A training ground for empathy and disclosure

“The great enemy of communication … is the illusion of it”1

It’s easy to rattle off platitudes about the importance of communication. Great leaders listen. Vulnerability is power. Silicon Valley is rife with CliffNotes versions of how to become a better leader. Yet much to the chagrin of startup founders, merely attending a 3-hour seminar is unlikely to create lasting change. What’s generally missing is the key ingredient to learning any new skill: a training ground to practice. Cementing new behavioral patterns doesn’t come overnight. It requires time, patience, and lots of reps.

The T-Group Weekend Intensive retreat, hosted in collaboration with Innerspace, trains groups of 12 startup leaders on interpersonal dynamics, feedback, and emotional regulation. Its website explains, “[I]n a T-group, the product you are building is you — a more self-aware, emotionally intelligent and effective-startup-leader version of yourself.” Most founders and early employees already possess a baseline of important soft skills. But as their organizations become complex and the stakes increase, managing their own psychologies and spreading the tenets of strong communication throughout their own organizations become essential to scaling successfully.

I was familiar with bits of the curriculum that the Weekend Intensive addressed: staying on one’s “side of the net”; active listening; distinguishing between objective, observable reality and the subjective “narratives” people tend to superimpose on top of it. What was new to me was the opportunity to practice these skills in an expertly facilitated forum for 3.5 days. A spin-off of the famed Interpersonal Dynamics (a.k.a. “Touchy Feely”) program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, this retreat is a laboratory engineered to facilitate risk-taking and authentic disclosure. Theorizing about one’s emotions is easy. Naming them out loud throughout a weekend, in real time, is much more difficult.

We began by determining living arrangements as a group, a seemingly mundane task for smart and capable individuals. Surprisingly, the warm-up quickly exposed people’s hidden and competing personal interests, and we soon found ourselves absorbed in disagreements, mild passive aggression, and awkwardness that are typical of a reality TV episode. After that task, we were whisked upstairs to craft and post our personal goals on the walls. Some aspired to become less defensive, repress fewer negative feelings, balance radical candor with sensitivity, and self-advocate more frequently. Others resolved to better understand emotional bids, listen better, and practice “naming” emotions in real-time to foster heightened self-awareness. The environment prompted team members to feel a shared responsibility for helping others make progress on their weekend objectives.

The skills of our group’s facilitators, Michael Terrell and Anamaria Nino-Murcia, were impressive. They were full-fledged participants, pursuing goals and taking risks alongside the rest of us, but they also used emotional jujitsu on occasion to push people’s buttons, move the group toward resolution, and create learning opportunities when needed. They gave lecturettes throughout the weekend and shared insights that surprised me. As a long-time teacher, I’m a critical student, and it was very obvious that this wasn’t their first rodeo.

Many of my colleagues had impressive leadership track records. Some were early employees whose companies had scaled rapidly. A couple had been through IPOs. Our group was highly intelligent, both emotionally and intellectually. These were folks I respected, trusted, and felt I could learn from, and that dynamic played a large role in my ability to get the most out of the weekend.

The feedback exchanged was, at times, brutal — and refreshingly candid. A few examples of comments that came up during group conversations:

  • One person told me that when I smiled during disagreement, she wasn’t sure what to believe: my cheery expression or my fighting words. That dissonance, she shared, made her somewhat mistrustful of my true motives.
  • One of our facilitators noticed that I defaulted to the cerebral when uncomfortable, saying what I thought, but rarely sharing how I felt. If I wanted others to appreciate my perspective, being honest that I was disappointed, or bothered, or even scared, might allow others in the group to identify with me more.
  • A colleague asked about my tendency to end sentences with “right?” (e.g., “It wouldn’t make sense to divide into groups at this point, right?”) She felt inclined to disagree when I spoke this way and wondered whether I wanted to hear her opinion or just coerce her into agreeing with me.
  • After growing weary of a topic and noticing a colleague looking uncomfortable, I voiced, “I get the sense that folks would appreciate a 10-minute break. What do others think?” The response was sharp: Why was I speaking for others rather than for myself. Did I want to take a break? If so, why not just say that? Someone jokingly referred to me as “therapist Jeff,” and another shared, “I don’t feel compelled to follow you when you don’t come right out and say what you want.”

In what universe does anyone offer colleagues this type of feedback? These vignettes are among the safer ones I can share, and suffice to say that in this extremely well-facilitated safe space, private details about people’s lives and backgrounds emerged and participants were willing to make themselves extremely vulnerable. That level of disclosure made my experience much richer and more powerful.

Another unique aspect of the weekend was having access to the inner narratives of 12 other startup leaders for several days. I realized that no matter one’s powers of observation, it’s simply impossible to guess what others are feeling all the time. There are too many narratives playing in people’s heads, too many deep-seated memories and random associations to mindread with any fidelity. I had always assumed that the key to understanding what people were feeling was being hyper-observant. As it turns out, the only way to know is to ask them.

Before driving home on Sunday, we wrapped up with some feedback and bonding exercises. And then we were warned that after dozens of hours of disclosure, openness, and acceptance, our brains were flooded with serotonin. Evidently, 4 days of being vulnerable and safe feels similar to popping MDMA. We were instructed to be a bit careful when driving and mindful that euphoria might persist for a couple of days. As I journeyed back to San Francisco in this gleeful state, I thought about all the leaders who lacked the courage to open up to their teams for fear of being exposed — and how much they were missing out.

Thanks to my T-group members, and to Michael and Anamaria, for helping me have an unforgettable experience. I’m a better leader because of it.

1 Whyte, W.H. (1950, September). Is Anybody Listening? Fortune, 174.