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

Animesh Agrawal at Macchu Picchu. He says Touchy Feely gave him insight into how what he says is received by others. Courtesy photo


Feedback is the lifeblood of Touchy Feely, so there isn’t much point in reading about the course without getting student feedback. Having learned to be totally honest, they are not shy about turning their insights into the course itself.

Animesh Agrawal, who graduated from GSB this spring, tells P&Q that he had heard of the course before coming to school because all the Stanford alumni he talked to cited it as a highlight. Originally from Bhopal, India, the former analyst for McKinsey & Company and The Blackstone Group was intrigued and planned to take the course — but nothing he’d heard truly prepared him for it.

“I had heard about the course but didn’t know much about what goes on inside it or what the experience looks like,” Agrawal says. “That whole discovery happened for me at GSB. And there are different reactions for everyone, but for me, there were some real epiphanies that came out of this course.


“I came from a finance and investing background — a very straitjacketed, analytical environment. So talking about feelings was not expected and not encouraged. For me, I always thought that I could hide my feelings and come across as really professional. My biggest lesson was that the feelings we don’t express leak out. If you don’t express it, you lose the ability to control how you express it.

“For me, the way I looked at the course was as a way to understand how my actions land on different people, and how others’ actions land on me. Suppose we are talking, and you have an observation: ‘Animesh, when you described this course so enthusiastically, I felt happy or excited.’ Or you might say, ‘Oh, the way you described Touchy Feely, I felt scared or anxious.’ These kinds of things are so valuable because I, as a speaker, would normally not know how what I say is landing on you. So there’s a lot of merit and learning — no solutions — in understanding this.

“In a similar way, we discuss what about you leads me to share more of myself and what makes me share less. Simple things like that.”


Jenna Nicholas. Courtesy photo

Jenna Nicholas graduated from Stanford GSB in 2017. She’s the founder and CEO of Impact Experience, which maps investment and partnership opportunities for marginalized communities. For her, Touchy Feely really was transformational — despite initial uncertainty about what that word means, and how the course would achieve it.

“I had very high expectations for the possibilities and the potential and opportunities within the class in terms of shaping how I think about leadership and how it relates to other people,” Nicholas tells P&Q. “I had very few expectations about what that would actually look like. It was all very vague. People talked about it being ‘transformational,’ but what does that really mean?

“But I really did find it to be transformational, and I think part of it was having a space that was really co-created by us. So while there were guidelines and directions, largely it was the magic of what played out in the room in the presence of everybody in the room. That is what helped to manifest so many insights for so many of us.”

The experience of Touchy Feely has been particularly helpful in Nicholas’ professional work, where she brings together diverse groups of people who are not normally in a room together and builds trust and works through problems.

“The tools and framework and skills that we developed during the Touchy Feely class have really been invaluable in all of our work,” she says.


For Neha Samdaria, Touchy Feely changed her outlook completely. The 2018 GSB grad had never before been comfortable talking about her emotions — in fact, she considered it a distraction to focus on emotions, something that got in the way of moving forward and being successful. “Touchy Feely opened my eyes to the power of connecting with other people on an emotional level,” Samdaria tells P&Q.

She came away from the 10-week course with three main takeaways: First, when someone else has an emotional reaction — saying they feel anxious or frustrated or scared — the most effective way to respond is not with logic. “You can’t counteract emotion with logic,” she says. “As a leader you have to meet and connect with people on an emotional level before making a logical argument, and that’s been a very valuable lesson to me as I’ve gone out to the workplace.”

Samdaria’s second takeaway is that when she is feeling emotional because of someone else’s words — feeling, in Touchy Feely parlance, “pinched” — she should address it immediately. “That was completely not my instinct,” she says. “My instinct before coming into that class was, if somebody said something, I would try to brush it off and let it go and not address it. And this was a problem because it would fester over time, and by the time it came out it had built up to something much greater. I learned that if you resolve it quickly and in the moment, you come out stronger and with a more trusting relationship.”

Her final lesson from Touchy Feely: The language of “not crossing the net” — that is, reframing everything from the perspective of one’s own feelings and not assuming anything about the other’s intentions — is incredibly helpful in work and life. “The idea of the ‘net’ is used to delineate what you do and don’t know about a certain situation,” Samdaria says. “So if I’m having a conversation with another person and I’m feeling disrespected in that conversation, I can say so because I know how I’m feeling, but I can’t say ‘You were being disrespectful,’ because that assumes something about that person’s intention. That is crossing the net.

“People can’t contest how you feel. Only you know how you feel. Keeping that in mind always leads to a much more productive conversation, whether in the work environment or personal relationships.”


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