Lessons and Impressions from T-Group Retreat on Interpersonal Dynamics

Recently, I participated in a 12-person t-group modeled after the “touchy feely” interpersonal dynamics class taught at Stanford GSB. We followed a brutally intense schedule: 9am to 10pm Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday (ending at 5:30pm on Sunday), with a one hour break in the afternoon plus meals. It cost many thousands of dollars. There were 12 participants—6 women, 6 men. 2 facilitators. 4 days. One goal: Improve our ability to express emotions, give and receive honest feedback, and interpersonally connect with others.

I learned a ton. It was one of the more intense, emotional experiences of my life. Below are reflections on which principles from the Touchy Feely workshop resonated and which did not, and what I learned about myself.

I want to say at the outset that there are many people who teach in the t-group format, many of whom are currently or were previously affiliated with Stanford, through various for-profit and non-profit enterprises. I understand there are differences in style and sometimes substance between these different approaches. These are reflections from my particular experience (which we decided, as a group, to keep completely anonymous).

In our format, each day began with a lecture on some topic related to interpersonal connection, followed by an activity to “generate data for t-group.” For example, pair up with one person and share something you’re struggling with in life. Or share something that’s been bothering you about someone else in the group (“Jake rambles on and can’t get to the point!”). Then, we convene as a group.

12 participants and 2 facilitators organized in a circle in a windowless hotel ballroom for a 2.5-3 hour session of conversation. After the initial lecture, what happens in the conversation is up to the group to decide. There’s an intentional void—the facilitators don’t offer a prompt, or jump in ask anyone questions. People can say whatever they’d like, to whomever they’d like, about whatever they’d like—so long as their comment relates to something that’s happening “in the room.”

You sit in this circle 2-3 times a day. You end up spending 8-10 hours a day, for 4 days, sitting in a circle, starting at a group of strangers, talking about your feelings and talking about your feelings with respect to the other people in the circle.

As time went on, people increasingly began to share stories of their life that were affecting their presence in the here-and-now in the room. It would be something like: “I feel anxiety being here and being part of this conversation, because my partners at work are trying to push me out of the firm, and I feel inadequate sitting next to all of you because you all seem to be thriving.” The stories were often quite vulnerable.

Often people would deliver “feedback” to others in the group. E.g.: “John Doe, when you shared the story about your mother, I felt sadness, because it reminded me of my mother…” Or “Jane Doe, my intention in sharing this feedback is to help you understand how your comment landed on me, and to better understand myself the point you were trying to make. I feel angry at the comment you made earlier. It sounded me to like a massive gender generalization…” Then the other person would reply, “I’m disappointed you feel angry, as that was not my intention…” After a couple more back and forths, one person might say: “Thank you for that. I feel closer to you as a result of this exchange. I appreciate it.” The other person would reply: “I feel closer to you, too.”

If these back-and-forth snippets sound a bit contrived, that’s because they were–by design. The facilitators framed the t-group container as a “learning laboratory”—designed with specific conditions not necessarily to maximally mimic real world conditions but to maximize the opportunity to practice very specific habits and ways of feeling and thinking. To practice being highly attentive to how you’re feeling, moment to moment. And to practice giving feedback to someone else and to experience a feeling of heightened connection after an exchange of feedback.

The overall experience was incredibly emotionally intense for me. It’s exhausting to spend hours each day sharing vulnerably, hearing others’ stories, giving tough feedback, receiving tough feedback, and trying to adapt to a group dynamic.

Here are some of the principles from the retreat that resonated with me positively:

Noticing and naming feelings. The overarching ideas of the retreat: Feelings matter, feelings are integral to how we connect with other humans, feelings can range in type and intensity, and—finally—by noticing, naming, and disclosing our feelings, we can connect more powerfully with others. 100% agree.

The facilitators gave us a laminated sheet that listed dozens of different words we could use to describe different shades of feelings: irritated, unsettled, serene, peeved, curious, etc. The world of feelings is richer than happy, sad, angry, confused. Noticing these nuances—being present with them, in the mind, heart, and body—and then naming them appropriately, feeds a deeper self-understanding.

Growth happens when you’re out of your comfort zone. I was uncomfortable for a huge percentage of this retreat. For hours and hours at a time my heart beat a little more quickly than normal—talking about feelings and emotions with complete strangers. It’s rare for me to be so uncomfortable for so long. And I grew a lot because of it.

Jumping into the deep end of the pool—even if not normal reality—can teach you some things about normal reality. Nothing about this retreat resembled normal, default real life. But sometimes you learn fastest by operating in an extreme environment that prioritizes one thing above all else—in this case, the primacy of feelings. While hardly a 1:1 simulation of real life, some lessons can transfer to real life.

I analogize this to silent meditation retreats. Being silent for 10 days hardly resembles real world. But some of the lessons I learn on meditation retreat transfer helpfully to the noisy real world. I don’t need to become a monk in order to apply the lessons of mindfulness meditation.

Feedback is a gift. Hearing tough feedback can be hard. But it’s the only way to improve. Such a simple idea; so hard to truly embrace.

Vulnerability can increase connection and perceived strength. If you’re a leader of team, you will seem more multidimensional and relatable if you seem more “human.” All humans deal with struggle and weakness and insecurity and uncertainty. Acknowledging those universal challenges helps you connect with a wider range of people.

(I wondered aloud on Twitter if sharing positive experiences in your life can count as vulnerability; there were some wise responses. In short: maybe, but sharing the positive experience has to involve feeling embarrassed or vulnerable in some way. Alternatively, if there’s a chance someone who’s receiving your story would try, in reply, to steal your joy or downplay it (“That doesn’t sound too special; everyone has that experience”), then sharing positive vibes could count as a vulnerable act.)

Share your intention upfront when communicating hard news. How you intend for something to land is not always how it lands in the mind of the recipient. In other words, how you encode a piece of communication is not always how it gets decoded by the recipient. Literally saying, for example, “My intention in sharing this is to help you grow at public speaking, because I know you’ve said that’s one of your top priorities…” at the beginning of a difficult statement or piece of feedback about a person’s public speaking ability can clarify and strengthen interpersonal connection.

The same comment can land differently on different people. Most of the comments people make in t-group are directed to a specific person around the circle. But everyone else is watching, listening. This leads to a common, fascinating moment: After an exchange between two people, a third person jumps in and says: “Wow, that comment didn’t land to me in the same way that Jane said it did for her. I heard Joe’s feedback as rather compassionate, not arrogant like Jane did.” It’s a vivid reminder that the same words and intonation can land differently on different people. Humans are diverse.

 

Some ideas I’m reflecting on, prompted by my Touchy Feely experience, that I’m struggling with:

Personalizing and then sharing feelings with others can make them more permanent. Mindfulness meditation and Touchy Feely both prioritize noticing—“remembering to recognize the present moment’s experience” in words of dharma teacher Steve Armstrong—notice what’s happening in your mind and heart. Moment to moment.

But there’s a crucial difference between how I’ve been taught Buddhist meditation and how the facilitators of this Touchy Feely workshop taught feelings. In my meditation practice, I was told to eschew personally identifying myself to a feeling. You would say to yourself “There is pain” (not “I feel pain”) or “There is anger” (not “I feel angry”). I can hear the voice of S.N. Goenka ringing in my head as I write this: “No ‘me’, no ‘my’, no ‘mine’.”

The Buddha said to minimize the ego and to notice phenomena as separate from the mind that’s doing the thinking. By contrast, in Touchy Feely, “I” dominated. Every feeling you notice was supposed to be preceded by “I.” If a participant attempted to abstract a feeling into the voice of an omniscient narrator (e.g. “Some people might get angry with what you just said”) a facilitator would correct the participant and instruct him to personally identify the emotion with “I.”

Moreover, in Buddhist meditation, the truth of anicca (impermanence) runs through all teachings. If you notice a feeling, the instruction is to keep noticing it – and eventually it’ll probably fade away; after all, emotions (along with all other phenomena in life) are impermanent. By contrast, in the Touchy Feely framework, after noticing and naming, you’re supposed to share it with the person who caused the feeling in you: “Joe, I feel angry at you.” You’re now on the record with a codified feeling!

In summary, Buddhist instruction: Notice a feeling, name it impersonally, observe it. The end. Touchy Feely instruction: Notice a feeling, name it personally, and share it with the person who caused the feeling.

My worry with the Touchy Feely approach is that it accidentally promotes personalization and permanence. There were times in our retreat when I felt pressured to name and then share a feeling in a particular moment (“Ben, what are you feeling right now?”). By doing so, I think I endowed the feeling with more power than had I said nothing and let the feeling pass on by.

Group therapy sessions can create a “Vulnerability Olympics”. When people take turns sharing stories of vulnerability, there’s a natural one-upmanship dynamic where you try to one-up the person who spoke before you with an even more epic story of vulnerability.

At its best, this enables a person to build on the psychological safety established by their predecessor and thus go even deeper. If one person shares a story about contemplating suicide, it’s easier for the next person to share a story about a deeply embarrassing personal failure. At its worst, sharing in a group in this way feels performative and thus less authentic.

When authorities define rules and status markers in a group, it’s natural for group members to approval-seek even if they don’t believe what they’re saying. The facilitators modeled how we were supposed to speak. They showed what makes a good Touchy Feely participant and what makes a bad one. In other words, there were clear rules for winning the kudos of the facilitators. This can cause participants to say or do things they don’t actually believe, simply to earn their approval. (This is not unique to this retreat; I think in any system where rules are clearly defined, people will try to game it.) I sometimes wondered whether other participants—or myself—believed the things coming out of their mouth (“I feel more connected to you”) or whether they were saying that to earn the approving nods of the teacher. Of course, this may be the flip side of my earlier point about the benefit of jumping into the deep end of the pool—only by fully embracing instructions and format can you maximize the experience. If this is true, then I worsened my fellow participants’ experience by occasionally doubting the format, which I feel guilty about. It’s complicated. 🙂

Tears are perceived as an authoritative display of emotion. Crying is powerful. First, it’s an unambiguous display that you’re actually feeling emotion—don’t take my word for it, just look for the tears! Second, tears are contagious – seeing someone else cry increases the odds that I cry, and thus makes me feel more in sync with that person.

I’ve never been a big crier. And while I teared up several occasions listening to others’ stories in the retreat, I never fully cried during my own share.

I believe crying is not the only way of conveying deep feelings. The person who’s crying is not necessarily experiencing deeper feeling than the person who’s not crying. It’s true that many people who don’t cry are repressing their feelings, but not it’s the case all the time for everybody.

I wonder if I would have received a different reaction had I more outwardly cried. For example, I shared what I considered a vulnerable point–that I think of myself as rather brittle more than resilient, which may be problematic when I encounter unexpected catastrophe in my life. I didn’t receive a lot of affirmation for that exercise of vulnerability. If I had delivered the same point with tears streaming down my face, would the reaction have been different?

Vulnerability is tricky. It’s possible IMO to be too vulnerable as a leader. It’s a spectrum, of course. If your life is too much of a mess (relative to mine), I may feel sympathetic but not necessarily inclined to deepen a personal or professional connection. Vulnerability is a no-brainer among close friends or family. If you’re still getting to know someone or it’s a workplace setting, it’s murkier water. There is such a thing as over-sharing. To be clear, the retreat leaders did not suggest otherwise; this is more a general concern on the broader topic of vulnerability and business.

Sometimes, do let sleeping dogs lie. One phrase uttered in the course was “don’t let sleeping dogs lie”—if you have feedback, share it. This didn’t ring true in my experience. Lots of people are bad at receiving constructive feedback, even if they say they appreciate it. In my own life experience, sharing critical feedback with someone who told me he desired it has sometimes pulled us farther apart. I have frequently withheld constructive feedback for fear of creating more distance with someone close to me.

There’s no singular “authentic” self—especially not in a “learning laboratory.” The self that comes out in t-group is naked and vulnerable—but is it your most “authentic” self? I happen to believe it’s masks all the way down. There is no one authentic self. The self that emerges on a Touchy Feely retreat is definitely on nodding terms with my workplace self and my family self and my Saturday-night-with-old-friends self. But differences persist. Authenticity is complicated. IMO, it’s possible to be authentic even if you wear different masks in front of different audiences.

Here are some of the most interesting pieces of self-knowledge I gleaned from spending four days in the lab:

Rebel. I’ve always been a bit of a rebel. In middle school, I started an underground, unauthorized school newspaper (later banned) that was taglined: “The things we think but do not say.” I’ve been starting companies since I was a teenager. And I dropped out of school before Peter Thiel made it cool. Seeking the approval of authorities has never been an aim; indeed, it’s my nature to often incline to the opposite, for better or for worse.

While currently a VC by trade, I consider myself more entrepreneur than VC, and this disposition does separate me from a lot of VCs who have strictly finance or engineering backgrounds. Rebels sometimes rebel harder the more they’re being pushed to do something.  The more you ask me to do a thing I don’t agree with, sometimes the less I might want to do X (proportional to the strength of your ask). It’s not a rational response. But it may have partly informed my response when participants in the retreat challenged me.

Principled (or Stubborn). At the end of the weekend, we all exchanged 1:1 feedback with each other. The most consistent piece of feedback I received was: “I appreciate how principled you are.” I.e., I didn’t say things I didn’t believe; I stayed true to what I thought was right, regardless of social pressure. It was true for me during the retreat. And I hope it’s true in life more generally.

The flip side to being admiringly principled, of course, is being annoyingly stubborn. I hope I’m more often on the right side of that coin; it’s a work-in-progress.

I don’t naturally connect with everyone and I prioritize “natural” rapport. Several people on the retreat told me they didn’t naturally connect with me; or worse, they felt—at times–rejected by me. I was isolated at times.

In the real world, I have an abundance of rich, intimate, emotionally deep relationships in my personal and professional life. So, insofar as I was failing to connect with certain folks on the retreat, the story I tell myself is that it must have been because of the unique conditions of the retreat more than any personal foibles of mine or the other person.

All things being equal, I’d rather connect deeply with everyone. I’d rather have more deep connections than fewer, and I’d rather be able to connect with a wider range of people than a narrower range. The question comes down to effort. I often fail to generate sufficient motivation to connect–in a personal context–deeply and emotionally with someone if there’s not early, easy rapport. (Business is different. I like to think it’s easy for me to develop basic, minimal transactional relationships with almost anyone.)

So I’m not sure how important of a problem this is. If there are a lot of people I want to connect with who do not want to connect with me, it’s a problem. If there’s in fact symmetry, it’s less of a problem. At present, it’s mostly symmetric.

When I shared this particular reflection with someone who knows me well, he shared something back with me that was interesting and amusing. He said that when I (Ben) participate in group retreats or trips with people I don’t know already, few people leave the trip thinking like they’re about to be my best friend. Expectations are set low. (Ha!) And I have, on occasion, wildly surpassed that low expectation and become really close with people I met randomly on group outings where natural rapport did not—initially—flow easily. In contrast, my friend who was telling me this–for him, he more quickly and easily connects with strangers in group settings. As a result he sometimes inadvertently amps up expectations with people he meets — they expect a close emotional friendship will blossom in the weeks and months following. He then has to “let people down.” In this regard, he envies me. “You set the expectation low, and then you can surpass it,” he told me. The grass is always greener on the other side, right?

I’m more okay than average at being disliked. I like being liked. Who doesn’t? I like praise over criticism. Who doesn’t? That said, I’d say it seems I’m more comfortable being disliked by someone than the average professional. I don’t love conflict, but if conflict results in someone not liking me, it doesn’t kill me. It causes me stress + anxiety, no doubt. But perhaps less so than it does other people, which is why I frequently find myself playing “bad cop” roles on professional teams.

“Saying no” often means being disliked by someone, at least a little bit. This is why so many people struggle to say no. I’ve always been pretty comfortable saying no. As an author, I get a lot of inbound meeting and call requests from people who’ve read my stuff. I say no—or more often, simply don’t respond—to the vast majority of these inbounds. I’m inoculated to people feeling annoyed at me for not being responsive.

I’ve been very lucky / privileged so far in my life. As I’ve written about, no one close to me has died. I haven’t experienced severe trauma in my life. I’ve got issues and problems and insecurities, but on average, I’ve been really blessed. At some point that will change.

Specific useful nuggets/frameworks/acronyms I learned during the retreat:

  • “Fist to 5” for gauging group buy-in on values/norms/a plan/a decision. You ask a group of people, “Are you in?” People display their level of commitment by showing a closed-finger fist—which means “not over my dead body”—or the number of fingers that represents their buy-in, where 5 fingers for complete buy in.
  • Be careful of sentences like “you really need to” or “people think X.” If you’re expressing a personal opinion, use the I pronoun. If I watch myself, there are tons of opinions I express where I substitute “you” or “people” for “I.”
  • “I feel that…” is not the start of a sentence that describes a feeling. The word “that” negates the feeling emotion. “I feel…” should be followed by a feeling like sadness, irritation, confusion, unsettled, etc. Otherwise, it’s a thought: “I think.”
  • “Where I am in the question is…” — this is a handy way to disclose your own biases. For example, if you ask someone, “Did you father force you to go to soccer camp as a kid?” then you might follow-on by saying, “Where I am in the question is that my father forced me to participate in such camps, so I may be projecting.”
  • Asking someone the plain question “Why?” can generate a defensive response if the topic is sensitive. For example, “Why did you say that thing to Nancy?” Softer approach would be: “What was going on for you when you said that thing to Nancy?” Another example is the difference between: “Why are you going to London next week?” (if the decision to do the trip is particularly sensitive/delicate) versus “What’s going on for you, or what feelings do you have, regarding the London trip?”
  • AFOG = Another Fucking Opportunity for Growth. An acronym to use after making a mistake or enduring a difficult/uncomfortable moment.
  • Anger is a secondary emotion. If you’re feeling anger, look for the emotion behind anger.
  • “Feedback is like clothing — you have to try it on to see if it fits.”
  • The handiness of the phrase “I feel seen and heard” after someone connects with you with empathy.
  • “Whatever is omitted, is not only unspoken but unspeakable.” – Adrienne Rich
  • Sometimes you feel emotionally “unfinished” with another person — that’s the precise feeling. It’s not that you’re conclusively angry or conclusively thrilled with the person. You’re not conclusively anything. You’re just unfinished. The story is not yet finished.
  • A 1-7 scale can be helpful in conveying the intensity of an emotion. If you feel irritated, how intensely do you feel that emotion on a scale of 1-7?

I feel grateful for the opportunity to have participated in this workshop and I want to thank the facilitators and other participants for their contributions in making it such a provocative, mind-expanding experience for me.

5 Responses to Lessons and Impressions from T-Group Retreat on Interpersonal Dynamics

  1. Erik Torenberg says:

    Vintage blog post….this should go in “the best of Ben” imo 👌

    Btw, if you are reading this and you are a good entrepreneur, pls apply to link to villageglobal.vc. If you get accepted perhaps Ben might lead a T-group 🤣😇

    Reply
  2. Chris Yeh says:

    Here’s something for the “grass is always greener” files:

    I think that I’m worse than average about being disliked. On some level, I want to win over everyone that I spend time with.

    The method that I use to connect with people is straight up Dale Carnegie–I show a sincere and enthusiastic interest in them. I’m aided in this regard by my very eclectic set of interests and near-photographic memory. This allows me to ask semi-informed questions about just about anything. For example, I spent some time tonight discussing how documentary films are financed, why Berlin is currently a “cool” city, and whether hockey or basketball is a better in-person spectator sport. And that was at a conference focused on corporate M&A.

    The downside of this approach is that by enveloping people in their comfort zone, I don’t challenge them to go outside it. People who talk with me may feel many things, but they generally don’t feel uncomfortable, which means that they aren’t likely to break new ground.

    Whether this is better or worse than being “principled but harder to connect with” is an interesting question that we will have to discuss in person someday!

    Reply
  3. “You sit in this circle 2-3 times a day. You end up spending 8-10 hours a day, for 4 days, sitting in a circle, starting at a group of strangers, talking about your feelings and talking about your feelings with respect to the other people in the circle.”

    Wow, this sounds like a descent to the innermost circles of hell to me.

    Really though, the retreat sounds like a racket, almost reminiscent of Janov’s primal therapy, with its “primal screams”, that gained Yoko Ono and John Lennon as clients.

    In the ’70s, there were hip social services available for teenagers, even in the small Southern town where I lived. By “hip” I mean that the professionals had long hair, were friendly to New Age jargon, and smoked pot. When I was 14 or 15, some of us hippie kids went to group therapy, after school hours, once or twice a week. A dozen or so of us would sit in a circle and “share” experiences. The social worker in charge of the program was a Gestalt therapy enthusiast who sometimes had us role play, acting out the parts of the different characters involved in our private little psychodramas: in that group, naturally, it was mostly boyfriend/girlfriend dynamics.

    I realize that one can’t compare a once- or twice-a-week experience to an intensive four-day retreat like the one you attended, but a kid could actually learn something about himself and other people, and of course we quickly learned that all feedback is not welcome to all recipients.

    But as I remember it, the role-playing was all too often used ironically to make pointed commentary about the other persons in our little dramas—there was certainly a lot of laughter involved, always at someone’s expense, and frowns , too.

    I used the “share everything” atmosphere to establish a pretext for getting valium and ritalin from the psychiatrist who visited once a month and freely dispensed prescriptions; we didn’t even have to have our parent’s permission (or knowledge) to get them, and the good doctor always seemed to be high himself anyway.

    Ah, yes, things sure were different in the ’70s.

    Reply
    • I just realized that these events occurred in 1968-1969, so I should have said “the 60s” rather than the “70s”. And after all, the decade people refer to as “the 60s”, meaning the period of social change that swept the world, especially among young people, actually encompassed the years 1966 through 1975 (the year the US evacuated from Vietnam).

      Reply
  4. Tam Pham says:

    This is amazing, Ben. Thanks for writing. My friend facilitates Touchy Feely at Stanford and has told me the perspective of what it’s like to lead the training but this was my first time seeing things from a student’s perspective.

    I’m glad you shared your impressions and made it easy for any casual observer with average emotional fluency to be intrigued, as this kind of personal growth is hard to share articulately without hearing several examples/stories to get better context.

    It seems like you were uncomfortable and brutally honest with yourself and to others. I resonated with this lesson the most:

    “Sometimes you feel emotionally “unfinished” with another person — that’s the precise feeling. It’s not that you’re conclusively angry or conclusively thrilled with the person. You’re not conclusively anything. You’re just unfinished. The story is not yet finished.”

    Thanks Ben. 🙂

    Reply

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