The Problem With “Touchy-Feely”

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

• Self-disclosure

• 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.

Technorati Tags: , , , and


  • Dick Richards wrote:

    Geez…did this post bring up a lot of old stuff from my days in organization development! As I was letting go of that career I began to see my job as one of shifting the client’s energy. Stuck in intellect? Let’s enter the emotional or spiritual realm. Stuck in emotion (usually fear)? Let’s enter the spiritual or intellectual realm. And so forth.

    I had to come to terms with the fact that some people didn’t want what I had to offer even when I was 100% certain that they needed what I had to offer: my certainty didn’t matter. Actually, that’s true in life in general. Ask any addiction counselor, doctor, physical therapist, etc.

    A friend and colleague whose family were British coal miners, told me that his mission was to provide, “OD for the unwashed.” His clients were mostly in manufacturing and he was set on improving the interpersonal climate in plant environments. I lost touch with him for several years and when we reconnected he was teaching motorcycle safety and sailing. I asked him, “What happened to OD for the unwashed?” He said, “They don’t want it.” He loved his new life.

    Ah…I could go on for hours about this. Instead I’m going to prep for work with people who do want what I have to offer.

    Dan, do you know Herb Shepard’s “Rules of Thumb for Change Agents”? Two of them are: “start where the system is” and “never work uphill.”

  • Thanks for your attention to my rant, Dick. I am so glad you’re out there and understand the emotions I am describing.

    Having been in the field for twenty years — and with no plans to leave it — I now find there are parts of me that I’ve suppressed precisely in the name of the beliefs and strategies I’ve absorbed. I’ve trusted and deeply appreciated Herb Shepard’s rules, and I think they are mostly right. But I’m also finding that my internal guidance system is now examining those beliefs and finding some of them wanting.

    The other night I attended a reading and presentation by Pulitzer winner, Junot Diaz. In response to a question about his frequent use in his writing of a common racial epithet, he replied that he had been called this word all his life. He then went on to ask the audience, and this struck me deeply, what we owe to such words, words that have afflicted us our entire lives? It made me think of how language gets used, how words are power and how they can be used not only to define, but also to control and dismiss.

    The very next day I got a call from someone who wanted me to write something about my work. Apparently, there was a problem with simply forwarding a link to my website to managers in her organization because my website (and probably this blog) contains too much “touchy-feely” stuff. I’ve been dealing with such reactions forever, and so after a few moments of conversation, I offered to write a short, specific proposal about what I could do for the clients in language that might better communicate with them. I’m okay with that; in fact, maybe it’s even an advantage.

    But what was suppressed in me certainly did come forward, and with it, in a raw way, I see an opportunity to lead, maybe by helping myself and others think about the meaning of these words, “touchy-feely.” A couple of years ago I found another rule for change agents in a lovely little book called, Attracting Perfect Customers. And the rule is this: “Don’t Move the Lighthouse.” When I think of that phrase, it encourages me not only to keep the lighthouse my work may represent for others exactly where it is, but to be sure to turn on the light and shine just as brightly as possible.

  • Dick Richards wrote:

    “Don’t move the lighthouse.” — I like that.

    The dilemma is, and probably always will be, that many people want change without having to change. The best of the lot in my past were open-minded and willing to try things that were uncomfortable; to push the boundaries of their own comfort zone.

    One missing piece in Herb’s rules is that they don’t offer any way to gauge willingness and open-mindedness. We each have to develop our own guidance system for making those judgments. Sometimes we overshoot, expecting them to go places they have never been and don’t want to go. Sometimes we undershoot, swimming with them in their comfort zone and getting nowhere. I’d rather risk overshooting than undershooting although, I must admit, it cost me a few consulting gigs. Part of why I want to take that risk is to keep my own energy and fun level up. If I don’t, I’m no good to the client and not good to myself either.

    More than once a client said something like, “We were talking about sending you home by lunchtime on Day 1. I’m glad we didn’t.”

  • “Part of why I want to take that risk is to keep my own energy and fun level up. If I don’t, I’m no good to the client and not good to myself either.”


    Thanks, Dick. As always, your insights are wonderful.

  • Dan,
    This was a fabulous post and should be required business reading.
    I love the line: 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

  • Excellent post, Dan. Right on the money and terrifically written and expressed. I’m glad to have found your blog…adding to my blogroll now!

  • David and Steve

    Thanks for your kind words!

  • Wow…this is really good stuff! You took words right out of my head that say it absolutely.

    I appreciate your rant, and please keep them up…given enough promotion, I’m hopeful that people who are willing to acknowledge that the Emperor wears no clothes will step up and do the right thing for the humans that make organizations run.

    So glad that David Zinger twittered you! (Or is it tweeted?)

  • Hey Janine

    Thank you so much for the encouragement.

    There is such a price to awareness, it seems. I’m glad you are out there doing your work and taking the risks. I think everything we do, even if others don’t always get it is another small but critical victory. I send many good wishes to you. And, yes, I am also very grateful to David. What we have in this community is fantastic.

    Best to you.

  • Could there be two sets of code words?

    You have spoken of “code words” but those to whom you are speaking may be reacting to what they (rightly or wrongly) perceive as “code words” coming from you.

    The study of Cross Cultural Communications, both the history of the problem and the Semantical study of the problem, suggests that in situations similar to the one that you describe both sides view the other side as “in the wrong.”

    The following is in no way intended to suggest that the bombing of Pearl Harbor was justifiable. However, post war communications between the American Culture and the Japanese Culture suggests that the breakdown in the relationship between the two countries while indeed partially the result of Japan’s frustration over not being allowed access to resources which it (rightly or wrongly) thought that it had the right to access was exacerbated by the fact that semantically speaking both sides were defining words and phrases which the other side had used in communications differently.

    Cross Cultural Communications can even break down when two sets of people speak the same language. In American History there are many examples of difficulties being caused by semantical differences between divergent cultures both in our Foreign relations with the British Empire and in our internal discussions.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that the fundamental problem which you are addressing in this article, the dismissal of the subjective or “human element” does not exist in the business world. This problem most certainly does exist.

    But reading through your article, I was struck by how many of the words which you use in the article as being part of your culture, could easily result in semantical difficulties even when a business leader is looking to create a cultural transformation.

    Please do not view this as a “verdict” because it is only intended as a “talking point.”


  • James

    This is very interesting to me and I’m curious. What are the specific words and phrases I’ve used that you suspect could cause semantical difficulties for a “business leader looking to create a cultural transformation?” I’d certainly like your feedback and feedback from others on this point.

    Best to you.

  • Hi Dan
    Wow – I’m going to shout this article to the rooftops. You’ve said everything here that I have “carried” around in terms of my work for years.

    I sometimes feel like I have to sleuth my way into the illusory “rationality” of the common business mindset. Typically everything that business leaders are asking for when they talk to “people like us” is of course, about being a human being. Fortunately, I’ve effectively used the evidence of neuroscience to make the case for the primacy of human thought and feelings. It lives even the most rational, defenseless.

    You’re spot on – it is about “subjectivity.” The reality is that business runs on the objectification of what is essentially human. My favorite line – “little do they know – I’m serious.”

    I’m old enough to say that the bottom line for me and my work – is how people feel. How much can they come alive through their work? Your organization’s profits are not my main concern. In a more enlightened era, you will understand that the more people come alive, the more everyone will prosper.

    PS: It really hurts my feelings too.

  • Thanks, Louise. Your last paragraph hits the nail on the head. We are struggling so to get to that “more enlightened era.” All the best!

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.