Lessons learned teaching Emotional Intelligence at Stanford GSB

A series of learnings from teaching Touchy Feely (OB374 Interpersonal Dynamics), an emotional intelligence elective for Stanford MBA's.

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So what is Touchy Feely? 

Developed in the late 1940's by Kurt Lewin (referred to as the founder of modern social psychology) when he was Director of MIT’s Research Center for Group Dynamics, Touchy Feely uses the "T-Group" (training group) learning methodology to allow students to experience and develop foundational self-awareness, emotional intelligence, interpersonal, and other skills and competencies key to leaders in today's world. T-group was further developed at NTL National Training Laboratories and by Organizational Behavior faculty at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, leading to the creation of the class "Touchy Feely," which is the most popular elective course for 45 years running at Stanford Graduate School of Business and is taken roughly by 90% of the Stanford MBA class every year. 

How the Class Works

In a class, there are typically 12 students, with 2 trained facilitators. There is no agenda, structure, or fabricated role plays. T-Group participants practice and develop core skills and behaviors through real-time interaction and dynamics. Participants learn about diversity, conflict, and influence by engaging with each others’ differences in power, status, and privilege. Facilitators help the group to establish the safety and connection that are needed for risk taking, self disclosure, feedback exchange and conversations across differences, all in service of the participant and the group’s learning goals.

Some Lessons Learned

  • Without empathy, no conflict can get resolved. With sufficient empathy, any conflict can get resolved.
  • Empathy CAN be learned, which allows us to be more sensitive to others’ vulnerability.
  • Being overly cautious prevents us from expressing our vulnerability more fully, making it harder for others to empathize with us DURING conflict.
  • Intimacy requires deep trust & safety, which are easier to achieve when issues of status and power are acknowledged.
  • When I acknowledge my privilege, you’re more likely to acknowledge my individuality.
  • We can’t avoid mistakes. We can make smaller mistakes & recover from them faster, but the key is repairing when we inevitably screw up.
  • Feedback often is ineffective because we give it from a place of MY IGNORANCE by assuming others' feelings and motives. We can deliver feedback by giving it from a place of MY EXPERTISE by sharing MY feelings, motives, and reactions. Doing so reduces the likelihood of triggering defensiveness in others.
  • Emotions and Feelings are Data. Ignoring them sharply diminishes one's ability to communicate, cooperate, and make decisions. 
  • Influence with others BUILDS when I ALLOW myself to be influenced by others.

How are the Character Strengths developed?

  • Growth Mindset: Learning Interpersonal dynamics is challenging, but like a muscle with repeated flexing, the competency can grow over time. Facilitators give very specific feedback to students on 1) what strategies WORK; 2) reflection needed to learn from mistakes; and 3) reassurance that setbacks and mistakes are inevitable.

  • Social Intelligence: Students expand their behaviora repertoire to respond to different social situations with greater skill, especially in conflict resolution, giving/receiving feedback, influence, connection, and authentic yet appropriate disclosures to make themselves known.

  • Self-Control: Students learn to acknowledge their impulses but practice overriding suboptimal habits in favor of practicing more effective techniques for interacting with others

  • Optimism: Conflicts often arise between students, some of which are very close outside of the class. They learn that conflicts are NOT the end of the world and that with sufficient practice in conflict management skills, they can repair the ruptures in the relationship, and actually get closer.

  • Curiosity: Facilitators model for students how to be curious about other people in a way that builds relationship (i.e. asking about feelings vs. hypothetical thoughts).

  • Grit: All students enter the class with Pre-Work by creating Learning Goals for themselves. Facilitators and peers hold students accountable for their Learning Goals (which often change over the course of the 10 weeks) and help them grow in authentic and meaningful ways to each student. 

Optional: How comfortable do you feel incorporating character education in your curriculum? (1-10, where 10 = very comfortable!)


Optional: Tell us more! What's one thing you wish there was more of / less of when it comes to character learning in schools?

Character education, in my experience at Stanford, is best done *experientially,* not theoretically. Learning about biking vs. biking are two different experiences, the latter being more important and seemingly rarer.

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A handout I give to my students to expand their emotional vocabulary. Has worked for MBA students and high school students as well.


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