There is no term that communicates quite so much irrevocable dismissal by managers in the business world than labeling an action or activity, “touchy-feely.” It is the most prevalent way of discarding information about people. The term suggests all those really icky “hygiene” demands of employees, dealing with the stuff of relationships in the workplace and God knows what else that is aimed at making people feel good but doesn’t actually have anything to do with getting the work done effectively and efficiently. There’s often a patronizing tone of opprobrium that goes with this universal label for things that have to do with…oh no…feelings.
In presentations sometimes when clients ask me if my material is going to be “too touchy-feely,” I often joke back: “Oh, it’s a lot worse than that. This is about your personal healing as a leader.” Usually I get a laugh out of that. Little do they know, I’m serious.
Surely, there are more hurtful, ignorant forms of labeling, but the one around “touchy-feely” I find to be code for the disastrous underlying damage to people in the business world, the stuff that Studs Terkel in his famous book, Working called “the daily humiliation” of work,” the “violence to the spirit as well as the body.”
Let’s examine some of the things that are ruled out of discussion by concerns about what is too”touchy-feely.”
• Personal feelings
• Spirituality, soulfulness
• Community and connection
• Background experiences and conditioning from the past, especially childhood
• Arts, including poetry, music, painting, etc.
• Appreciation for differences of temperament, style, or culture
• Rituals of any kind, indigenous wisdom
• Managing personal pain and woundedness
• Life journeys
• Levels of self-esteem
• Building warm, supportive relationships
• Appreciation for human failings
• Working with shadow issues, everything from power and manipulation to self-destructive behavior
• Open relationships; trust-building
It’s kind of a long list and if you are sympathetic to this posting, I bet you’ll have even more to add. I suspect the whole fearsome list is triggered in some peoples’ minds at the moment someone uses one of the code words, like “wound” or “journey.” A friend who does the same work I do was criticized in one of her proposals. The clients said her words were “too round.” Interesting. We can now add “round words” to the list of what is officially off the list as too “touchy-feely.”
One day I was having a lively discussion with a number of other people in my field about this label. It was a polite discussion where we were trying to communicate in overtly tempered and mature ways — a solid “dialogue” (oops, there’s another of those words) to evaluate and understand — but in our hearts was a deeply nagging frustration. We decided that the term actually referred to anything that had to do with the subjectivity of people, their thoughts and feelings and sense of identity as people, what was inside them that might be disclosed (a risky proposition) and that had to do with whatever they considered their personal rather than their professional presence to be. This was interesting to me. It reminds me, of course, that there is an organizational iceberg and that the human side of things is often shunted below the water-line while the public face of business appears to be the business of business above it. There is that whole process of “hiding,” you know; that whole process of pretending we can live together in an impersonal world 8 or 10 or 12 hours a day.
Can I tell you something? When people suggest that my work might be too touchy-feely, it hurts me. Yup, after all this time, though I can joke about it with people, I still take it personally. Like I said, there are much worse labels for people, but it is another form of destructive ridicule, the way the phrase, “Can’t you take a joke?” used to be the way you knew that sexual harassment was alive and well. So I’ve learned to play the game. I can describe anything I do in strictly behavioral terms. I know how to talk about performance management and development plans for people and all the rest of it, knowing that when I or anybody who consults gets in there to find out what’s really happening, the truth is often very messy, complex, and emotional, having everything to do with background conditioning, systems of defense and denial, ego, life journeys, soulfulness, human wholeness, the art of being alive to a network of diverse relationships, self-disclosure, connections, trust — and so on. It causes me pain to watch business culture try to obscure its most wounded parts.
I have to tell myself — well, this is the starting point, not the end-point, and I try not get angry or frustrated by the ignorance that use of the term reveals, often a studied, macho kind of business snobbery from people who think they know the answer, are highly self-protective in an unremittingly positive way while being quite skilled at subtle put-downs, ridicule, and other forms of civilized ruthlessness.
To be fair, of course, I have noticed times when a “touchy-feely” approach does seem out of context and does not match the level of defensive behavior that characterizes an audience, say an executive team. I remember being hired by principals of a small high-tech firm to facilitate a retreat. Members of the team boastfully told the story of the previous facilitator who had tried to use a “talking stick” to get the group to open up, how one of them, ridiculing the entire “touchy-feely” process, threw it on the ground and broke it, how the facilitator was so humiliated he didn’t bother to send a bill for his time. Now I certainly judged this audience differently than the first facilitator and did not use a talking stick or any similar device. I didn’t read them any poetry. I didn’t talk about the quest for human wholeness. Instead I smiled, and when it came up, I told them I would charge them more when they tried to use abusive language with me. Instead of team dynamics, I took them through a standard process of multi-voting on their priorities and making project assignments.
Over the years that I have continued to work with this firm, I’ve gotten to know the people and they are truly wonderful as individuals, but they are not very good as a group in handling issues that require interpersonal openness. They don’t have the temperament for it, they complain, being technically oriented. Maybe so, but I tend to think that’s pretty much an excuse from wealthy clients who’d simply rather not. They’ve certainly suffered for it from a business standpoint, paying major amounts of cash to circumvent dealing with their lack of openness — to people who they can’t confront about performance, to programs that cost many times what they should in order to be executed, for mistakes about how to handle relationship problems. But change any of that through their own behavior — hell, no — they’d pay almost anything to avoid it. The money to circumvent these problems is simply considered a cost of doing what? Oh, yeah, a cost of doing “business.” The whole event with the talking stick, well, silly as it still is to them, actually hits them in their softest, most insecure place, their inability to talk openly and directly to one another about … oh, no, not that! … their feelings toward each another.
Was the talking stick too touchy-feely? Oh, yes, for this group, definitely. And quite simply, way too threatening.
At fifty-eight, I find myself getting really tired of the smugness of business people who want people like me to figure out how to help them solve their human problems without direct human means — and then ridicule my profession. What clever strategy can I come up with to deal with a problem of leadership or team dynamics without actually dealing with the problem of leadership or team dynamics? Please, they might as well say, don’t take us anyplace we don’t feel good, anyplace we are scared and vulnerable as individuals or as a group. Please don’t make us share our subjective stuff so somebody else can see how incomplete and untogether we are, where we have to show up as ourselves with actual feelings, actual anger, actual anxiety! In this sense, those who complain the loudest about not wanting to do something too touchy-feely often really just want to maintain the power of their personal feel-good mask. God knows, we shouldn’t disturb that.
This is the damage, the real, tangible human damage in the business world. By business world, I certainly also include other sectors, non-profits, academic and research organizations, etc. I don’t think we’ve changed the business culture much over time — some, but not nearly enough if we don’t start examining and dealing with the “touchy-feely,” undiscussable stuff that causes our enterprises to be woefully inefficient and sometimes really inhumane places to work. Because if you want to know what “touchy-feely” is code for that absolutely scares the crap out of people, it’s really simple. It’s just this: the truth.