Inside ‘Touchy Feely,’ Stanford’s Iconic MBA Course

Many call it “the most important class I took” in business school, the one with “the greatest lasting impact,” in which “the honesty and rawness is like nothing else.” It’s “an exercise in self-awareness and openness,” the closest thing to “intense group therapy” — “or even going into battle with a group of people.” And it has been Stanford Graduate School of Business’ most popular elective for decades.

You’ve probably heard of it — just about everyone planning to attend Stanford GSB already has before handing in their application. Its official name is OB 374: Interpersonal Dynamics, but everyone knows it as “Touchy Feely,” and it has been a staple of business education at Stanford for 45 years. 

More than 90% of Stanford MBA students take the course. It’s perhaps the only elective actively discussed on other campuses.

“Like everything, people have different responses, but it’s overwhelmingly positive,” says Brian Lowery, professor of organizational behavior and faculty lead for the Touchy Feely course. “There’s certainly variance in people’s experience, but my sense is that the vast majority of people get something out of it. Now that the course is so well known, people are coming in with expectations that may not match what the course is designed to deliver, but even with that, people leave with a better understanding of themselves. The vast, vast majority of students leave with that experience.”

CONNECTING ACROSS DIFFERENCES

So how does it work? The premise of the signature course is that strong relationships with others are a vital part of effective management, and that becoming a better manager requires an ability to forge those relationships. Students in Touchy Feely learn how their behavior affects others in real time, and they practice leadership skills and get immediate, raw peer feedback. They learn, in the end, to connect across differences.

OK — that much you can learn from a syllabus. What does it all look like practically, in a classroom setting? Here is where Touchy Feely is unlike any other B-school course. Students are placed in a 12-person “T-Group” that meets for three to five hours straight every week for 10 weeks in sessions that run high in emotion. There’s also an exhaustive weekend retreat with more than 16 hours of T-group session work and little exposure to the outside world. Two facilitators work with each group. Each session has a prompt based on assigned readings or short lectures.

Once prompted, everyone … talks. Many students liken the experience to group therapy.

DETACHED OBSERVERS NOT WELCOME

“The way I would describe it is to imagine having a conversation with a group of people where (a) the person talking was completely honest about everything and (b) people listening were completely honest about their reaction to what that person was saying,” says Sumi Kim, a Stanford MBA from the Class of 2013, writing in Quora. “In normal daily life, we have a lot of thoughts that we keep to ourselves out of politeness; imagine if you let these all out and told people how what they said annoyed you, angered you, made you sad, etc.”

Key concepts in Touchy Feely include “crossing the net,” meaning going over to another person’s side and assuming their thoughts and intentions; “showing appreciation,” so that for every one thing you criticize, you express appreciation for 10 others; and “turning toward versus away from people,” which means being receptive to proffered information; turning away means ignoring or shunning. Turning away, obviously, is more destructive, but no one can turn toward everything. The key is to be aware of what you’re doing.

It’s not a place for “detached observers,” as one course description makes clear. “Your learning depends on the extent to which you are actively involved. The amount you learn rests heavily on your involvement. Disclosing your reactions to the behavior of others (especially your feelings), being willing to openly give and receive feedback of both positive and critical nature, and taking personal risk to address ‘here and now’ events which trigger emotions are important to enhance learning in this class.”

A POWERFUL — AND UNCOMMON — EXPERIENCE 

David Bradford, a senior lecturer emeritus at Stanford GSB, was one of the first instructors for Interpersonal Dynamics, known as “Touchy Feely.” Stanford photo

Interpersonal Dynamics was first offered at Stanford in 1968. For many years it was taught by a handful of faculty, notably David Bradford, Mary Ann Huckabay, and Jerry Porras. In the 2018-2019 academic year, Stanford will offer four sections of Touchy Feely in the autumn, four in the winter, and four in the spring, with six instructors teaching the course. Brian Lowery has overseen Touchy Feely since the start of 2017-2018; he will continue to do so even after Dean Jonathan Levin’s recently announcement that Lowery will begin a new position as senior associate dean for academic affairs on September 1.

Touchy Feely is about personal development, Lowery tells Poets&Quants, and in particular about becoming aware of how one affects others. That’s what drew him to the course as an instructor. “Being able to take the perspective of others and seeing yourself through that perspective — that was really attractive to me, participating in a course that is designed to deliver that.” He says that part of what makes Touchy Feely so effective and transformational is that it is taught in a consistent manner. Another, bigger part is that whatever changes have occurred across the business and business education landscapes in the last four-plus decades, one thing has remained constant: people are people, sometimes difficult, often vulnerable, but always better for the knowledge of how they impact those around them.

“It’s a powerful experience,” Lowery says. “Without getting into the particulars of the course, the reason it’s powerful is because often we don’t have the opportunity or inclination to get honest, transparent feedback about how we show up. For a lot of people, it really is an epiphany to have people really tell you how you’re affecting them. Often people are afraid to find that out.

‘SHARING FEEDBACK IS NOT EASY; ASKING FOR FEEDBACK IS USUALLY HARDER’

“They’re afraid of the possibility of conflict or they’re afraid of getting feedback that challenges how they view themselves, and I think that this course provides a context to actually have that experience. And I think that people are surprised by it, again in large part because it’s not the kind of experience that people have day to day. In fact I think it’s often the kind of thing that people avoid day to day.”

As Maria Lambert, a 2012 GSB grad, puts it, “Sharing feedback is not easy; asking for feedback is usually harder. Yet, our growth as leaders comes from uncovering our blind spots, and then with kindness helping others to do the same. Learning comes from stepping out of our comfort zones.”

Brian Lowery, Stanford professor of organizational behavior, in the classroom. Stanford photo

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