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Lifting The Curtain On ‘Touchy Feely,’ Stanford’s — And The World’s — Most Iconic MBA Course

Carole Robin and David Bradford taught Interpersonal Dynamics — known worldwide as Touchy Feely — at Stanford GSB for many years. Now they’ve co-authored a book about the course, “Connect.” Author photo

Carole Robin taught the world’s most iconic MBA course for 17 years. She has stories.

“It’s a life-changing class for many,” Robin says of Stanford Graduate School of Business’ Interpersonal Dynamics, better known as “Touchy Feely.” “Thousands of MBA students and executives who took that class say that Touchy Feely improved their lives, made their relationships better, made their careers better — helped save their marriages, even. The lessons of Touchy Feely stay with you your whole life.”

Touchy Feely’s overarching premise is that strong relationships are a vital part of effective management, and that becoming a better manager requires an ability to forge those relationships. MBA students in the course learn, in real time, how their behavior affects others, practicing leadership skills and getting immediate peer feedback.

It’s not hard to imagine the breakthroughs — and the drama — that can result from a series of unfiltered exchanges between colleagues in an emotionally charged setting. But as revolutionary as the course has been to graduate business education, its benefits were always restricted to the few who had gained admission to the world’s most selective MBA program.

No longer. Now Robin and the course’s founder, David Bradford, have written the first book on the only MBA elective course you are likely to hear discussed at other business schools. Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships With Family, Friends, and Colleagues will be released Tuesday (February 9).

‘CRACKING THE CODE’ ON THE SIGNATURE GSB COURSE

Carole Robin

Somehow, in the nearly 50-year history of Touchy Feely, no one had tried to capture the magic of the course for a wider audience. Yet even after Penguin Random House approached Bradford and Robin in early 2017 about doing just that, the two instructors — the “Father” and “Queen” of Touchy Feely, with 75 years’ experience teaching the course between them — hesitated.

“They said, ‘Hey, how come there’s this like world-famous class and there’s no book?'” Robin tells Poets&Quants in a recent interview. “And you know, the answer is that it’s not as though we hadn’t thought about it, but it was an extremely difficult book to write because the experience of the class is so unique. Countless MBAs have said that it changed their life. And it’s like the signature thing that the GSB is known for. How were we going to do justice to that in a book?

“So we had to crack the code on how to bring the experience to the reader. Which I’m happy to say I think we did a pretty good job of.”

In a world free of pandemic, MBA students in Touchy Feely were placed in a 12-person “T-Group” that met for three to five hours straight every week for 10 weeks. There also was an exhaustive weekend retreat with more than 16 hours of T-group session work and little exposure to the outside world. Two facilitators worked with each group. Each session had a prompt based on assigned readings or short lectures. Once prompted, everyone talked, and the sessions ran high in emotion. Many have likened the experience to group therapy.

Currently, like all GSB courses,  Touchy Feely is being taught remotely, with smaller T-groups and significant design adjustments. “It seems to be working reasonably well, but there are definitely downsides,” Robin says. During in-person groups there is both “intra-personal” learning and “inter-personal” learning, she says, and because of coronavirus and distance, instructors “have had to shift the focus to much more ‘inter’ and less ‘intra’ for psychological safety reasons.”

APPLYING THE LESSONS OF TOUCHY FEELY TO THEIR OWN LIVES

Why, if Touchy Feely is so iconic and so life-changing for so many generations of students, had no one written a book about it until now? And how did Bradford and Robin “crack the code”? Robin says it took four years to get it right, including an entire year “just to wrap our heads around” how they would convey what the class is really like.

“First of all, we knew we didn’t want to write an academic book,” she says. “Not for this subject. Of course, a lot of it is research-based or we couldn’t have ever taught it for all those years at the Stanford business school. But that was not where we wanted to focus. So we had to figure out how we were going to not only get the concepts across but provide something that the reader would be compelled to go do. Because you know, the power of the course is in the doing, not in having a teacher stand in the front of the room and lecture.

“So what we ended up doing is, we have five pairs through which we convey the concepts by following the arc of each of their relationships. There’s a man and a woman who were colleagues at work. There’s a married couple, there’s two buddies. There’s two women who’ve known each other since college now in their forties. There’s a father and daughter and the different concepts are brought to light and to life through the story of their relationships. And then at the end of every chapter, we have a section called Deepen Your Learning which is very Touchy Feely, which is put yourself in the shoes of a Mia. What would you have done when Anya said, ‘Blah, blah, blah’? How would you react to Phil’s statement to you if you were Rachel? What are you learning about yourself in noticing your reactions to their reactions? And then we take it one step further and we ask the reader, ‘Pick someone in your life with whom you want a more meaningful, deeper, more functional relationship and go try this.’ And we have these different things for them to try that build throughout the book.”

Connect is about taking relationships from shallow to exceptional — about “cultivating authenticity, vulnerability, and honesty, while being willing to ask for and offer help, share a commitment to growth, and deal productively with conflict,” Robin says. Unexpectedly, she and her coauthor needed to apply some of those lessons in their own lives.

“David Bradford was my mentor and we co-wrote this book, and we had a fantastic relationship — we might call it exceptional — before we wrote the book. And before we even started writing the book, we had a huge fight,” she says.

“And then, in fact, I said I’d never talk to him again. And here we were, the two Touchy Feely gurus, right? And it was all around what happened when I decided to leave the GSB — but the last chapter is the story of how our relationship went to hell in a handbasket. How I said I would never talk to him again, and how we came back from that and repaired it.”

See the next page for a brief Q&A with Carole Robin, co-author of Connect, edited for length and clarity.

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