Stanford’s most popular class, ‘Touchy Feely,’ is now a book. I read it and tried the principles in my own life – here’s what happened.

Michelle Juergen
Michelle Juergen says her friends know her as “that friend who’s always talking about her feelings.”

Most people in my life know me as that friend who’s always talking about her feelings. It’s true: I go to therapy, and I talk constantly to anyone who’ll listen about what I’m learning there; I use “I” statements; and I ask everyone, “How does that make you feel?”

It’s safe to say I’m touchy-feely.

So given the chance to read “CONNECT: Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends, & Colleagues,” a new book by the professors Carole Robin and David Bradford who teach Stanford’s most popular course, Interpersonal Dynamics – known as “Touchy-Feely” – my buy-in was immediate.

The book offered me hands-on, research-backed interpersonal skills for building what the authors call “exceptional relationships,” which have six hallmarks: Both people can be more fully themselves, can be honest with each other, are willing to be vulnerable, can trust that self-disclosure will not be used against them, can deal with conflict productively, and will commit to each other’s growth and development.

I decided to test out some of the book’s lessons on one longstanding personal relationship and one new one – my best friend, and a person I recently started dating – to see what it would change.

I saw the fruits of my labor in less than a month. Here are some of the most valuable strategies I learned.

1. Stay on your side of the net

When my best friend recently told me about a summer trip she’d planned that didn’t include me, I immediately assumed it meant that she doesn’t like traveling with me. But I reeled in my melodrama and recalled one of the book’s lessons: Stay on your side of the net.

According to the authors, there are three realities in the interpersonal cycle: the other person’s intent, which only they know; their behavior, which is observable by both parties; and the impact of that behavior on you, which only you know. Imagine it as a tennis court, where there’s a net between intent and behavior. In assuming my friend’s motives, I was playing on her side of the court – over the net.

When you stay on your side of the net, you remain in your own reality and let the other person know you’re not judging their character or asking them to change their personality. This leaves room for them to hear what you have to say and tell you more about their intentions.

2. Express a ‘pinch’ before it becomes a ‘crunch’

Recently, I expressed to the guy I’ve been dating that something he did made me feel unappreciated. I told him it wasn’t a big deal, but that I wanted to talk about it while it was a “pinch” (a mild offense) so it wouldn’t become a “crunch” (a major conflict).

Before we chatted, I took Bradford and Robin’s advice of stating the intent of my feedback – to offer him more insight into how I operate and what I need from a partner, and kept the no-big-deal issue at hand from spiraling into something bigger.

3. Offer behaviorally specific feedback

Pointing out observable behaviors is crucial to good communication, as it allows the other person to share their motives.

If I tell my friend, “You don’t want to take a trip with me,” I’m setting the conversation up negatively. But if I say, “You’ve recently planned a bunch of trips but haven’t invited me on any,” I’m merely stating something observable, which allows for vulnerability where we can both talk about our needs and intentions.

4. Try the 15% Rule

Stepping 15% outside the “Zone of Comfort” means offering information about yourself that is slightly uncomfortable but not too risky, to see how the other person will respond.

The authors suggest stepping 15% outside your comfort zone when self-disclosing to gauge the other person's reaction to what you've shared_Juergen.jpeg
Stepping 15% outside of your comfort zone when self-disclosing can help you gauge the other person’s reaction.

With the guy I’m seeing, I disclosed some personal past experiences. I wasn’t stepping into the “Danger Zone” – where there’s a likelihood of him reacting negatively or me feeling like I’ve said too much too soon – but I was getting myself closer to the “Zone of Learning,” where I can gauge his reaction and decide if I feel safe sharing more.

Face the fear

The principles of “Connect” can be applied to any relationship, but I found I was just as nervous trying these tactics with my close friend as I was with a new romantic partner. After all, it’s human to fear that if someone really knew you, they’d reject you.

But I learned it’s entirely worth it. In less than a month, I experienced newfound closeness in both of these relationships. Maybe best of all, I improved how I communicate, and gave myself permission to evolve and be more fully myself.

Michelle Juergen is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, editor, copywriter, copyeditor, and ghostwriter. She often overshares her feelings on Instagram to anyone willing to read her lengthy captions.

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