Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Practicing Safe Stress for the Holidays: "Fast Food for Thought" from the Stress Doc ™

Yesterday I had a blast. It only lasted ten-minutes but the ebb and flow of the audience’s riveted attention and hearty laughter produced a slow to fade afterglow. I did some serious shtick on “Practicing Safe Stress for the Holidays” at a holiday gathering for members of Federally Employed Women (FEW)/Metro Washington Region. Consider this some holiday “fast food for thought” from the Stress Doc. Hopefully you will find these morsels quick and easy to consume, tasty and nutritious. The menu lineup:

A. Stress Doc’s Classic Holiday Joke and Poetic Proverbs
B. Holiday Stress Smoke Signals
C. Burnout Spiral and The Vital Lesson of the Four “R”s
D. The Six Strategic “F”s for Mastering Loss and Change
E. Closing “Shrink Rap” ™


Practicing Safe Stress for the Holidays: Some Serious Shtick or "Fast Food for Thought"

A. Stress Doc’s Classic Holiday Joke and Poetic Proverb

While many associate the holidays with Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and its theme of gaining and sharing the holiday spirit, the opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities may have even more relevance:It was the best of times, it was the worst of timeIt was the season of light, it was the season of darkness...It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.Like Dickens, I too have tried to capture the complexity of the holidays; if not through a great novel, then with my one classic holiday joke. To help you negotiate some of that holiday pressure, consider this distinction between "Holiday Blues" and "Holiday Stress." Now holiday blues is the feeling of loss or sadness that you have over the holidays when, for whatever reason, you can't be with those people who have been or are special and significant. And holiday when you have to be with some of those people!

So here are two “poetic proverbs” for survival:

You may think I’m at a loss without having you as boss
Still, when it’s just me, not us or you
Please, don’t tell me what to do!

Do ask or suggest; maybe better…let it rest!

And a “pp” with a humorous edge:

Tenaci-Tea for Two: The Narcissist’s Version

You for me and me for me.
Oh how nurturing you will be.
Forget “to be or not to be”
Just simply think of Me, Me Me!

B. Holiday Stress Smoke Signals

How do you know when you’re experiencing “holiday stress smoke signals?” Drawing on my “Three ‘B’ Stress Barometer” Exercise, how do your Brain, Body and Behavior tell you when you’re under more stress or are more tense than usual?

Snappy, impatient, rise in blood pressure, increased smoking or drinking, mind-racing or in a fog, etc., etc. These are some of the common responses to the above question. Here are three of my favorites. Notice how the first two are double-edged:
1) Sleep Disturbance – “Some mornings, anyone ever feels like just not getting out of bed? Then, aren’t there folks who know all the best buys on Ebay or Home Shopping Network at three in the morning?”
2) Eating Disturbance – “Anyone eat a little more under stress to numb those gnawing anxious feelings?” Many hands quickly go up. “Anyone lose their appetite or eat less when feeling stressed?” A few hands flutter. My immediate response: “And we hate those people, don’t we?”
3) TMJ – “Does anyone have problems with muscle tension, back or neck pain? What about a clenched jaw or TMJ? We know what TMJ really stands for, don’t we…Too Many Jerks!

C. Burnout Spiral and The Vital Lesson of the Four “R”s

And stress unchecked can spiral…into a state of burnout. In fact, I call burnout the “erosive spiral”: Burnout is a gradual process by which a person detaches from work and other significant roles and relationships. The result is lowered productivity, cynicism, confusion, a feeling of being drained having nothing more to give. Doesn’t sound like fun!

How to stop this vicious cycle? Grapple with “The Vital Lesson of the Four ‘R’s”: If no matter what you do or how hard you try, Results, Rewards, Recognition and Relief are not forthcoming and you can’t say “No” or won’t “let go”, that is, you can’t step back and get a new perspective; there’s only one right person, position, or possible outcome because in your mind you’ve invested so much time, money, and ego…trouble awaits. The groundwork is being laid for apathy, callousness, and despair!

How to let go?…See right below.

D. The Six Strategic “F”s for Mastering Loss and Change

In today’s uncertain economic and career climate, the ability to grapple effectively with unemployment, a downsized budget or family lifestyle, to handle the uncertainty of a company reorganization, or flexibly adapt to working in new departments or with new work teams is vital. However, positively engaging with loss and change requires more than just “sucking it up.” Try mastering the Stress Doc’s Six “F”s of Loss and Change; turn potential danger into personal and professional opportunity:

1) Familiar. Grapple with the anxiety, rage, hopelessness or sadness in letting go of the familiar role or predictable past. The big question: Who am I? This role or relationship has been such a big part of my identity. Remember, sometimes your former niche of success now has you mostly stuck in the ditch of excess. There's a critical crossroad ahead,

2) Future. Clearly the horizon appears cloudy and threatening, lacking direction and clarity. What will be expected of me? Who will I now have to report to or work with? Just because your past or traditional roles and responsibilities may be receding doesn't mean you can't transfer your experience and skills into new challenging arenas,

3) Face. Some loss of self-esteem and self-worth is all too common, especially when our life puzzle has been broken up other than by one's own hand. Would this scenario be unsettling: "Two months ago you gave our department a great performance review? Now you’re cutting our budget in a major way, and no one knows if there will be layoffs." Shame and guilt, rage and diminished confidence are frequent early traveling partners on an uncertain and profound transitional journey,

4) Focus. Major change can be scary. Underlying feelings may include rage, helplessness, hopelessness and humiliation. Sometimes we need a little rage to break through chains of mind-body-behavior paralysis. Of course, rage needs to be tempered. Remember, more people shoot themselves in the foot than go postal! (And, let me say, as a former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant with the US Postal Service, I know “Going Postal.”) The challenge is to grapple with this array of powerful feelings, if need be, with personal or professional support. You want to temper the rage by having the courage to embrace those vulnerable emotions; this leads to a productive, yin-yang state of focused anger. You can’t just willpower your way through this emotional quicksand or burnout spiral.
For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire!

If you can honestly grapple and grieve the first three "F"s, then you are engaged in a productive brooding and refocusing aggression process. Maybe I am ready to knock on if not knock down doors again. At minimum, you will affirm, "I may not like the cards that have been dealt, but how do I make the best of my reality right now." And you'll likely start hatching a new perspective with, if not crystal clear targets, then an intuitive, crystal ball-like enlightenment. Suddenly this Stress Doc mantra starts resonating: "I don't know where I'm going...I just think I know how to get there!"

5) Feedback. Throughout this process, but especially now, getting solid feedback is crucial. It’s not easy getting clear, clean, and honest feedback: many don’t really have a clue how to give it. Or people are fearful you won’t know how to handle it. You have to work hard to find someone who will give you the Stress Doc’s version of TLC: "Tender Loving Criticism" and "Tough Loving Care." You need a “stress buddy” to help sort out the wheat from the chaff. Before you blow up in a supervisor’s office check in with your buddy and ask, “Am I seeing this situation objectively or not? What’s my part in this problem?” In times of rapid or daunting change, trustworthy feedback helps us remember who we are; that our basic, core self remains intact despite being shaken by unsettling forces.

6) Faith. Having the courage to grapple with these "F"s now yields a strength to understand what in your present life rests in your control and what lies beyond. Of course, there’s always an unpredictable element or moment in major transition. Life is not a straight line progression. However, by doing your “head work, heart work and homework,” you are in a much stronger personal and professional position. You are building cognitive and emotional muscles; you can have faith in a growing ability to handle whatever will be thrown at you. Going through this process means you are evolving the psychological capacity for dealing with ambiguous and unpredictable twists and turns on life’s journey. As I once penned: Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion, each deserves the respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time. In mystical fashion like spring upon winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal.

And how do we transform mystical maturation into everyday evolution? Consider the prescient words of the great scientific/polio pioneer, Dr. Jonas Salk: Evolution is about getting one more time than you fall down; being courageous one more time than you are fearful; and trusting just one more time than you are anxious.

E. Closing “Shrink Rap” ™

I close by putting on my Blues Brothers hat and black sunglasses and taking out a black tambourine, thereby revealing a secret identity: "I'm pioneering the field of psychologically humorous rap music and as a therapist calling it, of course, 'Shrink Rap' ™ Productions." Predictably, there's an audible groan from the audience. And my response: "Groan now. We'll see who has the last groan." (However, in my defense, years back, an African American friend upon hearing the lyrics said, "Oh, so you're into 'Aristocratic Rap.'")I then explain that this is my Charlie Chaplin Maneuver. ("Alas, after I'm through you may need the Heimlich Maneuver.") The pioneering comedic film genius observed that, The paradoxical thing about making comedy is that it is precisely the tragic which arouses the funny. We have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of natural forces and in order not to go crazy. Naturally, I note that what the audience is "about to see and hear will give new meaning to the word 'tragic.' And as for not going 'crazy,' it's way too late for that. So buckle up your straightjackets…It's the 'Stress Doc's Stress Rap.'" And not only am I belting out the words but I'm prancing around the room while banging on the tambourine.

The Stress Doc's Stress Rap

When it comes to feelings do you stuff them inside?
Is tough John Wayne your emotional guide?
And it's not just men so proud and tight-lipped.
For every Rambo there seems to be a Rambette.

So you give up sleep, become wired and spent
Escape lonely frustration as a mall-content.
It's time to look at your style of stress.
You can't just dress or undress for success.

Are you grouchy with colleagues or quietly mean?
Hell, you'd rather talk to your computer machine.
When the telephone rings, you're under the gun
Now you could reach out and really crush someone.

The boss makes demands yet gives little control
So you prey on chocolate and wish life were dull, but
Office desk's a mess, often skipping meals
Inside your car looks like a pocketbook on wheels.

Those deadlines, deadlines...all that aggravation
Whew, you only have time for procrastination.
Now I made you feel guilty, you want to confess
Better you should practice the art of "Safe Stress."

(c) Mark Gorkin 1992
Shrink Rap Productions

At the onset of my "performance," people seem embarrassed for me; some are just sitting there wide-eyed with their mouths agape. (Clearly I'm perpetuating a stereotype, notwithstanding Elvis Presley, John Travolta and Justin Timberlake: the rhythmically-challenged status of the white male!) However, my bravery if not my witticisms win them over. Often the group begins clapping their hands to my self-styled beat. Once the lyrics are completed the room erupts in applause. After waving off the feedback, my immediate response: "I've been doing this long enough…I know when an audience is applauding out of relief!" And then, "All this shows after twenty years off and on of all kinds of therapy -- from Jungian analysis to primal scream -- I have one singular accomplishment. Just one: Absolutely no appropriate sense of shame!"

Finally, as the laughter subsides, a woman in the audience ventures a comment, likely on other's minds: "Don't quit your day job!"

And my rejoinder is fairly predictable: "It's too late…This is my day job!"

Hey, I'm just fulfilling my destiny: "Have Stress? Will Travel: A Smart Mouth for Hire!" Obviously, my goal in life: "Being both a wise man and a wise guy!" And hopefully, my attempt at mixing wit and wisdom will help one and all...Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and "Motivational Humorist" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading "Stress, Team Building and Humor" programs for the 13th Expeditionary Support Command and the 15th Sustainment Brigade, Ft. Hood, Texas and the 3rd Chemical Brigade, Fort Leonard Wood, MO. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email or call 301-875-2567.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Dangers of Being Too “Positive” in a Team Building Process: Or Don’t Just “Have a Nice Day!”

“You’re being negative!” Recently I led a team building workshop, and that was a federal government Division Director’s reply to my questioning, “Why the ‘Front Office’ meeting had not been working?” Preceding my operational assessment a number of people noted:
a) that for several months people were not bringing relevant agenda issues to the meeting and
b) the overall lack of meaningful discussion, especially regarding communication and coordination issues of concern to all staff. Now taking his challenge one step further the Director said, “If you are saying the Front Office meeting is not functional, are you implying that we are dysfunctional?” The Director then proceeded to say how much he respected the talents, hard work and commitment of all his staff. (I suspect this “negative” labeling generated some dissonance for participants as shortly before I had enthusiastically noted the positive energy and lively discussion generated by an exercise, illustrated below.)

My last word, as the Director had to rush out to another meeting, was, “Perhaps we can hold both possibilities, that is, the staff is, in fact, a talented and committed group and that team communication and coordination can also be strengthened…we can improve the communication bridges.”

Actually, setting the stage for this confrontation was first a fun and thought-provoking icebreaker followed by a small and large group conflict resolution exercise. Divided into teams of four, each group identified and attempted to problem-solve an issue related to “Communication Breakdown,” and then reported back to the entire audience for further exchange. The lively and passionate discussion in both settings certainly belied the notion that there weren’t pressing issues on people’s minds. (The exercise does have a somewhat provocative wording – “Communication Breakdown.” However, I see the existence of some breakdown or barriers to communication as a natural part of doing business in a bureaucracy, actually, as a seemingly inevitable byproduct of almost any group-organizational communication process, not an indictment of management, employees or the operational system. Perhaps I will add this message to future exercise instructions. The phrase is used in my workshops because it’s an effective trigger; everyone seems able to provide an example of or an experience related to “message sent is not message received.”)

For this article, I’d like to examine two issues: a) the dynamic nature and appropriateness – upside and downside – of the Director’s specific confrontation and b) the larger issue of the upside and downside of viewing communication in an “all or none” or “positive vs. negative” manner, especially within a team building–organizational openness context. Here are “Two Confrontation-Communication Keys”:

1. Confrontational Dynamics. In hindsight there was some validity to the Director’s comments. If I had the chance to do it again, instead of asking, “Why the ‘Front Office’ meeting had not been working?” I would have said, “What might be contributing to the reduced agenda development and problem solving communication?” In other words, I would have been more specific, descriptive and objective in my wording; let’s call it avoiding a “half empty” approach to giving feedback. This really isn’t a trivial issue. For example, consider this confrontational sequence:
“What’s your problem?”
“What’s the problem?”
Can you give me some specifics?
“How can I be of help?

Clearly the sequence starts off more confrontational and judgmental and evolves into a less contentious more objective and cooperative style. “How can I be of help?” is less likely to feed the defensiveness fire.

On the Other Hand

However, the Director’s confrontation was not especially clear or clean. He took my “why is it not working” question and definitely gave the phrase (as well as my motives) more negative spin than intended or warranted. What was his motivation, conscious or otherwise? Consider some possibilities:
a) the Director was surprised to learn of the number and intensity of staff concerns; a half-full approach might say he was simply misinformed while a half-empty approach might question whether he really wanted to hear “bad news,”
b) that the Director felt challenged as a leader by my ability to fairly quickly elicit the identification of real operational issues and the facilitation of give-and-take discussion and an active problem-solving climate, and
c) by giving me a “negative” label the Director could more readily cast himself in a “positive leader” light.

Apropos of this analysis, many people afterwards expressed surprise by the Director’s reactions to my comments. And finally, I did write a tactful follow-up letter to the Director, outlining how I would have rephrased my question and focused on “strengthening communication bridges.” I also suggested that for the benefit of the division we might want to meet and discuss our different philosophy and approaches to team building communication. I’m awaiting his reply.

2. Staying Positive vs. Being Negative. Clearly, as a communicator being “positive” is often a virtue. In fact, consider these “Advantages of a “positive” perspective in a motivational, problem-solving and team building context”:
a) Work with Strengths – focusing on strengths tends to be a more effective motivator; as Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman noted in First Break All the Rules: What the Greatest Managers Do Differently, it’s easier to get people to build on their talents than to try to fill in the gaps or compensate for what’s not there,
b) Reduce Defensiveness – clearly, a “positive” approach elicits less defensiveness; certainly balancing criticism with some positives makes the medicine easier to take; considering how feedback processes often play out though, not surprisingly for many people “constructive criticism” often is an oxymoron, and
c) More Efficient and Focused – my early training in psychotherapy was in “Crisis Intervention and Brief Treatment.” Most clients were not expected to dredge up or dwell upon past painful or “negative” memories, but were encouraged to achieve a clearer, more objective cognitive and emotional understanding of one or two pressing problem areas. It was called a person-situation assessment. (The benefit of working with people or teams in crisis is that the crisis state not only focuses people’s attention on the present issues but crises naturally surface those painful, seemingly “negative,” often unresolved emotional issues. Heartfelt tears of grieving actually help cleanse old wounds. This grieving process, embracing the “negative,” eventually frees up problem-solving energy for working intentionally in the present.) Then together we would rapidly design behavioral/task-oriented skills and “positive” strategies (taking into account the client’s strengths and resources) for engaging the critical issues that the client wanted to work on. Staying focused on the present, tapping into a sense of urgency, allowing the client to lean on me psychically for support during this vulnerable period, the goal was to achieve some meaningful problem solving within a six week period, as one to six weeks is the typical life of a crisis state. Beyond six weeks some level of post-crisis coping – adaptive or not – will occur.

Some cultures have historically understood the double-edged nature of “crisis.” For example, Chinese iconography, eschewing “an all or none” perspective, reveals the dual aspect of crisis with two characters – one character depicts “danger,” the other “opportunity.” Most of us have learned firsthand an ironical truth: sometimes an issue posing danger or uncertainty, that is, a “negative” situation, is required for “positive” or novel problem solving to occur. As I once penned:

For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire!

d) Create a Virtuous Cycle – while a uniformly negative approach can quickly spiral downward into pessimism or personal finger pointing and blame, by finding positive common ground, even among the most diverse groups, you likely will foster a sense of tolerance and empathy. One exercise that achieves this effect is having diverse groups, “Share an Embarrassing Moment.” Status differences quickly fade as everyone has a story; all can relate, reveal and empathize…and ultimately laugh together. By throwing in some spicy humor (a humor that allows folks to both poke some good natured fun at their own and others’ flaws and foibles; see the “Embarrassment Exercise”) you just may build a vibrant culture that will likely have: a) leaders becoming more down to earth, that is, individuals with whom most can relate and connect, b) group members positively feeding off each other’s differences as well as c) evolving team spirit building on palpable and mutual energy, enthusiasm and support. (Having lived in N’Awlins for sixteen years I call it a “gumbo” culture. All the varied ingredients contribute to a great stew.)

The Problems of Attributional Bias and of Being “Too Positive”

Of course, despite all the advantages of being “positive,” there’s no shortage of negative and judgmental commentary. Leaving aside personal predilections for the moment, why is it that finger pointing rarely goes out of fashion? In addition to people basically needing to get a life or to stop placing people on unrealistically high pedestals (e.g., Elliot Spitzer or Tiger Woods; we seem to enjoy tearing down our icons), I believe it has something to do with a social psychology construct called “misattribution.” Attribution theory primarily examines why and how a person makes judgments about other people’s motives and actions. Self-attribution also comes under its purview. We tend to make either a: a) personal attribution, that is, explaining someone’s motives or actions as reflecting something about their personality makeup or b) situational attribution, whereby the individual’s environment or external circumstances is seen to play a decisive role in assessing the individual’s motives and behavior.

Let me illustrate. If a relatively new colleague came to work late a couple of times there’s a tendency to start questioning his or her commitment, capacity for organization or scheduling, personal sloth, etc. In other words, you might make personal attributions. However, what if you had an unexpected run of lateness? What would be your self-attribution mechanism? I suspect you’d likely quickly note the effect of “Beltway traffic,” the weather, a child’s illness, daycare mishap, etc., etc. Clearly, these occurrences reflect situational attributions. And in this scenario, surely, the personal attributions have a more negative slant while situational attributions are more face-saving. Actually, the tendency to overplay personal attributions and overlook external factors with others is called “attributional bias.” Of course, a person also can excuse away his or her own actions by looking for external factors, thereby deemphasizing or denying personal responsibility. Conversely, one can over attribute success to personal qualities, minimizing how much support was received from other people or outside resources. Regarding this last point, there’s attributional research showing that those in power often underestimate the advantages bestowed when having access to inside or “early warning” information. That is, bosses tend to overestimate their own skills and knowledge while evaluating subordinates as less knowledgeable/less smart on a personal level. In reality, often the differential factor is “situational,” that is, whether one does or does not have access to relevant, often selectively filtered or guarded information.

The Perils of Being Too Positive

Now let’s return to our workshop scenario and the director’s confrontation. He seemed to be putting my actions and words in a personal/judgmental context -- “You’re being negative!” (There’s a classic blaming “You” message. And remember, consistently throwing around “acc-you-sations” and you may become a “blameaholic.”) But it wasn’t the critical or “misattribution” messages directed at me that was most problematic for a team building process. (Most people seemed to assess our respective communication intentions accurately.) Actually, most troublesome was his need to be absolutely “positive.” What really happens when the formal leader claims he wants honest feedback but his walk indicates he expects people to be positive, including downplaying signs of trouble? Again in a team context, consider these “Limits of 'all or none' positive thinking and communication”:
a) Stifles Openness and Honest Exchange – unless a person or group is ready to challenge a “one-sided” authority, after awhile trying to stay relentlessly positive when there are objectively problematic issues to discuss undermines if not wears down a spirit of genuine give and take; if it goes on long enough, groupthink or rubberstamp decision-making occurs. This reminds me of my “Law of the Loyalty Loop”: Those who never want you to answer back always want you to back their answer. In addition, when an authority who doesn’t deal in “bad news” gives praise, his or her “positive feedback” can ring hollow,
b) People Tune Out – sometimes the most obvious impact of over-generalized positivism (or avoidance of thorny issues) is that people just tune out; as one participant noted, she simply stares out the window. People realize the leader doesn’t want to hear or engage with “any negative” or “bad news”; sometimes a lemon needs to be digested as a lemon (to fully understand its range of qualities and possible applications) before attempting to turn it into lemonade that isn’t saccharinely sweet,
c) Undermines a Sense of Trust – during my workshops, I use exercises that allow organizational members to, for example, discuss the sources of everyday workplace stress and conflict. (They also have to come up with group pictures depicting these stressors; the result is often hilarious and “out-RAGE-ous,” that is, we turn people’s frustrations, the “negatives” into fun, creative, team problem-solving energy and camaraderie.) At times I need to remind management that people are not being disrespectful. Actually, the great energy and team spirit quickly belies that notion. Most important, employees want to know that management understands the necessity and value of periodically blowing off steam, especially with folks that have walked in your shoes…and can feel your bunions. This need for sharing is especially critical when working under demanding/always on conditions. People want managers who are open to hearing and learning from the folks on the front lines. Once team members start working off this tension productively and evolve a greater consciousness of “we all are in this together,” now people start feeling reenergized and more “positive.” And invariably this workshop/playshop process strengthens a sense of trust between management and employees, and
d) Minimizes Complexity and Collaboration – understanding the complexities and subtleties of human nature or group dynamics rarely comes down to “all or none,” right or wrong,” “black or white” thinking and assessment. For example, usually some combination of personal and situational attributions is at play when it comes to understanding human dynamics or team motivations and actions. As I like to say, much of the time the proverbial glass is both “half empty” and “half full.”

Finally, when groups do their most creative problem-solving, diversity and difference are often the critical catalyst. That is, genuine collaboration requires identifying and synthesizing an array of real and often conflicting needs and anxieties, ideas and interests as well as pulling out hidden agendas. While this process can be tension-laden (e.g., “why are you being so negative?”) and take more time, the outcome typically reveals a more encompassing and sophisticated understanding of the problem. Collaborative engagement invariably yields more potent strategic options. In other words, everyone being quickly on the same “positive” page often fosters homogeneity and pseudo-harmony. Buy-in is usually superficial and under stress the “one big happy family” façade or “consensus” unravels quickly.

Closing Summary

Using a recent team building workshop as a case example, the benefits of being “positive” and “negative” were examined, along with the capacity for confrontation to foster clarity or confusion. In particular, how individuals attribute the motives or actions of others was scrutinized. Overemphasizing personal explanations while minimizing situational factors often yields “attributional bias.” Finally, the perils of being rigidly positive in a team building context were delineated. The dangers include diminished openness and honesty as well as groupthink. In addition, there’s likely to be a problem solving process having reduced member investment along with diminished cognitive-collaborative complexity. Learn to see the glass as “half empty” and “half full” – words to help us all stay real and to…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and "Motivational Humorist" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading "Stress, Team Building and Humor" programs for the 13th Expeditionary Support Command and the 15th Sustainment Brigade, Ft. Hood, Texas and the 3rd Chemical Brigade, Fort Leonard Wood, MO. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email or call 301-875-2567.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Transforming the Conventional into the Creative: Discovering and Designing the "Bright Crystals" of Contradiction

These days everyone wants to be creative, to “think out of the box.” But how do you walk the talk? As a workshop leader who often tries to give organizations a “Jolt of CPR: Being Creative, Passionate and Risk-Taking,” let me share one concept that just might be an integral component of creative thinking and problem-solving. On stage, I like to introduce this concept through a thought-provoking and, possibly, unsettling exercise that was inspired by the research of Dr. Albert Rothenberg, as reported in his book The Emerging Goddess: Creativity in the Sciences and the Arts. (The title evokes the mythic imagery of Athena, Greek goddess of both war and creativity, being born full-sized from the head of her almighty father, Zeus.) This Yale Psychiatrist and Cognitive Psychologist found that subjects who responded with more opposites or antonyms in a word association test – e.g., "wet" to the word "dry" or "fast" to the word "slow" – had higher scores on certain creative personality measures than subjects generating mostly synonyms or "original” responses. (Rothenberg’s sample was fairly small and at most his results can be suggestive. My casual workshop trials indicate that usually less than ten percent of the audience free associate predominantly with antonyms. Of course, I remind participants that this is only one informal measure of creativity.) Considering the small or informal sample size, nonetheless, why might there be a correlation between contradictory association and personality differentiation? To expand your worldview and problem-solving vision, consider these Seven Cognitive Complexity Keys for Transforming the Conventional into the Creative:

a. Challenge the Conventional. To think oppositionally reveals a willingness to confront the conventional and the accepted or even "the respected authority." While some view this as defiance, others see a delicious opportunity. As von Oech wryly noted in his classic on creativity, A Whack On the Side of the Head: "Sacred cows make great steaks." Or more potently and paradoxically, consider the pioneering 20th century artist, Pablo Picasso’s refrain: “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction!” (Guess sometimes to “think out of the box” is not sufficient; to start fresh and be fertile you may have to blow up the sucker, or at least be willing to challenge some traditional or foundational assumptions.) To seek a higher truth, one may have to look at the oppositional with a more complex, ironical, or even volatile mind’s eye and become more comfortable with seeming contradiction. (Hot ice anyone?)

b. Recognize Yin-Yang Perspective. This Eastern symbol depicts a complex truth: that seeming opposites don’t necessarily result in division or separation, but potentially flow into each other forming a greater, interconnected whole. Also, the symbol illustrates how a small circle of contradiction embedded in its opposite (as represented by a small black dot in the largest part of the white flowing amoeba-like space or a small white dot in the largest part of the black flowing amoeba-like space) is seeding the emergence of its counterpoint, that is, the white space ultimately transforms into black space and the black into white.

A Yin-Yang perspective was articulated by the pioneering actor and comedian, Charlie Chaplin, who, for example, believed the “light-hearted” emerged from darkness: “A paradoxical thing about making comedy is that it is precisely the tragic which arouses the funny. We have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of natural forces and in order not to go crazy.” Or consider the poignant observation from the inspiring disability pioneer, Helen Keller: The world is so full of care and sorrow it is a gracious debt we owe one another to discover the bright crystals of delight hidden in somber circumstances and irksome tasks. Ms. Keller certainly perceives the yin-yang seeding principle. Finally, what about this seemingly contradictory example: have you ever had a fair fight with a close friend or partner? You both express angry feelings; each one says his or her piece without wanting to rub the other’s face in the mud. And lo and behold, once feeling genuinely heard (even without reaching total agreement) the anger begins to subside replaced by a sense of relief, sure, but also some intimacy, perhaps even a little more trust.

c. Develop Forest and Trees, Tactics and Strategy. Oppositional thinking is not simply reactive: by definition it’s positioning one concept in juxtaposition or relation to another – such as by quality, e.g., “wet vs. dry,” quantity, e.g., “large” vs. “small” or by position, “above vs. below” or “hill vs. valley.” That is, oppositional perspective challenges you to see multiple points of view, including your antagonist’s mindset – which may facilitate understanding and empathy or even give you an advantage in terms of short-term tactics and long-term strategy. Creative problem solving requires definite feel for details (the trees), but you also want a sense of the big picture (the forest).

Grappling with polarity encourages the rejection of simplistic “black or white” and “good or bad” thinking. A capacity to make discriminations, to see shades of gray (a byproduct perhaps of the tension between forest and tress and other dichotomies) and, especially, examining both sides of an issue is critical for being a guide “on the cutting edge.” (And remember, these days, “If you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up way too much space.”)

d. Blend the Analytic and the Empathic. Oppositional processing also means building a mind bridge within, that is, harnessing your masculine and feminine energy, using your head and heart, or according to one neuropsychological researcher, cultivating “bi-hemispheric peace of minds.” Of course, the different sides of the brain-personality are not always in perfect harmony. On a personal level and in the performance arena, I need time and space for my manic-like, “out there” stage persona. But I also must have room for being a sometimes melancholy or a frequently introspective and analytically insightful cave dweller. (Alas, sometimes one soars then crashes or at least burns or runs out of energy before the rejuvenation cycle kicks in.) But when I have both these energy – mind and mood – sources cooking and interacting, when my heated passion is tempered with cool purpose and hard-earned perspective…then I’m “Touched with Fire” (the title of psychologist and best-selling author, Kay Redfield Jamison’s book; its subtitle – “Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament”).

e. Pay Homage to Janus, F.Scott and A. North. Many in the arts and sciences have recognized the importance of reconciling seeming opposition to achieve a sense of wholeness or enriched integration, what Albert Rothenberg called “Janusian Thinking.” This cognitive process was named for the dual and opposite profiled, Roman deity, Janus, whose image was often found on gates and doorways. And appropriately, Janus was the god of “beginnings and endings” and of “leavings and returns.” Consider my Janusian-like linguistic loop of beginnings and separations: “One must begin to separate…one must be separate to begin.”

Moving from the mythic, to the more contemporary, thinkers of all stripes, including Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Alfred North Whitehead and acclaimed 20th century author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, have embraced the latter’s ideas about the significance of grappling with opposition: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the capacity to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. For example, one should see things as hopeless yet determined to make them otherwise.” Sounds like another leading edge mantra!

f. Explore and Express Text and Context. As a “word artist” – both on the page and on stage – the importance of grappling with “text” and “context” is inescapable. “Text” is the “on its face” data or “utility” of a message while one notion of “context” is the envelope of personal, interpersonal, cultural, historical background or circumstance in which the message is embedded, thereby providing or coloring it’s full meaning and significance. The best communicators understand that, in yin-yang fashion, both text and context along with substance and style and a forest and trees perspective must be accounted for if real meaning is to be gleaned, or if “message sent is to be message received.” Can you relate to this vexing example of one-dimensional information flow: have you ever received directions for assembling a product with only verbal instructions and no supportive images? GRRR!

Of course, accurately receiving a message is only half the battle. The cutting edge communicator is not simply passionate but also knows how to deliver a message, especially by telling a story. According to Daniel Pink, in his book, A Whole New Brain, most of our thinking and our knowledge are organized as stories. Storytelling is the ability to place facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact. A story blends high concept and high touch. Stories are high concept because they sharpen our understanding of one thing by showing it in the context of something else, a basic tool for understanding. Of course, when telling stories, especially in our ADHD culture, consider this Shakespearean maxim – Brevity is the soul of wit. And I would add, “Wisdom.”

Finally, as James Lukaszewski, founder of The Lukaszewski Group Inc., a crisis communication firm, observed in a recent speech: “Telling stories is far more powerful than all of the studies, analyses, data, and information piled together on any given subject you can name. Data is debatable; stories permit everyone who hears, sees, or reads to make up their own minds from their own perspectives. Great leaders tell great stories. Stories help others learn to be leaders…Be a storyteller and you'll become known for being helpful, memorable, and a source of inspiration, insight, as well as self-evident truths."

g. Generate and Tolerate Thesis-Antithesis Tension. When trying to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable you may experience what psychiatrist, Richard Rabkin, called a state of “thrustration,” which I defined thusly: “Thrustration occurs when you’re torn between thrusting ahead with direct action and frustration as you haven’t quite put together the pieces of the puzzle.” Some are not able to tolerate such tension. A truly classic New Yorker cartoon, playing off the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, forever lampooned the dangers of self-righteous rigidity in the face of seeming contradiction. A nattily attired, pompous looking publisher standing behind his power desk begins to chastise a humbly dressed, hat in hand Charles Dickens: "Really, Mr. Dickens…was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could scarcely have been both!"

However, if you can stay with such cognitive tension and confusion, the angst just may fire the right hemisphere of your brain with the potential for sparking metaphorical images and analogies along with surprising and paradoxical visual puns. The reward may be worth the risk. Here’s a personal illustration of how the tension between thesis and antithesis yielded a creative and integrative “Aha!” Back in the early ‘90s, I wound up writing some rap-like lyrics for a black beauty contest theme song. (Don't ask. I had periodically tried my hand at poetry, including a bluesy number called “The Burnout Boogie.” Email for any and all.) One morning, shortly after my noble, beauty contest effort, I awoke chastising myself: I was a university professor, a psychotherapist (thesis)…What was I doing trying to write rap lyrics (antithesis)? A blazing flash scattered my sleepy haze. As the mist lifted, there…a mystical (if not hysterical) conceptual vision; a catalyst for my pioneering efforts in the realm of psychologically humorous rap music. I was no longer just playing in a field of dreams: “If you write and “Shrink Rap” ™ it…they will come” (creative synthesis). Clearly, my goal in life has a paradoxical bent: to be a wise man and a wise guy. Again, a pretty good recipe for a cutting edge thinker, leader and budding “psychohumorist” ™!

Closing Summary

A conceptual framework for turning on your creative brain has been outlined. Seven paradoxical, mind-expanding tools were illustrated:
a. Challenge the Conventional,
b. Recognize Yin-Yang Perspective,
c. Develop Forest and Trees, Tactics and Strategy,
d. Blend the Analytic and the Empathic
e. Pay Homage to Janus, F. Scott and A. North,
f. Explore and Express Text and Context, and
g. Generate and Tolerate Thesis-Antithesis Tension.

So learn to discover and design “bright crystals” of contradiction. You will transform conventional cognition and communication into imaginative, insightful and multifaceted understanding and adaptation – the hallmarks of creative connection. And as illustrated, this connection manifests in domains ranging from achievement to affiliation: 1) in the intrapersonal realm of mind-mood/mania-melancholia/heated passion-cool purpose interplay, “bihemispheric peace of minds” along with the synthesizing “Aha!” experience and 2) in the interpersonal realm of empathy, integration and emotional intelligence. Complex concepts to keep us evolving and to enable one and all to…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and "Motivational Humorist" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading "Stress, Team Building and Humor" programs for the 13th Expeditionary Support Command and the 15th Sustainment Brigade, Ft. Hood, Texas and the 3rd Chemical Brigade, Fort Leonard Wood, MO. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – – called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email or call 301-875-2567.