Is Touchy Feely Worth the Price?

Are the lessons from the GSB’s most iconic class applicable in the real world?

As I re-enter the world, I have some anxiety about my ability to implement my learnings and continue to work toward my learning goals without the structure of T-group to enforce my effort. I worry I will not reflect as much on my personal journey without the structure of weekly journaling. Conversely, I worry that I may over-incorporate and be harmed by being “too touchy-feely” in a future workplace. While I found the course and T-group experience to be hugely valuable, I worry that in a year’s time I won’t remember the lessons I took from the experience or the feelings that came along with those key moments in the group. — My Reflection Journal, March 10, 2016

Two weeks into my final quarter at the GSB, the anxiety I defined in my final Touchy Feely journal seemed to be materializing, 50 weeks ahead of schedule. I wasn’t speaking the language. I wasn’t demonstrating vulnerability in academic or personal settings. I was crossing the net left and right (for those of you unfamiliar with the language of Touchy Feely, see glossary at the end of this piece). If I couldn’t be touchy-feely at the GSB, what hope did I have for the real world? And did that even matter given that the real world’s value system might not be particularly receptive to the Touchy Feely lifestyle? Either way, was the emotional intensity of the course worth the lessons?

Either way, was the emotional intensity of the course worth the lessons?

In the spirit of the GSB, I decided to solicit feedback from alumni on how to incorporate Touchy Feely beyond the bubble.

Wait. What is Touchy Feely?

A primer for the uninitiated — OB 374: Interpersonal Dynamics, colloquially known as Touchy Feely, is the GSB’s best known and most talked about class. Per the Stanford course catalog:

The focus of this course is to increase one’s competencies in building more effective relationships. Learning is primarily through feedback from other group members. This course is very involving and, at times, can be quite emotional. However, this course is not a substitute for therapy; we deal more with inter-personal issues than with intra-personal ones. If you are in therapy, please talk this over with your therapist and get their advice before enrolling in this course. The students are divided into three 12-person T-groups that meet [for three hours] the same evening of the class. It is very important to note that when you decide to take this course, you make an explicit contract to be actively involved.

But many students find the simplest way to describe the course to outsiders is, in fact, “group therapy.” I have used the descriptor and believe that, for some students, elements of the curriculum raise strong emotions that might well be better addressed with a clinical professional.

One such element is the influence line, a forced ranking of each member of the T-group — including oneself — according to one’s influence in the group. The group stands and silently arranges itself from high to low influence across the room. The self-identification in this round of the line leads members to clump in the middle of the room, unwilling to claim a position of high or low influence upfront. In subsequent rounds, each member must silently arrange the group, pointing at individuals to direct them to their place in line or physically leading to a new position. This might mean moving someone from the #1 position to the #12 position. It might mean taking someone who ranked you highly and pushing them to the bottom of your own influence line. It entails a few people consistently remaining at the bottom of the line. We’re told the dynamics are already at play in the room, we are simply bringing them to light. I was deeply affected by the exercise and questioned whether its value came more in the form of content or controversy. I wrote at the time: “At no other point in the group have I felt nauseated or shaky — and the outcome of the line was what I had expected! I was surprised by how viscerally I felt the anxiety and tension and quickly realized that my fear of placing others vastly outweighed my fear of being placed.”

In addition to emotionally charged in-class exercises, the course includes a weekend retreat with over 16 hours of T-group and practically no exposure to the outside world. As my retreat drew to an end, I felt incredibly close to the members of my group, deeply appreciative of our professor and facilitators, and completely exhausted. Before leaving, students hear a “re-entry” talk urging them to drive carefully given their emotional states, to neither accept nor decline job offers in the 48 hours following the retreat, and to limit their discussion of the weekend with others who might not be in the same emotional frame of mind. After safely returning home, I wept watching Rock, Paper, and Scissors empathize in an Android commercial aired during the Grammys. I was a mess… but every friend who had taken Touchy Feely found my reaction normal, funny even, and offered their own breakdown anecdotes.

The curriculum has been taught for over 45 years and became an essential part of the zeitgeist over the past two decades as the number of sections taught increased threefold. Per Professor Carole Robin, “[Dean Garth Saloner] was and is a big believer. He was the one who planted a stake and said ‘I think this is one of our unique value propositions. We know how to do experiential based leadership development.’ And this is the purest form of experiential learning that you can actually have. And so he was the one who gave it legitimacy and provided a lot of air cover and resources so that we could grow the program.”

As students and alumni well know, the official course description doesn’t capture the experience. Touchy Feely is a culture, a language, a laboratory, an academic differentiator. It’s a topic of countless “Why Stanford?” application essays and a source of small talk with alumni, so I reached out to a number of them to ask — how have you used Touchy Feely in the real world? I talked briefly with three CEOs who had not taken the course and two prominent alumni who took the course but elected not to be interviewed because they don’t use the skill set. I am immensely grateful to those alumni willing to take the conversation deeper: five men and women I interviewed at length about their experiences.

(L to R: Andy Dunn ’07, Celina Zlotoff Johnson ’08, Tony Levitan ’93)
(L to R: Lloyd Nimetz ’08, Anonymous Alumna ’90s, Professor Carole Robin)

Will I use Touchy Feely in my professional life?

Tony Levitan, MBA 1993 and founder of Egreetings (and an Executive Ed Touchy Feely facilitator), and Lloyd Nimetz, MBA 2008 and formerly a member of the senior executive team of Dev Bootcamp, integrated the course into their professional cultures. “The tenets of the culture of Egreetings were built on Touchy Feely — on authenticity, on transparency, on feedback, and on communicating so that people have choice in their behaviors and the ways they show up with other people,” said Tony. At Dev Bootcamp, a coding school for young adults, Lloyd built out a parallel curriculum focused on softer skills called “Engineering Empathy.”

For Andy Dunn, founder and CEO of Bonobos, the tenets of Touchy Feely play a role in corporate culture. “We built the culture based on five human values: self-awareness, positive energy, empathy, intellectual honesty, and judgment. In an indirect way, those are values that are parts of the Touchy Feely experience,” he said. In discussing his own role, though, Andy’s integration of Touchy Feely differed. “When you talk about your feelings in the workplace it can come off as indirect,” he said. “Especially when you’re CEO, it’s like, ‘Stop emoting and tell us what you think.’” For one alumna who preferred to remain anonymous, her experience held little professional value: “I sound cold about this and I don’t mean to, but this was a class that theoretically was going to help me in the business world and not turn me into part of some emotional support group.”

Will I use Touchy Feely in my personal life?

For Celina Zlotoff Johnson, MBA 2008 and VP of Finance and Operations at Man Crates, almost every aspect of her personal life ties back to Touchy Feely. She met her husband, Cameron, in T-group and described their unconventional courtship: “You get to know someone in a very different way than you approach other relationships. I realized the other person understood me at a deep level. Only after dating did we do ‘where are you from?’ and ‘where did you go to college?’… Our relationship was formed in the language of Touchy Feely implicitly and explicitly.” Describing her use of the skills, she said, “It affects every day — how I relate to my friends, my family, even my kids,” but conceded, “I think of how it relates to the class more often than other people because it was so integral to my relationship.”

“Only after dating did we do ‘where are you from?’ and ‘where did you go to college?’… Our relationship was formed in the language of Touchy Feely implicitly and explicitly.”

Lloyd also married a GSB and Touchy Feely alum, though she was a year behind him, “which was probably a good thing. We get enough Touchy Feely.” While the two didn’t meet in T-group, the language is integral to their relationship. “Being over the net? That’s one of the things that comes back a lot. We use that language a lot.”

When should I and when shouldn’t I use Touchy Feely?

Celina and Lloyd can use the language of Touchy Feely in their marriages because their partners understand and are fully bought in. In other settings, integrating the tenets and language requires more nuance. Andy described his decision to only incorporate elements of the course indirectly: “It can be challenging to pursue the Touchy Feely model of communication when other people are not on that same wavelength…. By its nature Touchy Feely can feel like a club. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m operating with a communication lexicon that feels exclusive. Maybe it’s like going to Burning Man. It’s a special experience for the people who do it. It changes them. But you can’t walk into a room and give a stranger a back rub and think it would be okay.”

“Maybe it’s like going to Burning Man. It’s a special experience for the people who do it. It changes them. But you can’t walk into a room and give a stranger a back rub and think it would be okay.”

Tony faces a similar balance. “It’s a tension I live with every day to go from different organizations that have different aptitude and levels of comfort with the language of Touchy Feely… Most people don’t like to be facilitated. Finding ways to communicate using the tenets and the core concepts with people who aren’t trained is a core skill. It’s a lifelong one that’s critical.” Beyond adapting to his environments, Tony is seen differently across those environments and has received conflicting feedback: “I felt like Gulliver. In one setting I’m the soppy one and in one setting I’m the inaccessible one.”

Carole, Fairy Godmother of Touchy Feely, appreciates the importance of context. “I’m very careful not to use jargon. I’m very careful not to use ‘you’re over the net,’ for instance. I would never say that to somebody on the outside. But I could certainly use the concepts and I think that when I use the concepts and take the jargon out of it I’m even more effective.”

Was it worth it?

57 hours of class instruction, 44 hours of T-group, over 11,000 words of journaling, six interviews, and two months later, what had I learned? Carole conveyed key takeaways she hopes alumni carry with them:

  • Learn to Learn: “The discipline of actually reflecting on and journaling and extracting a lesson from an experience and then figuring out how you’re going to apply that to what you’re going to do next, that whole discipline is one of the keys of great leadership. Good leaders are good learners.”
  • Develop an Empathy Muscle: “What does it mean to actually learn to listen to somebody fully and meet them emotionally, wherever they are? It’s the precursor to anything else productive.”
  • Don’t Be Over the Net: “There’s so much going on that you’re not privy to for every other person. So to not make assumptions that you know why they’re behaving the way they’re behaving, or doing what they’re doing.”
  • Practice Mutual Reciprocity and Vulnerability: “Enter with curiosity but not just curiosity so that the other person has to be revealing and you remain invulnerable.”

I don’t see myself building a corporate culture using the language or bringing up the net in a disagreement with a significant other. As Andy noted, though, the themes of the course come through in simple human values. Which raises the question — were the discomfort of the influence line and the exhaustion of the retreat worth takeaways that, upon reflection, seem straightforward? For me the answer is yes. There is certainly some cognitive dissonance there, the same way a fraternity brother believes his hazing brought him closer to his pledge class. The norms of vulnerability and reciprocity, though, gave me an opportunity to share personal doubts and to receive heartfelt feedback and hear personal stories that increased my confidence and connectedness. Perhaps I could gain the same benefits from therapy or a less intensive course, but I found a certain magic in the raw emotional exposure among newfound members of my professional network and an easy point of connection to decades of alumni.

An Abbreviated Touchy Feely Glossary

Action-Impact Model — “When you ___, I feel ___.” A common rhetorical formula used in T-group to ensure one remains on his or her side of the net. See: The Net.

Confidentiality — A core tenet of Touchy Feely, the parameters of which are set within each T-group. See: Disclosure.

Disclosure — The sharing, often considered risky, of those parts of one’s history or emotions unseen by others. See: Vulnerability.

Facilitators — Trained external T-group members who both act as full members of the group but at times direct conversation or intervene in an interpersonal situation. Each T-group has two facilitators.

Feelings Sheet — A vocabulary of 211 emotions ranging from mild to strong across dimensions such as happy, apathetic, fearful, and angry.

Influence Line — A forced ranking of each member of the T-group, including oneself, in terms of group influence. Demonstrated by silently directing group members to reorder themselves.

Landed — A means by which to solicit or convey the impact of a T-group member’s behavior, most often used by facilitators (e.g., “When she crossed her arms as she spoke, how did that land on you?”)

The Net — A theoretical divider one must not cross, lest the facilitators get involved. On one’s own side of the net lie his or her intent and the impact of the verbal and non-verbal behavior of the person on the other side of the net. One can express the impact of the other party’s behavior but must not assume intent, a.k.a. “go over the net.”

Pinch — One’s reaction to a slightly unpleasant behavior. What the term lacks in specificity it makes up for in applicability (e.g., “I felt a pinch when he addressed the women in the room as ‘girls’”).

Reflection Journal — A weekly homework assignment of ~2,000 words reflecting on the week’s T-group.

Repair — the act of addressing an interpersonal issue in an effort for both parties to reach closure.

Retreat — A Friday night to Sunday afternoon weekend getaway late in the academic quarter that includes over 16 hours of T-group.

T-Group — Training group. Twelve individuals and two facilitators meeting one night per week for three hours, seated in chairs in a circle, often with no agenda.

T-Grouping Outside T-Group — The highly frowned upon discussion or resolution of T-group topics by a subset of members in the time between T-group sessions.

Vulnerability — The manna of Touchy Feely. Vulnerability is the root of all connection and trust.