The handy chart we used during T-group to pinpoint what we were feeling

I went to this thing called a T-group and I feel like a different person now

I went to this thing called a T-group. I call it a “thing” because it’s difficult to give it a one word label. What’s the word for “sitting around in a circle in a house in San Leandro and talking to 13 strangers, all startup founders and leaders, for 3.5 days.” Leadership thing? Workshop? Group therapy?

The thing is, the experience was profound for me and I think it could be for anyone interested in developing their interpersonal skills and leadership abilities. So I’ll describe my experience and hope that it gives you an idea of what goes on at a T-group Weekend Retreat.

For most of the 3.5 days, 13 of us sat in a circle around the living room of a perfectly suburban rented house in San Leandro. When we got started with our first T-group session, there was very little direction on what to talk about besides a few norms that were established like “talk about the here and now,” which meant we were talking about the experiences and interactions happening in the room instead of things like politics or our startups. Another norm was the “15% percent” — to push yourself to be 15% out of your comfort zone (not too much because then you would be too uncomfortable to learn but not too little where you’re not taking any risks).

So, what the heck did we actually talk about? To be honest, when we got started, I was concerned we were going to talk about nothing worthwhile. I came in with the expectation that I was going to leave the weekend with better “leadership skills” so the lack of structure threw me off and I felt significantly uncomfortable with the situation I found myself in. I initially tried to rally the group to make a plan about how we would spend the time. I was afraid of just sitting around, talking about whatever was top of mind. I wanted goals! A strategy! I floated this idea by the group and it didn’t stick. I retreated and started thinking that I wasn’t going to get anything out of weekend. I couldn’t imagine how unguided conversation with random people would lead to helpful insights for me personally or professionally.

As the hours and days rolled on, the group talked and talked and amazingly never ran out of material. Restricting the conversation to be about the people and dynamics that were present in the room (the “here and now”) allowed us to explore topics that we might never with friends we’ve had for years.

I observed people expressing a full range of emotions from sadness and grief to affection and happiness. People delivered both critical and positive feedback to other members of the group. Folks leaned into conflicts and conversations that they might normally avoid. Most interestingly for me, I saw people expressing, in various ways, that they felt connected to others in the room.

But as all of this was happening, I was still feeling unsure and as the weekend rolled on I was becoming more and more confused and angsty. I still felt out of place. I wasn’t able to jump in and express myself like I saw others doing. And I still didn’t know why.

After more time, my frustration turned inward. How could people be feeling so much? Why wasn’t I feeling like them? Why am I not feeling connected to the group or the people there? What is wrong with me?

I was feeling pretty overwhelmed and intense when someone asked me how I was doing because I hadn’t spoken in a while.

To my surprise, my heart started racing and I couldn’t articulate my thoughts. I started crying. I’ve never cried in front of a group like that so I was like WTF is happening.

The group was patient and curious about what I was going through. I tried to piece together what was going on.

A realization came bubbling up. It was an epic moment of clarity for me.

I realized, in that moment, that I consistently turn away from connecting with people on deeper levels. I’m afraid of it. I often run in the opposite direction. And I’ve been this way for a long, long time…forever, maybe? I didn’t even KNOW connecting on that level was a thing that people did on a regular basis, let alone something that I could experience. Interestingly, upon later reflection, I realized that I had been craving deeper connection my whole life but sending people the opposite signal.

One of the crazy things about T-group is that you’ll actually get honest feedback on how others perceive you. I was told from quite a few people that they didn’t think I liked them and that they didn’t think I was interested in talking to them. One person told me that I was like a house with all the doors and windows shut and locked so there was no way to get in! I knew that I can be on the quieter side when meeting new people, but I didn’t know how unapproachable I seemed.

That moment was a breakthrough for me. Since then, it’s helped me unravel many layers within myself. I noticed that being afraid of connection has affected every part of my life — from business to family to relationships. It affected the biggest and deeply held stories I had about who I wanted to become.

How did these 3.5 days push me to the biggest breakthrough of my life so far? I’m still astounded.

How I was in the T-group was dramatically different than how I am in my day-to-day life. During the T-group, I was:

  • 100% present without the distraction of devices
  • Listening intently for other people’s emotions and feelings
  • Pushed regularly to express to others how I feel about them
  • Expected to be in touch with and identify my own feelings in different kinds of situations

I was practicing the skills needed to connect with people more authentically and fully.

And how did it impact my “leadership skills” — the reason I went to T-group in the first place? In the months since, I’ve made the following changes at Instrumentl:

  1. I lean into difficult conversations. I have more trust in my ability to navigate tricky conversations with co-founders and co-workers.
  2. I spend more time communicating my expectations and intentions and I’m noticing that it has actually increased my comfort level with my team, their comfort level with me and we’re getting things done faster as a result.
  3. I’m better about giving my team positive feedback. I still have more to do, but I’m building a practice of recognizing moments to appreciate, which is helping me build trust faster with my teammates.

The idea that I could have lived without the skills and takeaways that I came away with from T-group, is honestly scary. It makes me curious about what other things about myself and the world I’ll learn that are still unknown unknowns to me.

If you’re working on becoming a better leader or developing your interpersonal skills, I can’t think of a better way to improve in a short amount of time than by jumping into the deep end of connection and vulnerability with a T-group.


Thanks to Suelyn Yu, Anamaria Nino-Murcia, and Angela Braren for reading drafts of this post