The Hug Timer : A respectful way to guide and show gratitude during discussions


Have you ever been part of a program or facilitated a program of multiple speakers sharing the same amount of time? I feel these are always set up to be unsatisfying, from the moment you even call someone a “speaker” – is that what they are, just a talker? Of course not, they are people with rich experience that they want to share and stimulate learning from. I heard a great thing at the AT&T Innovation Center a few weeks ago, which is that they don’t use the term “speaker” – they use “discussion leader.”

The hug timer was first prototyped at the 2nd DC Health Data and Innovation Week (see: 2012 HealthCampDC and The Walking Gallery bigger.better | Ted Eytan, MD) at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Total Health (@kptotalhealth). It started even before that when Laurie Ostrofsky (@simplyleap) came through the Center on HugTour 2012 (see: Photos and podcast from DC Hug Tour 2012 | Ted Eytan, MD). The idea further took flight at the Institute for Health Improvement/TripleAim book launch in June, 2012. I would say it was Lauree’s teaching + Alex Carmicchael’s (@accarmichael) hug proclivities + the Center for Total Health space, which doesn’t tolerate conformity very well, that made this happen.

After talking to Lauree about what hugs are for, which is not the physical act, it’s the expression of gratitude and gratefulness to and for another person, I thought this could be applied well to group facilitation. 

I feel like the standard techniques, the stop lights, the “times up,” the “I’m going to be a brutal timekeeper” lines are disrespectful bordering on angry, and reduce a person’s contribution to that of a talker. Language and behavior matter, especially in health.

On the other hand, a hug, signifies something totally different. It says, “I’m so glad that you came to be with us, for every second of time you’ve given to our learning.” And I’m not even a hugger, read on.


Following on Lauree’s teaching, the actual hug does not have to be a physical act.

First, find out the preferences of the people you’ll be facilitating. It’s simple to ask “Are you a hugger?” as the first question. They’ll tell you. If they don’t know where they fall, describe the process – “Instead of telling you to stop, I want to respect and show gratitude for your contribution. If you are comfortable with a hug, I’ll do it that way, if not, a handshake, a high five, a wink, a smile, is great. When the timer indicates that time has come, I’ll approach you and you’ll know it’s time.”

I think it’s best not to have this conversation right before the discussion, again, out of respect. In reality, when you do have this discussion you’re going to learn something special about the person you’re respecting anyway.

That’s basically it. You can vary the speaking time – I’ve now done it from 60 seconds to 12 minutes. You can show the discussion leader the timer (see image above) or you don’t have to. But do have a timer for yourself. I feel that for 60 seconds, a visible timer can be anxiety provoking, so best to show time by your behavior (the hug). It’s hard enough to synthesize anything for an audience in 60 seconds.

More “I’m so glad you’re here,” less “what brought you in to see me”

I’ve implemented the hug timer 3 times now and I’m going to be honest – I’m impressed with it. I am actually not a hugger, so this is more a professional calling than a personal one. When I have done it though, I have felt that it creates such a spontaneous feeling of joy, happiness, and welcoming to the conversation. 

I did this yesterday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with 9 panelists. All are way smarter than me, at the top of their fields, nationally and internationally, and they all consented to the hug. I found myself spontaneously saying, “Thanks for coming” or “Thanks for being here” to each person. I think that’s interesting – what a great opportunity in the middle of a discussion to provide this positive message.

As with everything I discover, there are many parallels to health care. I have spoken with physicians about the idea that when a patient comes to see you, we should start with, “I’m so glad you came to see me today,” instead of what we were taught in medical school, which is, “What brought you in to see me?”

See the difference? I do. I feel it, too.

I hope you’ll try this and report back, via Twitter or in the comments, let’s start (another) revolution.


One reason I love to go and see my naturopathic physician or my acupuncturist is because they always give me a hug after the visit.

Ted Eytan, MD