Why did I choose this tool?
I have found t-groups to be some of the most challenging emotional experiences, where many of my and other people’s boundaries are tested, which have led me to deep personal growth and an ability to see the impact that I have on other people. I experienced them while living in Boulder, Colorado, and also in Berkeley, California. They are different every time, even if they’re with the same people. They really challenge us to be focused on the present, to articulate our emotions in realtime, and to receive the experiences of others.
Furthermore, they are the foundation for one of the most popular courses at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB), called Interpersonal Dynamics—nicknamed “Touchy Feely.”
How does this apply to being a trainer?
As a trainer, we are experiencing a lot of emotions—our own, those from fellow trainers, those from participants, those from the facility management, and even those from people outside of the training. While we may feel these emotions, most of our cultures have taught us not to express the full range of these in normal circumstances, and maybe to express even fewer when we are in a position of authority as a trainer. T-groups are a training that helps us get better at very clearly and simply expressing how we’re feeling, no matter what we’re feeling. This can help is in so many situations as a trainer. When in conflict with a trainer or participant. When negotiating with the facility management. When giving an inspirational speech at the end of the training. T-group helps us put our words into feelings and to have the confidence in telling others how we feel. It also helps us learn that no matter what happens, we’ll probably feel something, and that it’s OK to feel that. Furthermore, it teaches us how to receive the feelings of other people without shutting down or becoming overwhelmed. We grow our capacity to not only express our feelings, but to receive the feelings of others. As a trainer, leading diverse groups of people through highly emotional experiences, I believe t-groups can really help us improve our skills.
T-groups are an interpersonal experience where everyone says how they feel in reaction to how other people are saying how they feel. They are a very simple yet challenging exercise and can take people to uncomfortable places. They require trust and also a safe space. They would be better with someone who has done it before as well.
The structure of t-groups
The rules are simple (but not easy).
(note: these are the rules that I gathered while participating in Boulder, Colorado. They may vary based on the place that teaches the t-group.)
- Sit in a group of at least two people and no more than seven.
- Set a timer for 45 minutes.
- Each person says how they’re feeling using an emotional word and up to one sentence, or “headline,” of why they’re feeling that way. For example, “frustrated,” “grateful,” “sad…I just thought about my mom,” “nervous…I notice you keep looking at my legs.”
- Focus on the present moment.
- Before asking a question, a person should reveal themselves, which means say how they’re feeling.
- There are different hand signals to keep people on track:
- Open palm facing upward: reveal yourself
- Open hands wiggling back and forth: I resonate with that
- One hand fingers making a crimping motion: come back to the present
After the 45 minutes are finished, take 15 minutes to reflect together about how the activity went, what you noticed, what you learned, etc.
Short history of t-groups
Ed Batista, a writer, executive coach, and former faculty member of Interpersonal Dynamics (“Touchy Feely”) at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (GSB), writes online a lot about t-groups, including the history of how it started. Below I’ve paraphrased some of the history that he wrote, and you can read more on his website.
T-groups started back in the 1946, when Kurt Lewin, recognized as the “founder of social psychology,” was asked to help ease racial tension in the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut. In 1947, he created the “‘National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied Behavioral Science’ (aka NTL, known today as the NTL Institute)”, dying a year later, and leaving his co-founders Leland Bradford, Ron Lippitt, and Ken Benne to grow the organization and methodology. In the 1950s, t-groups spread to American corporations and universities, even to the US military. In the 1960s, even the Harvard Business Review was writing about t-groups. In 1968, David Bradford, the son of Leland, started at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) and began to integrate t-groups into a course that became known as Touchy Feely, the most popular elective course in the school. In the 1970s, other groups began to evolve from t-groups, including “encounter groups” and “consciousness seminars,” and seemed to lose touch with many of the underlying principles of t-group. The ideas from t-group started to spread throughout organizations and the specific focus on the t-group methodology seemed to fade.
T-groups sound intense, why would I put myself through such an emotional experience?
T-groups can be very emotionally intense, so why do I think you should try it? I believe having access to your emotions, and the ability and courage to put them into words, will give you the option to use those words in your training setting. I leave it up to you when you should share your emotions honestly, however, I believe t-groups can help you gain the skill to share them more clearly. I also think they can help you feel more comfortable with other people expressing their emotions. In a training setting, we never know who will say what or feel what, and I think t-groups act like a martial arts dojo, helping us prepare for whatever emotions may be thrown at us in the training setting.
- What was one moment that pushed you really outside your comfort zone?
- What is one emotion you really didn’t want to express?
- What is one thing you learned from watching other people interact?
- Who is one person with whom you would feel terrified doing this?
- Who is one person with whom you would feel comfortable doing this?
- What is one reaction from someone that really made you uncomfortable?
How to apply it in everyday life
- Try this with your significant other where you reduce it to one interaction. Say how you feel in the moment and then s/he says s/he feels in the moment. Do it a few times back and forth. That’s it.
- Try this activity with your organization.
- Try this activity with your best friend.
- Try this activity with a stranger.
- Try this activity with a group in a video chat.