update: dealing with an overly touchy-feely colleague who wants to talk about feelings all the time

Remember the letter-writer whose volunteer committee chair wanted to make their meetings “a safe place” (in a context where that wasn’t really needed) and and spent a bunch of time at already long meetings “checking in” on everyone’s feelings? Here’s the update.

I held off updating for a while because almost immediately after I wrote you, the situation took a bit of a turn. As much as I enjoyed the company and work of my fellow committee members, it was becoming clear that we as a group were spinning our wheels. I think that stems from a lot of places — the larger body sponsoring the committee gave it an extremely vague mission statement, offered very little feedback (and we’re a group of young people who were promised a certain amount of mentoring), and never ponied up any funds to put together any events or resources.

So on top of this annoying time-waster at meetings, nothing seemed to actually be getting done or moving forward in any meaningful way. Over the summer, a meeting was cancelled at the last minute: less than half of the members could attend, then the co-chair who had the key for the meeting room overslept. Only one person other than me had shown up, and she and I both received texts and phone calls to just “go down to the coffee shop” and start the meeting without him, and he would be there in 45 minutes. (This is after I spent 45 minutes getting there, for 10 a.m. on a Saturday.) We both ended up saying, forget it, clearly we’re not going to get any meaningful work done, just stay home. She and I went for brunch instead, had a long conversation about the committee, and it turns out she had the same frustrations as me, including check-ins!

That night, I wrote a (polite, professional) email to the co-chairs, explaining why I felt that that morning’s meeting should have been cancelled beforehand if so few members could attend, how I felt it was part of a larger problem in which our time was not being used efficiently (including the check-ins, length of meetings, and planning social excursions on top of regular committee hours), how I was disappointed in our sponsoring organization for not providing more support, and how I would like for us as a group to refocus our energies. She (the co-chair hosting the check-ins) responded politely that she appreciated me sharing my thoughts and we would discuss it further soon. A few weeks later, she wrote me an email, asking if we could meet in person, one-on-one, to talk about my feelings.

I briefly felt obligated to go, but I gave it 24 hours and wrote back, “I appreciate you taking my thoughts into consideration, but I think I said everything I needed to say in my email. At this point, I think it would be better if we saved any further discussion for the next meeting.”

Our next meeting was scheduled for two hours instead of three, to start at 11 a.m. instead of 10. I can’t tell you what a difference this made for me in my mood when I arrived at the meeting — I was better rested, better caffeinated, and much more optimistic. The meeting started with a check-in, but this time the co-chair asked us to reflect for a few minutes on how we feel about the committee’s actions so far, and what we’d like to do today to be more productive. She emphasized that the check-ins were voluntary, but we all ended up participating, me included. The head of our sponsor organization also attended, and we were able to have some frank conversations about how they can better support future committees.

I’m still not sold on the check-in concept in general, but this was a much-appreciated change. Even though the check-ins took roughly the same amount of time as usual, it felt more focused and productive, and we had a really great meeting following. As a bonus, I didn’t feel exposed or put on the spot, and in general I was much more relaxed and better able to contribute during the meeting.

Thank you so, so much for answering my question. Your response was insightful and reassuring, and your commenters are simply the best. I particularly enjoyed hearing from people who use check-ins and how it was helpful for them; it gave me a lot of perspective.

Update, part 2 (received after the update above):

The committee had its final meeting last weekend, and most of it was focused on what could be done differently or better down the road. One of the committee members apologized for having missed several meetings, as he was having a rough time at work and in his personal life, and he didn’t feel up to joining the group and participating in personal updates.

The co-chair then said she felt she had not done enough this year to check in with people to make sure they were handling their stress, and apologized for not conducting one-on-one check-ins on a weekly basis, as she has done in the past. You’ll recall from my original letter, this came up earlier and was never carried out (after I said I did not think it was necessary for me).

What ensued was an extremely awkward and delicate conversation, in which another committee member and I both asserted that we found check-ins time-wasting and uncomfortable, and while perhaps it would be beneficial for some folks to use the group as a sounding board for their personal or professional issues, it isn’t particularly fair to mandate it for the group. I tried really hard to not be disrespectful of the committee member who mentioned his personal issues, because I didn’t want him to feel like HE wasn’t allowed to share, just that I did not want to have to be asked constantly, and in the end I don’t think my point came across because I was afraid to speak too strongly on it.

Regardless, I’m relieved that the experience is now behind me, and I’m grateful (again) for the feedback and support of the Ask A Manager crowd!

{ 25 comments… read them below }

  1. Snarkus Aurelius*

    You certainly handled yourself a lot better than I would have.  My frustration would have had me gone from the group after the first few meetings, but you stuck it out and gave fantastic reasons for your displeasure without being rude or off-putting.  

    It sounds like this group was doomed from the start what with the lack of funding and support.  The meeting leader certainly didn’t help her lack of leadership and focus on emotional check-ins though.  I do think this could have been salvageable with better leadership and time management skills, but that’s not on you, OP.

    I’m also not entirely surprised you weren’t alone on this, and I bet there were more people who felt the same.  If it helps, I’m not sold on the check-in either, but that’s because if I have something to say, I’ll say it.  I don’t need an opportunity or a current event to do so, but I also acknowledge that’s just me.

  2. fposte*

    I think you did great work on mitigation, OP, in a situation that probably couldn’t have been cured.

    I’m thinking about that last update. I’m not surprised that somebody who really wanted to be valuable by emotionally connecting with her volunteers reacted strongly to hearing somebody going through real stress, and that drowned out for her all the requests to disengage. I doubt I could come up with the perfect thing to say when presented with the threat of one-on-ones at the moment either. On reflection, I think I’d go for something like “I think it’s important we honor both volunteers who’d want one-on-ones and volunteers who’d be made uncomfortable by those. So I think it’s great that you’re offering–what about leaving it as something people can choose do to, so that it’s completely consensual and not a requirement?”

  3. College Career Counselor*

    Some years ago, I did a professional development activity that had some good content and exercises, but which included both morning check-ins and afternoon one-word summaries as part of the week-long program. Like the OP, I found those incredibly time-consuming, potentially invasive, and certainly less than useful (read: authentic, at least for me) after the first day, as I felt incredible pressure to come up with new ways of saying the same thing about the professional environment (I sure wasn’t going to share anything from my personal life in this context).

    I also felt a lot of social pressure to participate in the one-word summaries (I’m pretty sure “obligated” would not have been well-received) and felt that I couldn’t use the same word (even if it applied) because that wasn’t showing “mindfulness,” “growth,” or “reflection.” It also included a group meditation exercise, which I do understand that some people like and find helpful. I, however, did not like spending several minutes doing deep breathing and clearing my mind in a room with 25 of my colleagues. This was all couched in the same language of “self-care” and “check-in” and was actually stressful because it was (despite the counselor portion of my handle) far too touchy-feely for me. Kudos to the OP for handling a delicate (and fraught) situation effectively!

    1. fposte*

      This is a long-term frustration I have with a lot of groups nominally focused on care and empowerment–they get very doctrinaire and rigid about how those things will happen. I’d be doubly annoyed if that wasn’t even why I was coming to the group and a lot of time that could have been spent on the nominal mission was being spent on this stuff.

      Not that such a group couldn’t have value (whether it’s valuable enough to get financed as a volunteer activity is another matter), and I know people want a lot of different things out of their experiences. But task-oriented people deserve respect too, dammit.

    2. Kyrielle*

      I love using meditation in my life, but a) not all meditation need be sitting meditation and b) not in a roomful of my colleagues, please! Yikes.

    3. Green*

      I’m fine with optional check-ins on how the meeting went (or the previous project, etc.) but let’s leave the feelings stuff out of it and stick to things like “I thought we got a bit sidetracked on X” or “I thought it was pretty efficient. Pete had some great ideas” that are a sentence or two tops.

      1. Artemesia*

        Good point. Reflecting on the business at hand and how it is proceeding is a useful thing to do periodically but touchy feely types don’t want to hear real feedback about how touchy feely is bogging the enterprise down as this excellent (but frustrating) update so eloquently demonstrates.

    4. Artemesia*

      I have led a lot of reflection activities over the years and nothing fries me like letting these wallow in ‘feelings’ when the goal of the endeavor is learning stuff or getting stuff done. Reflection is critical to experiential learning but whining and wallowing in feelings and making ‘safe spaces’ is just not. Of course, there needs to be some sensitivity to the feelings of people in every group, but grownups manage to make it through the day without emotional thumb sucking on a regular basis and shouldn’t need constant personal reassurance and checking to make sure they ‘are okay.’ Of course certain behaviors are out of bounds like name calling, threats, or other bullying — but that doesn’t mean there needs to be a giant dance about ‘safe spaces’ and delicate feelings every time a group meets. The least effective groups I have participated in over the years are the ones that tip far in the direction of process and feelings rather than thought and action.

    5. Tau*

      That description has my shoulders up around my ears. The one-word summary would absolutely drive me into distress every day, especially if I wasn’t allowed to use the same word, and I have some weird reactions to breathing exercises/meditation especially in group settings that mean I’d really, really rather not. Funny how “self-care” here means “self-care as long as it’s exactly in the way we want it to be, otherwise forget about your self-care.”

  4. Lily in NYC*

    Thank you for the update! I apologize that my only contribution in the comments from the original article was a fart joke.

  5. eplawyer*

    Let me get this straight, you wrote to the chair to say “I’m not thrilled with all the touchy-feely stuff” (paraphrasing heavily here) and the chair comes back with “Let’s talk about your feelings.” Yeah this lady was never going to get a clue. At least it wasn’t a long term committment. Because if it were me, I would have lost it at that point. Then when questioned about my stress I would have said “You are the cause of my stress. I want to do something not chat about my feelings.”

  6. Andrea*

    Hilarious. This woman sounds like she is mis-applying advice regarding the usefulness of check-ins.

    I’m a frequent meeting facilitator, and I regularly use some kind of “check in” exercise to start a meeting. I do it because it’s important to get everyone in the room to talk right away, otherwise they feel like they have permission to stay silent for the whole meeting. But I can’t imagine taking more than a minute or two on this. I usually ask for a one word summary of the week, sometimes a “What do you hope to get out of this meeting?” I do find that it is useful to set the tone of a meeting, but mostly my goal is just to get everyone to say something.

  7. Seven If You Count Bad John*

    I worked briefly at a call center that was so heavily invested in being a Friendly, Fun, Laid-Back Environment, that the training (one or two weeks, I don’t remember) included an icebreaker question first thing in the morning and first thing after lunch, every day. It sucked down two hours a day, easily, and many of the questions were super intrusive. (I drew the line at “tell your most embarrassing work-related story”. When it came my turn I said “I respectfully decline”.) My emotional landscape is very much not my employers business. It had the opposite effect than it was supposed to–it was alienating. I suppose this story really belongs in one of the team-builder threads rather than the “My employer thinks they’re my therapist” thread but the touchy-feely stuff just really grates. I don’t know if I could have handled the OP’s situation with her grace.

  8. CADMonkey007*

    I’m not sure which is worse, sharing my feelings or listening to someone else share their feelings.

  9. Not So NewReader*

    Lack of funding and lack of support is called a crisis. I don’t think one can successfully manage a crisis in their organization by having everyone sit around for hours talking about their personal feelings.

    Ex: My house is on fire. Let me sit here and explain how I feel about that. [Insert 60 minute discussion here.]

    (To be very clear: my house is fine, that was just an example.)

  10. TootsNYC*

    OK, this chair person just does NOT get it.

    One of the committee members apologized for having missed several meetings, as he was having a rough time at work and in his personal life, and he didn’t feel up to joining the group and participating in personal updates.

    The co-chair then said she felt she had not done enough this year to check in with people to make sure they were handling their stress, and apologized for not conducting one-on-one check-ins on a weekly basis, as she has done in the past. You’ll recall from my original letter, this came up earlier and was never carried out (after I said I did not think it was necessary for me).

    So, he says, “I didn’t come because I don’t want to do the check-ins because I don’t want to share my personal stuff.” And she apologies for…not doing check-ins. I guess she meant, “speak with you all personally”? But, what? She’s not the therapist.
    Maybe she took the “promised a certain amount of mentoring” completely wrong.

  11. Jonno*

    I guess what frustrates me most is that…I can’t even glean what this group was supposed to achieve at all???? “Let’s meet and talk about our feelings.” Is this a counseling group for group therapy? Or was there actually some objective? Thinking about the type of person heading this meeting makes my blood boil!

    And this is coming from someone who is open with their feelings to friends and family and co-workers alike…in the RIGHT forum and certainly not when there is an objective or in some sort of professional kind of space. I don’t understand. It sounds like someone just wanted to have a sanctioned social hour(s). Because I can’t see what they were trying to do otherwise.

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