What I Learned at…Stanford Graduate School of Business, Part 2

In our “What I Learned at…” series, MBAs discuss the tools and skills their business schools provided as they launched their careers.

Sandi Lin is the CEO and founder of Skilljar, which provides businesses with online course software. Before founding Skilljar, Sandi was a senior manager at in Seattle. She earned her MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In Part 2 of this three-part series, Sandi discusses some ways in which the school’s notable “Touchy Feely” course prepared her for the real-world challenges associated with founding a start-up. (Click here to read Part 1.)

Most Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) alumni will tell you that the most impactful class they took at Stanford was “Interpersonal Dynamics,” also known as “Touchy Feely.” Five years out from graduation, I can certainly tell you that “Touchy Feely” is something I use every day. I can look up the details of Porter’s five forces analysis or of the generally accepted accounting principles when I need to, but the lessons of communication are universal.

There are already several great posts on the impact of “Touchy Feely,” including a Quora thread and a facilitator’s blog post. What happens inside a T-Group [training group] is confidential, but at a high level, the groups are intense learning labs for active listening, communication and influence. It is easy to read about these topics in the abstract, but it is another matter to deeply understand how I am perceived by others, how I communicate and what my biases are.

I use “Touchy Feely” lessons in multiple ways at work. Here are three tactical examples:

“I feel [feeling word].In “Touchy Feely,” I learned that I can only know my own feelings and my interpretation of other people’s actions (for more information, see the Johari window). But I cannot know other people’s feelings or their motivations for why they took those actions. So instead of assuming, “Joe Smith is so inconsiderate. He’s always interrupting me when I’m working,” I should talk to Joe directly and say, “I feel frustrated when you drop by to ask me questions. I want to give you my full attention, but I also lose track of what I am doing. Can we figure out a strategy that will work for both of us?” The key technique I remember to use is to say, “I feel [feeling word].” Try it—it is harder than it sounds.

“Tell me more.” I learned that the word “why” is inherently challenging and puts a burden (no matter how slight) on the other person to explain themselves. Using phrases such as “tell me more” are more inviting and produce the same result.

“What I’m hearing is…” One of my biggest weaknesses in terms of communication is cutting people off and immediately jumping to solutions. I learned firsthand in “Touchy Feely” that often the most valuable part of a conversation is first acknowledging that I do hear what the other person is saying.

Most of entrepreneurship comes down to communication. As a founder, I am constantly asking investors to believe in my company, asking customers to trust our product and asking potential hires to join the team for long hours and little pay. Understanding the potential impact of my words and actions, experienced firsthand through “Touchy Feely,” has made a profound difference in both my professional and personal interactions.

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