutters. He's jittery, hands tapping and sliding the table as he changes positions in his chair. He's hesitant to jump into the conversation and feels relieved when you take the lead.

Your Script: "How are you feeling about the project? I’m thinking it may be most productive to start our meeting by talking about our approach. You can share how you are thinking about it, I can share how I’m thinking. Hopefully, together we’ll ensure that we are on the right track. What do you think?"

This script works because it's a strength-based approach: you suggest a method to accomplish more by tag-teaming the strategy, before diving into execution. This allows you both to broach your coworker's uncertainty without drawing attention to his lack of confidence.

Excited (1) Jimmy is excited about his new project but a little insecure about it. He feels confident about his strategy but feels sensitive to criticism.

Body language: He's quick to respond and smiley. There's a slight tension in the room as if he is protecting his work. His legs and arms cross in a brief moment of defensiveness, but overall, he appears ready and prepared for the check-in.

Your Script: "I like you did [x approach]. Consider doing [y approach] to make it better in [z ways]. What I like best is what you did here. Great work! What do you think?"

Since Jimmy is excited, you can deliver feedback on what he is doing well and what he can improve (see post on two-way feedback with your managers). This creates a positive tone and encourages him to continue his effective practices and grow as needed.

Feeling Good (2) Jimmy is feeling good about the project. The work felt manageable and he’s ready for constructive feedback on how to improve it.

Body Language: He maintains strong eye contact. His posture is upright and he speaks clearly about his work.

Your Script: "Nice! Consider doing [y approach] to make it better in [z ways]. Keep it up! What do you think?""

Given his confidence, this script serves the same role as the (1) approach but is more direct and spends less time on encouragement. 

Thrilled (3) Jimmy is thrilled to forward his project and feels secure about himself. He even feels ready to take on bigger challenges.  

Body Language: Your meeting feels like busy work because he's on point with most of his tactics. You don't have much to contribute and the conversation feels more like a formality than a useful discussion.

Script: "Looks great. My only suggestion is [z idea]. I wonder how you can level up on this work? What do you think? ... Here are some suggestions. Have you read [z's book]? Consider checking out [y thought leader's blog]. Perhaps you should grab coffee with someone who is an expert in your field of work.”

This script enables you to challenge your employee to push the bounds of their own development. Your role becomes directing your coworker to resources - articles, books, and people - to channel his ambition.


Let's not be mistaken. You can't play therapist to the detriment of your company. If someone is underperforming you may need to pull the plug.

The point of the Feedback Meter approach is to improve your coworker's performance.

Language has the power to give people comfort and strength when they need it most.

Tailor criticism to people’s emotional states

We need to tailor our feedback to people’s emotional states.

At Make School I give students feedback on their resumes and cover letters. Before giving feedback, I first always take a pulse on their emotional state on a scale from -1 to 3.

If a student enters my office looking distraught (-1), I address their wellness and hear them out. Without addressing this, my feedback will fall on deaf ears and the student will leave discouraged. I need to get them back to level ground.

If the student seems a bit insecure our unsure (0), I recommend that we first discuss and fine-tune their approach to the project. By affirming their approach, they gain confidence for their execution. Insecurities are minimized when the student realizes they are on the right track.

If they feel pretty good (1), I give standard feedback on how they can improve their material. I frame my feedback as “suggestions” and “something to consider” as a way to demonstrate confidence in their ability to make the ultimate decisions. I’m also sure to emphasize the strengths of their work.

If they look confident (2), I make my suggestions more direct and spend less time on encouragement. 

If they look very confident and under challenged (3), I give feedback and then focus our conversation on how they can accelerate their learning, whether through research or getting a mentor with skills beyond mine.

My job is more than helping them improve their content. It’s also to help them grow their confidence. Managers must ask, will people leave the meeting encouraged, empowered, inspired? Or will they feel at fault and guilty for doing a bad job?

Feedback should be given with the goals of delivering content and cultivating the confidence of the recipient.

See sample scripts on how to have these conversations.