Tom Lemanski's

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I once had a new coaching client begin our engagement with this intriguing request.   

“I don’t want this to get touchy-feely.”  

On the surface, this is a potential challenge for a leadership coach.  One of the most important aspects of a coach-client relationship is connection.  Does that mean getting touchy-feely?  It depends on what that term really means to the person making request.  There are similarities between a coach’s role and a leader’s role. So let’s take a closer look at the possible rewards and consequences with a touchy-feely approach to communication. 

The Touchy Approach

I have no issue steering clear of the touchy part. The touchy part was always out-of-bounds for me. In fact, interactions via video conferencing have proven to be highly effective without handshakes or fist bumps.  Between the Me-Too movement and the Pandemic, there’s justifiably more resistance to touching than ever.  

But, be careful about using the term touchy-feely to bundle the two approaches in an attempt to avoid either. 

The Feely Approach

As for the feely part I wonder:  Is this a request to take the topic of emotions off the table completely?

If we understand that all decisions are inherently emotional, how do you conduct a coaching engagement without helping the leader gain clarity about the emotional component of decision making.   How can you effectively lead?

Is this also a request to avoid feeling uncomfortable?  That’s another obstacle to becoming a better leader.  If you’re not willing to experience uncomfortable discussions with your coach, you may be un-coachable.   Do you have a habit of avoiding uncomfortable discussions with those you lead? If so, how can you hold them accountable?

How Does a Coach or Leader Approach Touchy-Feely?   

There are good reasons for someone to say they want to avoid touchy-feely.  I would first seek to understand and respect the request. Something about you or their view of the situation triggered it. This is an opportunity to lead by example and demonstrate empathy.   Try to understand how the other person feels.  There is likely some form of fear in play based on past experience.  

Another part of understanding the request is to define the term “touchy-feely”.  I pasted the Free Dictionary definition below.  But terms and/or labels like this can have meanings and connotations that go beyond dictionary definitions.  So it’s important gain clarity through empathy by learning:  

  • How does the person define the term? 
  • What is the person trying to avoid?  And why?
  • What previous experience(s) have led to this request?
  • Is there a physical teambuilding horror story in the past that should never be repeated?
  • What boundaries should be set for future interactions? 

Armed with this insight along with mutual agreement about the importance of the leader’s desired outcomes, we determine what makes sense in terms of our interaction. 

Touchy-Feely Definition


adj. Informal

  1. Marked by or emphasizing physical closeness and emotional openness
  2. Based on sentiment or intuition, especially to the exclusion of critical judgment

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.  All rights reserved.


Definition Breakdown

Deal Makers

Emotional Openness: As long as it serves both parties

Based on sentiment or intuition:  Trusting your gut can be valuable.  Trusting sentiment requires awareness of when emotions might take over..  

Deal Breakers

Emphasizing Physical Closeness:  For what purpose?  What are the risks?

To the Exclusion of Critical Judgment: Loose cannon behavior is highly discouraged. 


Use the Makers.  Drop the Breakers

The touchy-feely approach as defined above has potential pitfalls. I’ve listed them as Deal Breakers. At the same time I work to gain permission to lead discussions to utilize Deal Maker aspects of purposeful emotional openness and understanding the value of trusting your gut.   

Embracing the Uncomfortable

A leader is much less likely to develop new skill sets and mindsets while comfortable with the status quo.  When things are feeling good, why change?   An effective coach needs to facilitate the uncomfortable. If not, how will development occur?

Touchy moments are neither required or desirable.  But feeling uncomfortable with the status quo is highly recommended when improvement is the mutual goal. But we need to getting feely with a green light (mutual consent or understanding).  Running a red light will derail the discussion.  .   

Green Light

The Myth of Vulnerability

We still find old school, macho orientated cultures where displaying any sign of weakness will hinder your career path.  But emotional intelligence and authenticity continue to become a more valued leadership attributes. 

What's the Opposite of Emotional Intelligence? 

  Clinically it’s “low EQ“.   In plain talk, might we might call it emotional ignorance?     

We will always need to have tactical and strategic management discussions.  But as leaders how long is is possible to deny that we’re working with other emotionally driven human beings and act accordingly?

Touchy-Feely in Your Leadership Role

In my coaching role, I typically have both permission and a duty to explorer the feely as needed. AND I have an obligation to avoid the touchy.  Look no further than our recent poster child; NY Governor Andrew Cuomo.

How might this apply to your role as a leader? 

  • How aware are you of the emotions in play when communicating with others in your organization? 
  • If you became even more emotionally intelligent, how much more effective could you be?