In two days I'll begin teaching another section of Interpersonal Dynamics (aka Touchy Feely) at Stanford. I first encountered the class as a student at the Graduate School of Business in 1999, I started serving as a group facilitator in 2007, and I joined the faculty last year.
In 2008 I documented the feedback I received from my students at the conclusion of one of the groups that I facilitated that year--an experience that I described at the time as "a performance review conducted simultaneously by 13 people." I recently discovered a similar list of the feedback that I received from a group that I facilitated in Winter Quarter 2009, exactly eight years ago.
As I prepare to ask the 36 students in my section and the 6 facilitators on my staff to embark on this journey with me, it seems appropriate to walk the talk and share what I learned about the things I did well in that long-ago group and the things I needed to keep working on:
Things I've Done Well
- I express a wide range of feelings and emotions, at varying levels of intensity, in a very clear way.
- I'm good at focusing on my own experience without attributing
- I'm direct and straightforward.
- My intentions are usually well understood.
- I challenge people in useful and productive ways that promote learning.
- I care deeply for other people, and my support for their growth and development is evident.
- I create a sense of safety and trust.
- I express myself and interact with others authentically, which reinforces that trust.
- I effectively balance my role as a coach with a deep sense of personal investment.
- I model the behaviors I encourage others to experiment with; I express my feelings, step into conflicts, stand my ground, and admit mistakes.
- I'm open to feedback.
- I'm willing to work through difficult issues, and I stand by people when things get tough.
- I'm a strong steward with a gentle touch, allowing people to learn and grow through their struggles but offering support when it's needed.
- I take risks to push people beyond their comfort zones, particularly around the value of expressing feelings.
- I'm effective at making people feel heard and understood.
- I'm willing to learn and grow myself, which also helps to build trust.
Things I Need to Keep Working On
- I make assumptions about people and then act on those assumptions without first testing their validity.
- If I've asked a group to abide by certain processes, I need to be sure to follow those same rules myself.
- I find it easier to express my frustrations with men, while I'm more supportive and less confrontational with women
- I need to pay more attention to my own needs in relationships and put them forward more assertively, not only to insure that they're met, but also to help establish more equitable relationships in which my colleagues feel able to help and support me.
- I tend not to give critical feedback when I worry that it will reflect poorly on me in some way.
- I find it harder to share more of myself when I'm in a leadership role, and as a result groups don't get to know me as well.
- I do challenge people effectively--but I can push them harder and sooner than I think, and I can be more directive as a leader without undermining my effectiveness.
- I can do more to push people beyond their comfort zones in service of their learning; in particular, I should ask whether I'm pushing everyone in a group or only certain people.
- I can occasionally rely on stock phrases or jargon, which diminishes the impact of what I'm saying.
- I can share more of myself with a group--and sooner--to build stronger and closer relationships.
It's a striking experience to read this eight years later and see myself portrayed so accurately. Many of these strengths are qualities that I've tried to emphasize in my work as a coach and teacher, and in my life as a husband, son, and brother. And many of these shortcomings have been focal points of my effort to grow and change as a person over the last decade.
One item that jumps out at me, in part because I still have a vivid memory of the feedback being delivered, is the comment on the disparity in my relationships with men and women. I'd never noticed this pattern until it was pointed out by one of the students in her final feedback to me. She'd had a difficult experience in the class, and my support for her had been an important resource that had helped her get through it. Her gratitude was effusive, and I recall feeling a surge of pride as she expressed it to me. However, she continued, as she looked around the group she realized that she'd seen me challenge and even confront all of the men, and that they had benefited from my willingness to push them, and she'd only seen me offer support and comfort to the women, and she felt cheated. I felt surprised and embarrassed. I care deeply about sexism, and it's important to me to address the many forms of discrimination women face, and I thought I'd been a good ally to women over the years. It was disappointing to realize that I had such a major blind spot in this area.
This feedback led to a lot of self-reflection. I readily saw the roots of this dynamic in my family, my early community, and the culture at large. I'm the oldest of three brothers, and my formative experiences in the 1970s and '80s left me feeling comfortable challenging men and supporting women, and far less comfortable supporting men or challenging women. Even as I developed an interest in fighting sexism and discrimination, my own sexism led me to maintain one stance toward men and another toward woman.
It was clear that this was preventing me from being a better coach and teacher for women, because I was over-emphasizing a supportive relationship with them and hesitating to challenge them more assertively. But the unexpected insight was that this was also preventing me from being a better coach for men, because I was over-emphasizing a challenging relationship with them and hesitating to express support, comfort, and tenderness toward them. I was only showing up as half a person in all of my relationships, and in a way that was deeply sexist, with negative consequences for everyone.
I've tried to bear this in mind over the past decade, to consider the impact of gender in my relationships with students and clients, and to insure that I'm challenging women and supporting men and showing up as a full person, a complete person, with everyone. (I've even come to see supportive challenge as one of the core pillars of my approach to coaching.) I feel good about the progress I've made, but that's for others to judge. I can say that the whole experience contributed significantly to my belief in the importance of being open to feedback, learning from my mistakes, maintaining a growth mindset, and increasing my comfort with discomfort. Getting that feedback was one of the toughest moments in my career, and I am so grateful for it.
Photo by Mobilski. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.