Courageous Conversations 2019 Kickoff: Reaching Out More Valuable Than Ever

Monday, April 8, 2019

University of Chicago Professor Nicholas Epley

William Blair kicked off its 2019 Courageous Conversations series for employees on April 1 with an insightful talk by University of Chicago Professor Nicholas Epley on how shedding barriers to connect with others can help you live longer and be happier at work and at home.

Speaking at Chicago headquarters to a packed conference room, Epley told William Blair colleagues that research consistently shows social interaction is critical for our happiness. In fact, being lonely can be more deadly than smoking cigarettes.

"We are made happier and healthier by connecting with others. Yet if you look around the world, it doesn't seem like most people have gotten this memo," he said. "Mistaken expectations keep us disconnected."

Epley, a professor of behavior science, is the author of the book Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want. His research has appeared in more than two dozen scholarly journals.

Courageous Conversations to nurture inclusivity

Courageous Conversations, sponsored by William Blair's Alliance Board, was launched in 2018 as a series of inspirational talks to expand our perspectives and nurture an inclusive and diverse workplace. Last year the series featured renowned social scientists from Harvard, University of Michigan, Northwestern and University College London to share their insights on social engagement and inclusivity.

During the presentation Epley asked the audience to be part of an enjoyable experiment, testing the crowd's feelings about having a "quality" conversation with a colleague.

Partners randomly teamed up to ask each other thought-provoking questions including: What are you most grateful for in your life? When was the last time you cried in front of another person? The experiment involved online polling before and after the interactions to gauge expectations and reactions.

Sharing the results, Epley said the conversations went better than expected. Colleagues felt less awkward in responding to probing personal questions than expected. They also underestimated how much they would like the person they were paired with and how upbeat they would end up feeling following the conversation.

The results mirrored similar experiments Epley and his students have conducted with hundreds of people including commuters, tourists, roommates, couples and more, he said. 

"Data suggests a physiological barrier that keeps people from engaging with others," Epley explained. "People systematically undervalue the positive impact their prosocial behavior will have on other people and in turn on themselves."

Epley posited that the reason people put up barriers is they underestimate how interested the person next to them might be in what they say, making them feel awkward about starting a conversation.

But a growing amount of research suggests that when you follow through on the impulse to engage with others—a passing conversation, just saying thank you, providing constructive feedback to a colleague—you are overcoming such instinctual barriers and the outcome will likely be better than expected and make you happier.

"If expectations are holding you back unfairly, just reach out, connect, say hello to the person on the train," Epley advised. "Tell your colleague what's bothersome. Express support."

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