Entrepreneurs are often celebrated for their vision, resilience, and work ethic. They are not, however, usually renowned for their soft touch. Or as Stripe's Patrick Collison once joked to a room full of fellow founders, "You wouldn't have become entrepreneurs if you weren't disagreeable."
The same hardheaded commitment to their own internal impediments that makes someone a great business leader also often makes them a royal pain in the neck to deal with outside the office. Perhaps that's why the most popular class ever at Stanford Business School isn't about finance or marketing. It's a long-running class on interpersonal dynamics affectionately known as "Touchy Feely."
Taken by more than 90 percent of MBA students despite being an elective, the course teaches budding business titans how to play nicely with others and build strong relationships.
Tears and transformation
Over the course of weekly, often tear-filled sessions, Touchy Feely teaches hard-charging types to give and receive feedback, hold defensiveness at bay, and understand how others perceive them (you can read more about the course's structure here).
"Being able to take the perspective of others and seeing yourself through that perspective -- that was really attractive to me, participating in a course that is designed to deliver that," Brian Lowery, the professor who currently oversees Touchy Feely, explained to Poets & Quants. "We don't have the opportunity or inclination to get honest, transparent feedback about how we show up. For a lot of people, it really is an epiphany."
Which sounds terrifying and transformational in equal measure. And now you don't have to get into Stanford to benefit from Touchy Feely. Two previous instructors, Carole Robin and David Bradford, have distilled the essential lessons of the class into a new book, titled Connect. In their many media appearances around its launch, they've outline several key takeaways business leaders can start using today.
1. Tune into two different antennas.
If you want to build great relationships both personal and professional, you first have "to build the capacity to pick up two signals from two different antennas," Bradford explains on the Think Fast, Talk Smart podcast.
"One antenna is what's going on for me internally. The other antenna is what's going on for someone else. And the more those signals are, the more you're attuned to those signals, and the more they inform the choices you make in your interaction with someone, the more likely you are to move toward [exceptional relationships]," he continues.
2. Risk vulnerability by following the 15 percent rule.
You can't build high-quality relationships when you're pretending to be someone you're not. At best, all you'll create is good rapport between your new contact and a made-up persona. That's obvious, yet we often hide our authentic selves when getting to know people because we fear rejection.
Getting over that fear is an essential step toward better relationships. "If I can be myself and you can be yourself, then we have a greater chance of making a connection," Bradford notes on Insights by Stanford Business. Still, too much disclosure can also be a disaster. To strike the right balance, the authors advise following "the 15 percent rule" and push yourself just 15 percent outside your comfort zone when speaking with people.
Even this small bump in vulnerability can transform relationships: "Students learn they're more likable and more interesting to their fellow students when they stop spinning their image and let others know who they really are. That, in turn, leaves them feeling known and affirmed," Robin attests.
3. View every interaction as a learning opportunity.
One of the best ways to speed learning of any sort is to open yourself up to the possibility that you might be wrong. This is just as true when it comes to learning to be a great communicator. "Be prepared to update your beliefs and assumptions about what makes you effective, particularly as a leader, and treat every interaction as a learning opportunity," says Bradford.
4. Embrace your agency.
A lot of us put our relationships on autopilot, letting impulse, chance, and unconscious motivations drive what happens within them. Robin and Bradford instruct readers to embrace their agency and put two hands back on the wheel of your relationships instead.
"One very important message throughout is the notion that you always have choices. Often people say, 'I can't say this, I can't raise this issue,' or 'I'm helpless because the other person isn't responding right.' But you have agency. You can choose not to deepen a conversation or have a relationship. Or you can put in the work and build the relationships you want to a much higher degree than you thought you could," insists Bradford.
5. Stay on your side of the net.
When we have a tense interaction with someone else, there are actually three realities going on at once: your internal feelings and motivations, their internal feelings and motivations, and the concrete behavior you're both displaying. You can only ever be sure of two of these. Try to guess or assume what the other party is feeling and you often get into trouble.
The solution, according to Robin and Bradford, is to think of each exchange as a tennis game and stay safely on your side of the net. That means you can talk about your feelings and observable behavior but don't go venturing guesses as to the other party's motivations.
Robin gives the example of when she used to get annoyed at her husband for coming home from work, collapsing into a chair, and not speaking with her. "When I don't understand the concept of the net ... I say, you're not listening to me. Well, that assumes that I'm in his head," she says. Even worse is to impute a motive and think, "He doesn't care about me."
Far better to stay on your side of the net and stick to your feelings and observable behavior. Try something like, "When you make no eye contact and the only thing I get is a grunt, I don't feel heard in that and I feel hurt and dismissed. And I'm telling you this because it makes me less inclined to want to be there for you."