Ranked by Forbes as the top U.S. business school in 2015, Stanford University's Graduate School of Business (GSB) offers a huge variety of classes with technical-sounding titles: Financial Reporting and Management Control. Taxes and Business Strategy. Economics of Organization.
And then there's Organizational Behavior 374: Interpersonal Dynamics.
Nicknamed "Touchy-Feely" by the student body, the class focuses exclusively on relationship-building, communication, self-awareness, and giving and receiving feedback.
"The focus of this course is to increase one's competencies in building more effective relationships," reads the class description in this year's course catalog. "Learning is primarily through feedback from other group members. This course is very involving and, at times, can be quite emotional."
An emotional rite of passage.
Quite emotional is not a phrase typically used to describe business classes. Students who've taken Touchy-Feely report that awkward silences, heated arguments, uncomfortable confrontations, and tearful confessions are common occurrences in the three-hour-long weekly sessions.
Yet the course has become one of the most popular classes at the GSB. One recent alumnus told me that more than 90 percent of his cohort enrolled in the elective.
It's become a rite of passage for these up-and-coming business leaders, an almost mandatory training lab for developing strong managerial and interpersonal skills.
Through lectures, facilitated exercises, and weekly free-form small-group discussions, Touchy-Feely addresses the questions we often ask ourselves but rarely have the opportunity to hear the answers:
How do I come across to others? How can I communicate more effectively? What do others really think of me? How do I tell others what I really think of them?
One of the stated goals of the class is to equip students with the tools to give effective feedback in real time. If someone says something that rubs you the wrong way or makes you think less of them, you are expected to tell them--immediately.
You get to practice offering constructive feedback in the heat of the moment; your classmate gets to practice receiving unexpected feedback and making instant course corrections.
Honest feedback in a safe environment.
If this sounds terrifying, the class includes several safeguards to ensure that the process remains healthy and under control. Two trained facilitators, who specialize in group dynamics and interpersonal communication, are assigned to each group of 12 students. Every student is sworn to strict confidentiality. Nothing that takes place during Touchy-Feely sessions, not even the names of the other participants, can ever leave the room.
In this safe--some might even say sacred--space, students are able to speak freely about themselves and others. They are challenged to be unflinchingly direct and honest with one another, with the best of intentions. And they are asked to listen well to the hard truths that may come their way.
Touchy-Feely may be the only business school course in the country in which your grade is based on your willingness to be honest, open, and vulnerable.
The immense popularity of the course speaks to a growing recognition that soft skills can be your most valuable tools in the business world. Interpersonal Dynamics offers a rare opportunity to experience intensive training in these skills in a safe environment--where little except your own pride is at stake.
Applicable lessons for work and home.
Especially for entrepreneurs, who must win over skeptical investors, partners, customers, and family members, the ability to communicate and resolve conflict well is paramount. Tough conversations are a daily experience.
Knowing how to navigate through them, toward positive outcomes and with the relationship intact, can only make you more effective in the office and at home.
Every student I know who has undergone Touchy-Feely remembers it as one of their most challenging experiences at the Stanford Business School. But they also remember it as a time of profound personal growth that has equipped them well for management and leadership, as well as marriage and parenthood.
No wonder, then, that Stanford keeps having to expand the capacity of the class. We could all benefit from a little more experience with Touchy-Feely.