Thursday, December 29, 2011

Productively Focusing Job Interview-Performance Anxiety: Transforming “Perfection” into Purpose, Patience and Possibility

[This article was written with the permission and in consultation with the below-mentioned phone-coaching client.]

Once again, through the wonder of the Internet, I've had a chance to connect with a bright, insightful and articulate individual. Our email interaction began when Barbara, (a fictional name), discovered one of my writings, and we now periodically exchange ideas. Married and in her 40s, Barbara is a government employee, an HR professional for a mid-sized, Mid-Atlantic city. She’s been an in-house consultant to the police department for a number of years. Recently, Barbara has applied for a management position in the department. However, her application is hardly a slam-dunk. Assigned to the police department, as an HR employee she’s seen as an outsider, and also viewed as a “worker bee,” not necessarily management material. (As a government employee, Barbara has not been a full-time manager, though in her consulting position she has been involved in management activities such as recruiting and performance review.)

In light of the job application uncertainty, Barbara inquired about a phone coaching session with the “Stress Doc.” Having had a number of successful coaching experiences, I was delighted to get started. The voice-to-voice encounter only confirmed and further elucidated my impression gleaned from the written word. Clearly, this was a very competent and “likes to get things done” woman who nonetheless had some issues with performance anxiety. (Barbara believes she has a good relationship with the Police Chief. She herself did not mention gender bias as a cause for job interview concern, though, in light of the specific department and the ultimate group interview gauntlet, one cannot entirely dismiss the possibility.)

Another factor noted in her self-questioning was a double-edged relationship with a father who had a somewhat perfectionist personality. While Barbara’s father was a model for high-achievement striving, perhaps another consequence was the oft-hovering voice, “Prove yourself!” And sometimes, such a voice (or, at least, our internalized version) is never fully satisfied, resulting in a seemingly Greek God-like mythological drama. With strained (mental) muscles and perspiring brow, you quietly curse the huge, precarious boulder, pushing and exhorting it up the mountain…alas, never quite reaching the summit. Unable to defy the forces of gravity (nor the angry gods), the boulder invariably reverses course, and rumbles down to the base. Still, not one to give up easily, once again you screw up the courage for the daunting – if not Sisyphean – task ahead.

Actually, Barbara successfully jumped a number of preliminary hoops in the interview process, which crawled on for several months. Finally, notification arrived that she had earned a ticket to the group interview arena. And again Barbara emailed for another coaching session.

Birds of a Feather – Freeze, Fly High and Finally Learn to Focus

Barbara quickly revealed a mature and rational side: “No matter what happens with the interview, I’m glad I went through the process.” She learned much from the experience, including strengths and vulnerabilities of key decision-makers in the department, and articulated heretofore insufficiently recognized facets and talents. She felt more visible. Still, the odds were not necessarily in her favor; Barbara believed there typically is a preference for an “outside” candidate. This reminded me of the old saw about a “consultant”: “Someone who’s an expert from somewhere else.”

At the same time, angst was apparent with the plan for her husband to videotape an interview rehearsal. Something in my gut and memory bank said this was overkill. I agreed with the idea of practice trials and feedback from her husband. My concern about the videotape was having Barbara become so self-conscious about her appearance, gestures and other nonverbals, so caught up in a memorized script, that her quite evident knowledge and experience, her personal-professional stories, would not naturally flow.

To make sure I wasn’t simply projecting, I shared with Barbara my “stage fright” experience taping my first health segment for Cox Cable, New Orleans in the ‘80s. Totally self-preoccupied, I spoke in thirty second bursts and then my brain would freeze. This scenario was repeated several times before I mercifully completed the segment. Just as I was ready to flee the scene, one of the cameramen suggested we review the tape. He cut off my face-saving protest with, “Don’t worry, we’ll be able to use this for our blooper special.”

“Thanks, pal.” Actually, through the magic of TV editing the final product was only half bad. (As we left the production truck, I’ll never forget the producer’s closing words: “I don’t expect perfection…just improvement each week.” Along with a silent sigh of relief, she also got my attention.) And my health segment continued for two seasons. Still, I didn’t want Barbara to unnecessarily put herself in such a self-conscious space.

Becoming a Wise, Not Just a Wily Coyote

Another performance stress association came to mind: this time, helping a trial attorney harness his anxiety when presenting before a jury. While still winning many of his court cases, he was becoming increasingly self-conscious and self-doubting. (He too had a perfectionist father, though his could be rather critical.) I recalled how this attorney (let’s call him John), would try to hide his angst with a bold opening argument. This approach proved a dysfunctional ploy; within a minute, being an “impostor” was the overriding self-perception. The image I shared was of the cartoon characters Roadrunner and Wily Coyote. The Coyote is chasing Roadrunner to the edge of a cliff. The roadrunner leaps off and the “Not So Wily One” does the same. And for a few seconds, Old Wily is pumping furiously with bravado, still expecting to capture his nemesis when, suddenly, he looks down. Now, big trouble panic races across the Coyote’s face…as he crashes down to earth.

I had to help this attorney learn to start with more moderate and realistic expectations, to be more genuine, that is, to help him understand that some performance anxiety is actually necessary for productive focus and heightened performance. Revealing some start-up anxiety is not unnatural, unmanly or self-defeating. Even Olympic ice skaters don’t lead with a triple axel. One warms-up with easier moves and then “slowly but surely” builds momentum.

I recalled how John said to me, with too much intensity in his voice, “Mark if I can just do what we’ve discussed, I know I’ll do well.” I immediately confronted John’s rigid and perfectionist tone, and reaffirmed that I just wanted him to gradually, to more gently apply some of the tools and techniques. He didn’t have to hammer out mastery all at once. And, in fact, John eventually reported doing much better in the courtroom. His exact words: “If I don’t get anything else out of this therapy, it will have been worth it!”

Laughing at the “Birds of Worry”

In a follow-up email, Barbara indicated that the Roadrunner story and an old Chinese aphorism, also shared on the phone, had been particularly helpful. The aphorism goes as follows: “That the birds of worry fly above your head, this you cannot help. That they build nests in your hair, this you can do something about!” (I recall the pithy saying evoking hearty laughter. Perhaps Barbara was already anticipating the sage observation of psychiatrist, Ernst Kris: What was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at. And as the Stress Doc inverted: What was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master!)

Apparently, Barbara’s (nest-free) interview performance reflected her talents and experience, along with the meaningful practice and emotional integration. Perhaps she was also feedback-fortified with a quick boost of focus and confidence. While waiting for the final verdict, she had already received some informal positive feedback from members of the interview committee. (I’ll keep you posted on her job search journey.)

Hopefully, this article will help you get a better handle on anxiety and on applying tools for enhancing self-perception and presentation no matter the performance arena. Feel free to email or call if you’d like more info on a voice-to-voice/coaching perspective. Best wishes and good adventures for the New Year. And, of course…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote & kickoff speaker, webinar presenter, as well as "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant. He is providing "Stress and Communication, as well as Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building" programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and 13th Expeditionary Support Command, Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services. Mark has also rotated as a Military & Family Life Consultant (MFLC) at Ft. Campbell, KY. A former Stress and Violence Prevention 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 20, 2011

Taking Kaleidoscopic AIM: Designing a Matrix for “Cognitive-Communication” Consciousness


In our “Hyper-Speed Digital” (HSD) world, the medium is not just shaping the message but also the messenger, along with the mentality of over messaged-stimulated masses. Attention span appears to be shrinking across the age spectrum; many people seem to talk faster and louder, often blurting out the first thing that comes up. This is called “shooting from the lip,” a hasty if not hostile mode of messaging only outdone in dysfuntionality by shooting from the finger tips, that is, sending an angry text or email. Whatever the medium, too often the messaging process reflects the convoluted internal command: Ready…Fire…Aim!

After noting the aforementioned communicational barriers, “Ten Tips for Professional-Productive Communication and Consensus,” are outlined. These tips are the ingredients of “head and heart” communication that:
a) information that is effective and efficient as well as emotionally engaging, b) overcomes interactive barriers to understanding and c) helps build consensual bridges. The “Top Ten” introduces “Four ‘C’s of Civilized Communication” (clarity, concision, calm and conviction). The “Four Civilizing C”s provides a platform for the “Seven ‘C’s of Conscious ‘Cognitive-Communication’” (or clarity, concision, calm, and conviction as foundation for higher level cognition-communication – comedy, complexity and contextual processing).

These concepts are aligned with a tool for people who want to be more inspiring – purposeful, passionate and powerful – communicators, educators, managers and leaders, whether formally titled or not. More specifically, a sketch of a model has been presented for taking “Kaleidoscopic AIM” through “An ‘Action-Intention-Meaning’ (AIM) Matrix for Dynamic-Integrated Leadership: A Conceptual Tool for Expanding Cognitive-Communication Consciousness.”

In our “Hyper-Speed Digital” (HSD) world, the medium is not just shaping the message but also the messenger, along with the mentality of over messaged-stimulated masses. One obvious example: attention span appears to be shrinking across the age spectrum. However, I’m also noticing overdrive speech patterns, especially for the generations who have grown up with the Internet and Social Media (that is, Internet Natives in contrast to us older Generational Slugs, actually, Internet Immigrants, according to Nick Bolton technology blogger for the New York Times and author of I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works, 2010). People just seem to talk faster, (also louder), as if they are racing to get their words in (or heard) before the other party’s ever restless radar is distracted elsewhere or simply tunes out. (Or perhaps it’s just my hearing that’s slowing as, in my sixth decade, I more consciously ebb and flow between moving smartly and purposefully as per my foundational New York/East Coast mode and mentally meandering “out of the creative closet” and into my “American in Cajun Paris,” “N’Awlins/Big Easy” mode.)

In addition to the speech rate, I’m also aware of multi-generational hyper-tendencies – individuals frequently blurting out the first thing that comes up. I was going to say “comes to mind,” but I think certain cerebral circuits are being bypassed: people are simply “shooting from the lip.” More and more, especially when engaged in intense discussion or disagreement, my sense is that people are reflexively following their own silent and internal convoluted command: Ready…Fire…Aim! There’s too much electronic, scattershot, “shoot first, ask questions later” messaging. Once feeling provoked or disrespected, you’re gunning for or putting down perceived antagonists or competitors; inflating one’s self-importance at another’s expense may or not be premeditated. For example, while you expect some testiness (and testosterone) in a Presidential Primary Debate, Mitt Romney’s “$10,000 bet/challenge” in reaction to Rick Perry’s repeated criticism, instantly becomes a “shoot from the lip” classic.

Four “C”-ing Communication

In general, communication short on forethought, flexibility and focus is communication not concerned with the other person’s (or ironically sometimes your own) content and context; it is an exchange not attuned to fears and frustrations, as well as needs, hopes and dreams. In the heat of civilized interpersonal battle, being “ready” and having a thoughtful “aim” before firing – speaking clearly, concisely, calmly when possible, and with conviction is vital. Let’s call this being a “Four ‘C’-ing Civilized Communicator.” And for extra credit, I’ll add a fifth “C” – an ability to employ a wise over a smart “comic” touch, that is, a capacity for emotionally aware and empathic “healing humor.”

And while it’s not always possible to be calm when confronted or challenged, one can be psychologically or passionately responsive instead of reactive. For example, imagine you are in an argument, perhaps over politics or whether a movie was worth seeing, and the other party suddenly tires of the logical back and forth. Consider the impact of each of these two-word declarations. Can you hear and feel the difference between “You’re wrong” (said with a judgmental tone) as compared to “I disagree” (declared with energy and conviction; or perhaps with a tad more tact, “I see it differently”)? “I disagree” meets our “Four ‘C’” criteria: clear, concise, mostly calm and said with conviction. “You’re wrong” shifts the focus from addressing the issue to attacking the individual in a manner that is aggressive, condescending and dismissive. See my article, “Two Communicational Tools Providing Perspective, Patience and Presence: Message and Mantra for Transforming Reaction into Response.”) A pattern of impulsive, random or overkill “firing” tends to elicit defensive reactivity, “getting even,” or just plain shutdown. Especially when the purpose and goal of your message exchange involve motivation-, trust- and relation-building, you don’t want to dumb down or numb out, to silence, intimidate or inflame.

From Lips to Tips

Unless, of course, the communication strategy for avoiding “shooting from the lips” is shooting from the tips, that is, the finger tips, by sending a text or email. Clearly, this is a dangerous option as anger – self-righteous or otherwise – can so easily insinuate itself into and contaminate your message. (Okay, I concede the point; you can more safely give an antagonist the finger.) Remember, an electronic message is devoid of face-to-face nonverbal cues; a reader can’t see your body language or readily detect a “just kidding” tone. And emoticons don’t count as contextual information in a heated, sensitive or ego-driven exchange. Whatever the medium, the use or equivalent of “just kidding” after jabbing the other party can easily confound if not contaminate the communication process. Your words may now be a “mixed message” with dubious results, unless patterns of humor and trust have been clearly established.

Actually, you can outsmart yourself with excessive verbal flourishes or fireworks, if you will, whether on page or stage. There is so much smoke and mirrors wordplay (especially if you are enchanted by your own colorful ideas and imagery) that key points or the core message may be lost in too elaborate or self-indulgent word artistry or argument. (The Stress Doc pleads guilty as charged, and intends to mend some of his ways. More pithy patter, anyone?)

And finally, the other problem when a person chronically deals with conflict electronically is that you’re being a wimp. Rather than walking ten feet to speak directly to a colleague, I’ve heard stories of employees shooting e-missiles, I mean emails, at one another through their adjacent office walls. It’s why I say the “e” in email stands for escape! (Hey, this punch-line not only elicits predictable laughter but often generates out loud cheering from an audience.) Here’s my “Wimp to Warrior Conflict Engagement Scale”: Text-Email-Phone-(depending on the image of that Skype call, I’m not sure this is a major evolutionary step for problem-solving-kind) and, finally, Face-to-Face.

Ten Tips for Professional-Productive Communication and Consensus

Summarizing the above, in today’s HSD times, for “head and heart” communication, a) to be truly informational as well as emotionally effective and efficient, and for the communication, b) to overcome interactive barriers to understanding and c) to help build consensual bridges, the messaging process must be:
1. clear and concise,
2. respectful and real,
3. responsible and responsive; (email for the article, “The Four “R”s of PRO Relating”),
4. open and timely, that is, candid and courageous communication needs to occur in close proximity of the conflict triggering event, and
5. at some point, especially when dealing with emotional conflict, the exchange needs to be at least voice-to-voice, though face to face is preferable. (And sometimes you will need a third party or mediator when egos are too injured or inflated and battle-lines are intractable.)

The exchange also needs to:
6. slow down enough to move less at the speed of light and more at the pace and “ebb and flow” rhythm of sound,
7. reverberate through mutual venting, curious and patient questioning-listening and responsive problem-solving feedback; such collaborative back and forth, a) loosens rigid or fixed positions, b) helps adversaries negotiate some ”starting point” or “common ground understanding” that c) acknowledges if not begins to engage the essential needs, frustrations, hopes and goals of all parties and, finally, d) helps individuals to be meaningfully seen and heard (i.e., to feel like “origins” who impact their environment, not simply being “pawns” pushed around by their environment), enabling participants to e) accept some personal loss of expectation and/or control for the greater good, goal or gain,
8. encourage “cultural diversity,” that is, the understanding and valuing of diversity in the realms of race, ethnicity, disability, gender, age, etc., even bringing together the division’s or organization’s silo-impaired; strangers, competitors or antagonists over time better appreciate varying viewpoints and the potential for interconnectivity (or at least affirm that “difference and disagreement do not necessarily equate with disapproval and disloyalty”),
9. stimulate “hands on” engagement resulting in tangible “getting on the same page” goals and action plans thereby yielding genuine “buy-in,” while
10. accepting the reality that issues often remain unresolved, perhaps needing to be addressed at another critical communicational juncture.

Taking Kaleidoscopic AIM: Designing a Matrix for “Cognitive-Communication” Consciousness

Surely there’s need for conceptual tools that will strengthen a capacity for thinking-listening-questioning-responding-motivating. I envision a model to help people become more Four ‘C’-ing thinkers and communicators – as was cited earlier, possessing clarity, concision, calm and conviction. And as a bonus, this model will highlight the importance of:

a) employing the comedic tactically, tactfully and empathically; remember, “People are more open to a serious message gift-wrapped with humor”,
b) developing and drawing on your own inner complexity to better understand – make more tangible and comprehensible – the complexity of the outer world, and
c) motivating if not inspiring the people with whom you are engaged by speaking both to people’s real and ideal self-image as well as transforming a sense of threat, loss, and crisis into time-conscious challenge and opportunity; also helping others laugh at their flaws and foibles while touching people’s desire for imaginatively and effectively designing a balanced-integrated-animated “work-love-play” life path; and, finally, enabling others to impact or simplify (without dumbing down) their world's outer complexity.

Naturally, a critical component of inner and outer complexity involves viewing people and situations, experiences and events in context, that is, not as isolated phenomenon but in historical-psychological-relational-social-cultural perspective. (So we might have to speak of the “Seven ‘C’s of “Conscious Cognition-Communication”: clarity, concision, calm, and conviction as foundation for higher level cognition-communication – comedy, complexity and contextual processing.

I especially envision a model-tool for people who want to be more inspiring – purposeful, passionate and powerful – communicators, educators, managers and leaders, whether formally titled or not.

Actually, I have been designing a matrix model based on the interaction of “Individual – Physical, Mental-Emotional – Sources of Cognitive-Communication,” for example, Muscle-Mind-Mood, and a Yin-Yang, “Human Being-Human Doing,” or Flexible-Focused Energy-Consciousness. This interplay between sources and energy-essences is depicted as follows:

 Muscle (Body) + Flexible or Focused
 Mind (Psyche) + Flexible or Focused
 Mood (Heart) + Flexible or Focused

And “Muscle, Mind and Mood” are linked to one of three fundamental components of “Cognitive-Communication Consciousness”: Muscle is linked to “Action,” Mind to “Intention,” and Mood to “Meaning.”

The interaction yields six possible matrix pieces or outcomes:

 Muscle Focused and Muscle Flexible = two primary “Action” states
 Mind Focused and Mind Flexible = two primary “Intention” states
 Mood Focused and Mood Flexible = two primary “Meaning” states

The model components, Action, Intention and Meaning (AIM), are the interchangeable building blocks of “Cognitive-Communication Consciousness,” reflecting the interaction of “Mind-Mood-Muscle” and “Focused and Flexible.” Arranging the letters “A-I-M” in different sequences (akin to a very mini DNA code) provides six combinatory states or styles that result from the interaction of “Cognitive-Communication Sources” (“Muscle-Mind-Mood”) and “Yang-Yin Energy-Consciousness” (“Focused and Flexible”). For example, “Action” followed by “Intention” and then “Meaning” yields “Provocative,” while the outcome for “Action” followed by “Meaning” and “Intention” converts to “Playful.” The “Six Cognitive-Communication Consciousness States” are:

 AIM = (Action-Intention-Meaning) or “Provocative
 AMI = (Action-Meaning-Intention) or “Playful”
 IAM = (Intention-Action-Meaning) or “Purposeful”
 IMA = (Intention-Meaning-Action) or “Prospective”
 MAI = (Meaning-Action-Intention) or “Passionate”
 MIA = (Meaning-Intention-Action) or “Philosophical”

I’m calling the conceptual model:

“An ‘Action-Intention-Meaning’ (AIM) Matrix for Dynamic-Integrated Leadership: A Conceptual Tool for Expanding Cognitive-Communication Consciousness”

[Email for the AIM Matrix.]

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote & kickoff speaker, webinar presenter, as well as "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant. He is providing "Stress and Communication, as well as Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building" programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and 13th Expeditionary Support Command, Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services. Mark has also rotated as a Military & Family Life Consultant (MFLC) at Ft. Campbell, KY. A former Stress and Violence Prevention 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 esource" 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.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Communication Tools for Perspective, Patience and Presence: Transforming Reaction into Response through Message and Mantra

Increasingly, research is showing a direct correlation between employee productivity, business profitability, and the degree to which employees feel their employers are concerned about their personal and professional welfare. (See The 2010 AMA Handbook of Leadership.) For example, in the groundbreaking work, First Break All the Rules: What the Greatest Managers Do Differently (Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman) five of the twelve core elements (listed in their order of importance) “needed to attract, focus and keep the most talented employees” involve feedback, recognition and relationship building:

4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?

Clearly, for bridging the motivational-relationship divide critical factors include the awareness, clarity, empathy, mutuality and timeliness of the interpersonal communication. And honest, open and emotional connection, not just simply passing along information, is especially critical when parties are grappling with psychologically charged issues related to loss, change and uncertainty and/or conflict-laden cultural climates, e.g., employees who have gone through major reorg or RIF (Reduction in Force) and are wondering about if not waiting for the next “frightsizing” axe to fall.

With this in mind, as a writer and speaker, increasingly I provide an audience with concise psychological and communication concepts and tools – from aphorisms and acronyms to pithy poetic pearls – with a verbal (and sometimes visual-theatrical) design that, hopefully, makes them easy to use and hard to forget. In an increasingly “do more with less,” hyperactive-distracted-overextended and over-cluttered mind-field, the ability to create “sententious” messages, messages “full of significance (and style) and expressed tersely” becomes a vital art form.

Two Communicational Tools Providing Perspective, Patience and Presence

For example, try these two communicational techniques to trump a knee-jerk “reaction” with a firm yet flexibly focused “response”:

1. Differentiate Blaming “You” vs. Responsible “I” Messages. “You’re always late,” “What’s your problem?” or “You made us look bad.” “You” messages not only assign blame or are judgmental and often global (e.g., “You never”), but they deny any responsibility on the part of the person making those “acc-you-sations.” (And naturally, a “chronic acc-you-ser” risks becoming a blameaholic!) Actually, even worse, these accusing “You”s often facilitate a transfusion of power: the “acc-you-ser” is increasingly becoming a puppet and is enabling the so-called antagonist to pull all the strings.

So, instead of “You’re making me mad” or “It’s your fault,” how about, “I don’t like what’s going on between us. Here’s what I don’t appreciate (or) this is what has me frustrated, concerned, uncomfortable, etc.” Then specifically, clearly and concisely state your “I”-message concern, e.g., “I prefer being asked or questioned about my reasons for doing XYZ rather than being confronted by assumptions. I need for us to talk about what’s going on!”

The shift from blaming or judging involves: a) asserting one’s own beliefs and perspective and, when necessary, firmly yet respectfully setting limits on the use of “You”-message fault-finding, b) setting boundaries on a party not respecting one’s physical or psychological space, c) evolving a perspective that is less focused on the other person’s “faults” (that is, an intrapersonal position) and more concerned with developing an interpersonal, “How are we together generating this situation and what can we do about it?” problem-solving approach, and d) acknowledging and taking responsibility for one’s actions and feelings by using “I”-messages, including stating likes and dislikes, and concerns and irritations.

Such an emotional-communicational shift means being authentically “self”-centered in contrast to being narcissistically ego-driven. Remember, a healthy “I”-communicator strives for real and respectful, responsible and responsive give and take between the parties. (Email for my article “The Four “R”s of PRO Relating.”) The narcissist invariably sees life through a “black or white” or a “right or wrong” lens, though these may even have rose-colored tinting. This personality inevitably needs to be in a “one-up” or “in control” position. And when the surprisingly sensitive narcissist feels his or her hurt is triggered by an alleged provocateur, then launching the old blamethrower is excusable, if not perfectly justified.

Quickly Bringing the Impact of “You” vs “I” to Life

Of course, a “blameholic” can consciously or not try to disguise weakness or immaturity with a Mr. Bluster mask and manner. Still, the difference between affirming “I” responses and offensively defensive “You” reactions is transparent. For example, imagine you are in an argument, perhaps over politics or whether a movie was worth seeing, and the other party suddenly tires of the logical back and forth. Consider the impact of each of these two-word declarations. Can you hear and feel the difference between “You’re wrong” (said with a judgmental tone) as compared to “I disagree” (declared with energy and conviction; or perhaps with a tad more tact, “I see it differently”)?

The consistent group facial expressions (and occasional gasps) when an audience member helps me act out this contrasting two-word scenario reveals the verbal and emotional impact. And quick analysis is illuminating: “You’re wrong” no longer is dealing with the specific issue but is actually dismissive of the other individual. In contrast, “I disagree” is predicated on the other’s position or points of argument, that is, the “I”-response is respectfully problem-focused while a “You”-reaction is often judgmental and personality-driven.

Finally, I believe a reactive “You” message tends to be one-sided, driven by “right or wrong” presumptions: “all head” (e.g., a coldly intellectual remark or a rejoinder dripping with scarcasm, e.g., “I’m just sure you could not have done anything else?”) or “all heart” (e.g., a wounded or weepy, “feel sorry for me,” outburst or lament). In contrast, a “responsive” “I”-message combines both “head and heart.” An “I” perspective typically attempts to perceive, understand and integrate multiple perspectives, that is, tries to construct a meaningful assessment of one’s own along with the other’s deeds, needs and intentions. And next is another memorable technique for achieving this integration.

2. Consider a “Reflective and Responsive” Mantra. The standard advice when you’ve “had it up to here” with someone and want to verbally explode or simply lash out is, of course, “Count to ten.” And while I see some merit, for me the cautionary counsel falls a bit short. In the heat of battle, if thrown off guard, I can just imagine myself methodically counting, “1-2-3-4,” then suddenly shifting gears, flying through 5 through 9, and at “10” blurting out, “You bozo!” (Even the Stress Doc is susceptible to that “You”-ruption every once in awhile; though the words of French novelist Andre Gide from his book, The Immoralist, often helps me silently, if not serenely, place people and positions in perspective: One must allow others to be right; it consoles them for not being anything else!)

Actually, to be less reactive, all you need is some of those well-developed multi-tasking skills to transform the old saw into a new aphorism. (As an aside, while the younger generation is particularly adept at multi-tasking, I suspect folks of any age who primarily hyper-speed through life may have some initial difficulty being personally reflective and psychosocially attentive.) Anyway…my poetic mantra: Count to ten and check within. That is, while you are counting (and centering yourself or trying to calm) down, ask one or more of these questions, which may also slow the countdown: “What am I feeling right now?” Am I attributing all my hurt or anger to “the other”; am I about to vent with a blaming “You”? Is it possible that some of my outrage reveals that my own “hot button” or emotional baggage issues have been pushed, triggered or stirred? Am I confronting my” Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure?”

Here’s an example of a self-inventory process, though, admittedly, one several years in the making. A heated exchange followed by quiet discussion enabled my partner to finally realize that my behavior was not equivalent to the immature actions of her ex; my actions were not really firing up her emotional cauldron. It was her own low boiling point, worn down by an erosive and divisive marriage, helping to trigger her impatience and anger with her present partner. (Though, of course, I certainly bring some of my own stuff to our intimate interaction.) The real “hot button” was her self-regret, shame and rage for not being strong enough to leave sooner a mostly dysfunctional “thirty year” relationship. And when this “separation/being on my own” fear constricted her options, there were some irreparable consequences for the children, the adults, and the family as a whole. However, having the courage to face your sadness and remorse softens the anger and rage that otherwise turns inward and/or gets acted out onto others. And this deeper awareness should help our interaction be less defensive and reactive.

After completing this rapid internal audit, if still confused or frustrated while in the heat of battle, then build upon the mantra: Count to ten and check within…when in doubt, check without! Alas, my poetic addition may be a tad ambiguous. So let’s clarify some possible interpretations of check without:
a) check outside yourself; ask the other to clarify his or her message, e.g., “I’m not clear about what I’m hearing”;
b) check or set limits on a hostile communicator, e.g., “I don’t mind feedback, even critical feedback, but hostility and condescension are not acceptable! Let’s try again,”
c) check in with an open mind, that is, without bias, making every effort to consciously suspend your assumptions and prejudgments; e.g., “I must admit I’m not neutral in this matter, but I will attempt to listen with an open and objective mind.”

If issues remain troubling upon “checking within and without,” remember, you may momentarily retreat yet still be palpably real and paradoxically present. You may check out to check in: “I’m way angry right now, and don’t want to put my foot in my mouth (or your butt). I’m not running out; I’m taking a time out. I want to think about this, and I will get back to you first thing in the morning. From my perspective, we are not finished.” Clearly, strategic-reflective retreating is not giving up but stepping back in order to cool down, lick wounds, reevaluate, perhaps talk with a “stress buddy,” integrate head and heart, gain new perspective and strategy, and then responsibly reengage. (Of course, there are times, especially in the instance of child abuse, when an aggressor-predator-enabler has clearly earned “You”-focused confrontation, condemnation and, if warranted, incarceration. For example, see Penn State’s and Syracuse University’s potential criminal scandals and cover-ups.)

Hopefully, you now have two new, quick application tools for bridging the communication divide and for helping all parties…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote & kickoff speaker, webinar presenter, as well as "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant. He is providing "Stress and Communication, as well as Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building" programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and 13th Expeditionary Support Command, Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services. Mark has also rotated as a Military & Family Life Consultant (MFLC) at Ft. Campbell, KY. A former Stress and Violence Prevention 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.

Monday, November 14, 2011

North (Dakota) toward Home: Designing Diversity -- an Integrative Incubator for “Individual Creativity” and “Interactive Community”

Confession time: I owe North Dakota an apology. About six months ago, in light of the economic pressures on government employees, budget cuts and downsizings, further calls for their jobs or at least slashing their pensions, I wrote a satirical “Shrink Rap” ditty called “The Reorg Rag.”

It started:

It can’t happen here, I have too much to do…
Who took my desk and chair, my computer, too?
They can’t replace me; the Branch Techno-file
What do you mean I’m still in denial?

Reorg Rag, Reorg Rag,
Why does it feel I’ve been fragged?
Reorg Rag, Reorg Rag,
Maybe I’m just on a jag.
Reorg Rag, Reorg Rag,
I’m still on the Reorg Rag!

Rejoice, you’re employed…so they’ve frozen your pay
And put on your backs the recovery.
Two free weeks furlough to re-“leave” your stress
What a friend you have in the 112th Congress!

Work’s now a casino, a high tech RIF** RAFFle
When will we know? Why does management waffle?
Buddha Computah… who’s pink slipping away?
Here’s your ticket to ride; shopping’s good in Bombay.

Reorg Rag, Reorg Rag
Why do I just want to gag?
Reorg Rag, Reorg Rag,
Whatever happened to my swag?
Reorg Rag, Reorg Rag
I’m still on the Reorg Rag!

The lyrics and predicaments progressed till finally…

Now you’ve had enough, playing Raggedy Ann
Start calling their bluff; draw a line in the sand.
You are a survivor; just never forget
To bring out your “Inner Rambo or Rambette!”

So “Do know your limits; don’t limit your ‘No’s”
There’s life beyond widgets; you’ve taken their blows.
Break away from the mob, you’ve surpassed your quota
And have won your job…but now in North Dakota!

(Email for the entire lyric.)

In fact, my new mantra is “Go North young wo/man.” If economic opportunities are drying up “down south” (that is, in the “Lower 48”) my advice: head for Alaska…or for Alaska-lite, i.e., North Dakota! The past two months I’ve done speaking programs in both states and while the differences are obvious, the similarities are also palpable. First the differences: Alaska has a vast coast line, and an extensive rugged, forested mountainous wilderness, including the highest point in North America, Mt. Denali, formerly Mt. McKinley, at 21,000 feet; and while permafrost underground means Alaska is not the bread basket for the world, the salmon and halibut, in particular, are yummy. In contrast, flying into Fargo appears to validate my presupposition that ND is mostly farmland flat. Your eyes are captivated by large checkerboard squares of light and dark rich agricultural soil; the state does help feed the world. Actually, the eastern half of North Dakota consists of Drift Prairie, with elevations of 1300-1600 feet above sea level, and the western half of the state has the highest point, White Butte, at 3500 feet.

Now the similarities: The states share plenty of cold weather, (in both states I saw electrical power plugs attached to the front of cars), the two have small populations relative to their land mass, and now with the boom times happening in western North Dakota, both states are reaping the benefits of oil production. (Of course, there may be some specific economic boom town winners and losers. Word is that qualified truck drivers can easily earn a $100,000 a year and popular pole dancers may draw $2,000/night; apparently not many other ways to spend money way out on the oil range. And today I just read that seniors are being forced out of their life-long apartments as landlords, in pursuit of oil money, are raising rents astronomically. Hey, it’s the American Way; capitalism at its finest. Turning natives into immigrants in their homeland; we've seen this movie before!)

But I digress…in addition, at least in Anchorage (pop. 270,000) and Fargo (pop. 200,000), cities bounded by waterways, each, paradoxically, has a small town-cosmopolitan feel; both are fueled by a diverse, friendly and articulate citizenry as well as the visible presence of a vibrant and clean downtown, humming with artistic activity and Native American culture – visual arts, theatre, dance, etc. And the “symbiotic cities” of Fargo, ND-Moorhead, MN area, striding the opposite banks of the Red River, boast numerous colleges and universities.

Harnessing and Harvesting a Multicultural Mindset

And with the economic revival both are attracting people from around the globe. And while in Alaska oil may be a primary magnet (the state’s motto: North to the Future) in small towns throughout Minnesota and the Dakotas there’s another “future”-oriented engine driving the influx. The US Government has been settling immigrants in upper-Midwest towns, towns that until recently (late 20th century) were precipitously losing population, especially their young people. The towns were also struggling with a withering tax base; survival was definitely a communal conundrum. Hence the idea of resettlement. And it’s been working. At least in the last few years the immigrant population is doubling; the long-established (mostly Caucasian and Native American) citizenry has had some small growth. And while there has been tangible economic progress, such demographic social change rarely comes without a measure of cultural conflict. (Not to mention the personal and family stress generated by major relocation, loosening ties to geographic-family-cultural-national roots, engaging with a new language, and, at least initially, often feeling like “a stranger in a strange land.” I certainly experienced some of this disorientation when I moved from NYC to New Orleans in my mid-20s. I will say more shortly.)

The challenge of integrating these diverse populaces led to the formation in the mid-1990s of a non-profit group, Cultural Diversity Resources, led by an Asian female fireball of energy and enterprise, Yoke Sim Gunaratne. As stated in the conference brochure: "In 1993, Fargo-Moorhead area leaders held several community forums to identify community issues needing urgent attention…The community needed to embrace its increasing ethnic diversity and assist diverse populations in overcoming barriers to community participation. Leaders wanted to ameliorate intolerance of all kinds, increase understanding of the value of diversity, and develop a permanent system wide framework aimed at celebrating the ever-increasing cultures of the community. Action to develop a proactive regional diversity project to cover four cities and two counties began."

In fact, at the start of my luncheon keynote, I shared an associative image of being in a Star Trek movie; our multicultural-intergalactic crew was piloting the Starship Enterprise, exploring the depths of outer and inner space. I thought this an apt segue to my talk on “Creative Risk Taking: Grieving, Letting Go and Inspiring Flow.”

I couldn’t resist establishing my cultural diversity credentials by letting the audience know that in addition to being a Type A New Yawka (born in Brooklyn, mostly grew up in Queens, and attended high school in Manhattan) I have a second gear: sixteen years in N’Awlins (from 1974-1990; eight years as a doctoral student at Tulane University), my “American in Cajun Paris” years. Lots of great stories including burning out as a grad student and, opportunistically, becoming a radio and TV Stress Doc ™. Eventually, however, “there were no more mountains to climb in the bayou and I had this urge to move to DC. I didn’t understand it till I got there, but then I realized if NYC and New Orleans had a baby it would look like Washington, DC.” That got a laugh, and so did my follow-up: “I still haven’t decided if this offspring is a love child!”

Critical Quotes on Change and Conflict, Team Synergy and Society

Finally, I set the stage for my interactive presentation (even during a keynote the audience engages in arousing and fun exercises), by sharing two quotes, pertinent to communities with survival on their minds, needing to be both diverse and interdependent. The first was from Adam Gopnik’s book, Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life. Gopnik extrapolates a key point of Darwinian Theory: Repetition is the law of nature but variation is the rule of life. We see repetition in nature through the cycle of the seasons; in many species migration and spawning patterns are also cyclical.

However, oftentimes, what enables a species to achieve survival fitness is responding productively and imaginatively to major change or crisis – whether brought on by alterations in its ecological environment or by a small deviation in its genetic makeup that spreads through the species, culminating in hereditary and adaptation advantages, that is, “natural selection.” I believe the influx of immigrants is providing an evolutionary challenge and a boost for these towns and townspeople. Both groups are experiencing a mind-and heart-provoking trial and error and maturational learning curve. While maintaining their roots, through interaction with the “natives,” the newcomers are learning about the customs, mores and morals, the strengths and vulnerabilities of the American Ways. And over time the establishment grows increasingly open-minded, slowly but steadily turning productive conflict into newfound commonality if not camaraderie along with creative variation on convention.

Together I’m seeing the basis for cultural synergy: not only does each group gain fresh ways of perceiving and acting upon new possibilities, but now these once disparate parts gradually transform into partners.

Of course, mutation and variation test the tried and perhaps once true. As was previously noted, conflict and change are often contemporaneous. But ultimately, if the conflict is harnessed through honest, hard-hitting yet also appropriately humble dialogue – focusing more on problems than personalities – then the words of John Dewey, 19th c. pragmatic philosopher and “Father of American Public Education,” may still ring out: Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity. It instigates to invention and sets us at noting and contriving. Conflict is the sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.

I’m reminded of my readapting the familiar acronym TEAM – “Together Each Achieves More.” My TEAM mantra: Trial and Error Amplifies Mutation! And I did share my variation on the motivational standard or cliché, depending on your perspective, “There’s no “I” in team”: There may be no “I” in team…but there are two “I”s in winning – “Individuality” and “Interactivity.” And these “I”s definitely “C”: A winning team blends “Individual Creativity” and “Interactive Community”!

And the pioneering sociologist, George Herbert Mead, would agree. His mantra: Society is unity in diversity.

So in the Fargo, ND-Moorhead, MN area an immigration-integration incubator is transforming the lives of individuals, families and institutions and inspiring – breathing life into and revitalizing the spirit of – long-standing communities. Perhaps it's not so surprising; the North Dakota state motto: Liberty and Union, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable. Paradoxical and passionate words to help a complex, diverse world…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant. He is providing "Stress and Communication, as well as Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building" programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and 13th Expeditionary Support Command, Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services. Mark has also had a rotation as Military & Family Life Consultant (MFLC) at Ft. Campbell, KY. A former Stress and Violence Prevention 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.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Value of a “Helmet’s Office” Atmosphere: Building Team and Organizational Trust, Collaborative Conflict, Partnership & Synergy

My work with the military has been very instructive. As a team building catalyst I appreciate the concept of creating a “Helmet’s Off” meeting atmosphere whereby there is “no rank in the room.” Ideally, the Corporal is not afraid to speak up honestly, even critically, with and to the Colonel. Of course, the unspoken challenge is whether there’s sufficient trust to transcend traditional “superior-subordinate” roles-relations-rules-restrictions. More broadly, what is the overall trust and safety level in the room? Will something I say quickly come back to bite me or eventually wind up as career-killer in a personnel file?

Naturally, when there’s an external threat, a “harm’s way” crisis or a critical need to follow “one voice” then helmets need to be firmly in place. However, when there is opportunity for frank and open dialogue, progressive military leaders are realizing that, especially with voluntary personnel and with today’s younger generation, two-way communication fosters greater respect, trust, commitment and a real cycle of what I call the interactive team building triad-synthesis -– “leadership <– > followship –> partnership.” That is, depending on the situational context or challenge, all levels in the organizational hierarchy need to set sail on the first two “ships” to sufficiently understand each one’s perspectives and roles, responsibilities and demands. Also, leadership doesn’t only come packaged with the title of “Captain,” “CEO” or “Coach.” Informal or untapped leaders often work behind the scenes. Good leaders, however, coax these “informals” out of the closet or provide a platform for their budding talents and harness or align with their influence.

Finally, some hands on experience “in both the trenches and think tanks” facilitate the evolution of a productive “leadership-followship” alliance. (For example, the mind- and heart-opening premise of the TV series, “Undercover Boss,” reflects a desire to have the chief surreptitiously wade into the trenches and swim with the catfish. I’m still waiting for the “Surreality” show that allows a team of employees into the shark tank…I mean boardroom.)

A friend, a retired Army Colonel once shared: “It’s easy ordering people around. Creating genuine buy-in is the real challenge.” To the military’s credit, they seem to realize that at times they have difficulty walking their helmetless talk, hence a desire to work with the Stress Doc ™. And barriers to candid communication may even arise with Senior Officers and Senior Sergeants, the battalion or brigade leadership team. In fact, most of my military “Stress, Change & Team Building” experience is with these senior groups. Consider this testimonial:

15th Sustainment Brigade, 1st Cavalry, Ft. Hood, TX
[Stress, Change and Team-Building Predeployment to Iraq Program for 40 Senior Officers, Senior Sergeants and Spouses]


What a great program you engineered at our Command Offsite! It could not have been better if we had orchestrated it! Your session on managing change and stress was the perfect lead-in to the work we had to accomplish throughout the conference. It set the conditions for the free, uninhibited work (regardless of rank) that we needed. Our “drawing” exercise was absolutely enlightening. I cannot tell you how valuable it was to me as the “CEO” to see these products and see how the differing sections and commands worked together. The spouses loved the briefing and the interaction just as much as the uniformed members did.

Here’s the BLUF: Your session was the critical building block on which we built the rest of the conference.

My sincere thanks. Job well done.

COL Phelps

COL Larry Phelps
Commander, 15th SB

Value of “Helmets Off”: Top Ten

However, my purpose with this essay is to reach a broad target audience. Why might the “Helmet’s Off” credo not just be a good fit for the military but also help build non-military team and organizational trust, coordination and productivity? When you have the time, consider these “Top Ten” opportune factors:

1. Opportunity for candid and clarifying communication and critical feedback. In a “Helmets Off Atmosphere” (HOA), not only is it easier for “message sent = message received” but a candid environment helps flesh out hidden agendas and stimulates a broader segment of member participation. And if leaders understand the difference between “Acknowledgement and Agreement” one can engage another’s perspective without endorsing it. If you don’t have to immediately establish “who’s right or wrong” (especially when it’s not a “black or white” data-driven issue), then options emerge: for example, before answering or arguing, allow the larger group to weigh in on the issue. (Hopefully, there’s not a groupthink milieu. And the quickest way of combating groupthink: ask people to question or challenge your perspective.) Remember, people don’t just contend or compete over facts; more often it’s the status of the head-banging relationship: people want to know it’s safe to say, “I believe you’re wrong and I’m right.”

Also, in the heat of a verbal battle, people frequently have an “attitude.” Sometimes it’s the person’s personality, other times it’s a momentary face-saving device, that is, the difference between “trait” and “state.” Either way, with my own slow movement toward maturity (let’s call it “fate,”) I’ve learned to accept a little angry attitude (what I call “smoke”) when sparring; however I do not accept a personal attack or abuse (that is, learn to distinguish the “smoke” from the “fire”). When an authority figure allows a “subordinate” to disagree openly (but not abusively) in a public forum without quickly cutting him down at the intellectual knees, most feel a sigh of relief and a deposit is added to the group trust account. And ironically, the former contrarian often more quickly joins the other side of the argument once having defended his position or when allowed to save face. Sometimes exercising a psychological freedom trumps competing over logical “facts.”

2. Opportunity for asking good questions as well as active-reflective listening and for generating creative conflict. When I ask a group what constitutes a “good question” in the context of interpersonal conflict, I get answers such as: a) one that solicits an open-ended response, b) one that can’t be answered by “yes” or “no,” and c) is not simply a “gotcha” tactic, whereby the questioner already knows the answer. (Although sometimes a “gotcha” question may be needed to establish the facts of a situation in the face of significant denial or a cover-up.) For me, there are two pillars of a good question: 1) the humility pillar, which acknowledges “not having all the answers” and 2) the openness pillar, which says, “I really would like to hear your point of view. I have more to learn than I realized.” (Clearly there’s a link between openness and humility.)

In an HOA setting this kind of exchange lays the basis for “collaboration” –- helping people speak from both the head and heart, teasing out hidden agendas, allowing for constructive conflict, even asking antagonists for more of their thinking, thereby helping to affirm their experience or expertise. And such openness simultaneously challenges our truisms. As 19th c. pragmatic philosopher and the “Father of American Education,” John Dewey, observed: Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity. It instigates to invention and sets us at noting and contriving. Conflict is the sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.

Now people and parties risk venturing from their territorial silos; the process encourages illogical and improbable ideas, allowing diversity to stimulate creativity, e.g., brainstorming methods for imaginatively yet fairly sharing resources and devising complementary approaches. (A number of studies reveal that teams comprised of diverse members almost invariably do more creative problem solving than more homogeneous task groups.) So maximize group brainpower by 1) asking good questions, 2) engaging in active and reflective listening, while 3) harnessing the colorful-compelling sparks of diversity and creative conflict.

3. Opportunity for reliable and quick feedback from and to folks in the trenches. To be “efficient” (do the thing right) and “effective” (do the right thing), an HOA mindset realizes that certain data can only be obtained by first hand, real time reports from the trenches. (For example, see the “Undercover Boss” reference above.) However, even if the data was initially wired in, the opportunity for sharing the circumstances and dynamics with the entire group affirms the value of the front line report/reporters while generating exploratory and collaborative possibilities. As Randy Pausch in his acclaimed book, The Last Lecture, written in anticipation of his dying from pancreatic cancer, recommends, “Phrase alternatives as questions. Instead of “I think we should do A, not B,” try “What if we did A, instead of B?” [The unspoken message: “what might be the implications or consequences?” And, again, most important, “I want to hear your perspective.”] This allows people to offer comments rather than defend (or debate) one choice.”

And remember, often it’s best to back up an important e-blast with a face-to-group announcement. It’s too easy for messages and texts to get lost in the electronic and textual cacophony. You’ll save time and enhance trust when all hear the message simultaneously and have the opportunity to raise questions or concerns.

4. Opportunity to remove cultural and generational diversity barriers and foster team synergy. Let me provide an HOA moment inspired by Al Davis, the recently deceased maverick, “Renaissance Football Man,” and long-time rabble-rousing owner of the Oakland Raiders. Davis hired the first Afro-American football coach in the modern era. In a sport that was increasingly being played by black athletes, do you think this helped create a “helmets off” atmosphere in the locker room? (Davis also later hired John Madden who, at the time, I believe was the youngest man to ever coach in the NFL. Again, this was another potential bridge-builder though, I would imagine, not without its skeptical men and moments. I can just picture some of the older Assistant Coaches or even players questioning the experience of their fledgling head coach. In addition to being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Madden, of course, went on to become an American icon through his work as a TV commentator and his pioneering efforts in electronic gaming.)

An interesting question arises: how do these idiosyncratic personalities fit into football, a sport that’s been called “the ultimate team game.” You’ve likely heard or perhaps seen the following mantra posted on an office wall: “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” While there’s some validity on its face, the slogan has always left me needing more…or wanting to conceptualize further. Might not individual difference, including variation in personality, mindset and talent, along with cultural or generational perspective, challenge the team to reach another level of evolutionary function? As Adam Gopnik, in Angels and Ages: A Brief Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life, observed: Repetition is the law of nature but variation is the rule of life!

Consider this semantic twist: While there’s no “I” in team, there are two “I”s in winning! From a poetic perspective a number of interpretations of the latter phrase are possible:
a) keeping your eyes on the prize,
b) reflecting on the past to help envision a new future, or my favorite
c) mixing the literal and the “letteral,” one comes up with two “I”s that definitely “C” –- the “I”s stand for “Individuality” and “Interactivity” and their related “C”s are “Creativity” and “Community.” And voila: the formula for a winning team is a synergistic blend of “Individual Creativity” and “Interactive Community.”

Some Conceptual Tools for Rethinking Team Synergy

In a general way the popular TEAM acronym speaks the language of synergy: Together Each Achieves More. The slogan indicates that the individual benefits from collective understanding, will and action and that harmony is its own reward. But what about the inverse: does individual variation in history or talent (not necessarily playing a formal leadership role) impact the capacity of the group to meet its goals around performance and and productivity, morale and camaraderie? How about these TEAM acronyms:

a) Talent Energizes Ambitious Motivation
b) Trial & Error Amplifies Mastery (or, perhaps even better, Mutation)

The creative explorer typically challenges the community to reexamine its conventional values, positions and actions. A community that’s not cut off by “one right way” tradition or rigid “funda-mental-ist armor” debates, sometimes tolerates, and may eventually find room to encourage the idiosyncratic individual to speak the language of, relate to, educate and even stir up, if not inspire, the larger collective. And when these two “‘I’s that ‘C’” intermingle, another notion of synergy materializes: behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately. This is called emergent behavior (Wikipedia) and brings us back to the power of variation for spawning successful adaptation, that is, individual mutation spreads, ultimately influencing the hardiness of the larger community often resulting in “the survival of the fittest.”

Finally, this emergent conception helps us return to the conventional if not predictable notion of synergy: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Whether the outcome is “unpredictable” or “greater than,” just what do these statements actually mean? They’ve become such embedded clichés; I suspect most folks don’t stop to think about the overt or covert dynamics. For me, when you’re cookin’ with synergy there is some combination of free flowing, genuine, uninhibited, intimate, out-rage-ous, intuitive, playful and verbal-nonverbal communication-new ways of relating amongst the parts (akin to a jazz riff), that in due time those individual parts magically morph into partners (at least for the potent moment) no matter the rank or role in the room.

5. Opportunity to delegate-distribute roles, responsibilities and power and to generate matrix teams. HO can also stand for “Hand Off” in addition to “Helmets Off.” After a meaningful discussion of an issue or problem there usually is a pregnant pause: who will take responsibility for putting strategic ideas into action and/or monitoring the problem-solving steps and any additional problem solvers? Assuming that we’re not resorting to the traditional military manner of “enlisting volunteers,” a smart leader will allow the silence its pregnant possibility. My experience suggests that a group member will pop up, or will do so with a gentle nudge. The person taking responsibility often has some personal if not passionate connection to the issue on the floor.

For the formal “Helmets Off” leader the challenge is not just giving up some control over the problematic issue but also working to find that balance between being detached without being distant, that is, achieving “detached involvement.” When you “hand off,” let the person run with the ball; even an occasional fumble can help him or her get a better grip on issues moving forward. You are enabling others to exercise and develop their knowledge and skills, passion and talents, as well as strengthening a sense of responsibility. And, of course, let the employee know you are available as a coach and consultant or, if persistent difficulties arise, as a manager. (But remember, the “responsible” individual is an “agent,” that is, a person of influence or impact and one who is worthy of trust.)

Finally, a diverse community gathering makes it easier to generate matrix teams. You can encourage and empower representatives of different organizational departments, seniority levels, knowledge bases, cultural populations, etc., to take on issues that that transcend the segmental or territorial and impact the foundational and systemic. The payoff for your organization is an expanding synergy whereby “distinct parts transform into dynamic partners.” Words to help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Stay tuned for Part II, the final five ways an HOA impacts team and organizational trust, coordination and productivity.

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote & kickoff speaker, webinar presenter, as well as "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant. He is providing "Stress and Communication, as well as Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building" programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and 13th Expeditionary Support Command, Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services. Mark has also rotated as a Military & Family Life Consultant (MFLC) at Ft. Campbell, KY. A former Stress and Violence Prevention 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.

(c) Mark Gorkin 2011
Shrink Rap™ Productions

Friday, September 9, 2011

Eight Humor Styles in Action: Building Stress Resiliency with Interactive Humor – Part I & II

Eight Humor Styles in Action: Building Stress Resiliency with Interactive Humor – Part I

After writing a 9/11 Anniversary essay (“Ten Years After: A Personal Remembrance of Sep 11th – Strategies for Grieving, Surviving and Evolving": (, my basic Yin-Yang nature kicked in: here is an essay on eight styles of humor. The early-mid 20th century pioneering film-maker, artist and comedienne, Charlie Chaplin, would approve of such a dramatic-comedic shift. According to Chaplin, 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.

The humor styles are paired in “Four ‘H”” polarities: Healing-Hostile, Harmonizing-Harpooning, Humanizing-Higher Power, and Humbling-Heroic. (Forgive my alliterative, categorizing compulsion. An Israeli friend thinks it’s in my cultural-religious-“Talmudic scholar” DNA. I believe it is part addiction-part geographic location, i.e., having resided in the Metro-Washington, DC-federal government nexus for twenty years, I’m the founding member of a new twelve-step AA group – Acronym’s Anonymous!) My hope is that by differentiating the applications of humor, more people will find and explore a style or styles suited to their temperament, taste and tactics. This is hardly an academic exercise. Daniel Goleman, acclaimed author of Emotional Intelligence, has discovered that the most effective managers employ humor three times more often than their less capable counterparts. So let’s get to work by examining definitions and differentiations.

Defining Humor and Wit

a. Humor recognizes the absurdities in everyday situations along with the incongruities in our personal make-up, and playfully embraces or pokes good-natured fun at our fears and foibles. It often has a silly, non-verbal component exaggerating voice tones, facial gestures and body movements. Humor may be drawn out for effect. I liken it to letting the air out of a blown up balloon, and watching it crazily circle, sputter and plop. Of course, pushed way beyond human limits it may go from the silly to the ridiculous.

b. Wit quickly and imaginatively expresses the connection or analogous properties between things seemingly dissimilar, improbable or contradictory. America's original humorist, Mark Twain, said it best: "Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which before their union were not perceived to have any relation." (Now whether this coupling will produce any brainchildren…) Wit is highly verbal tending toward a sudden, sharp edginess (which, alas, can easily go over the healing edge into hostility or ridicule.). According to Shakespeare, "Brevity is the soul of wit." Think of wit as sticking a pin into that inflated balloon (or a puffed up ego). An example of concise wit, perhaps, is my self-invented title of "Psychohumorist" ™. (Of course, I let folks decide where the emphasis on that word should go. Sometimes the fine line between wit and humor fades into the head work. ;-)


Saying funny things
What is being observed
Strong nonverbal component
Slow, physical exaggeration, silly
Letting air out of balloon (sputtering)
Extreme: ridiculous


Saying things in a funny way
What is being mentally constructed
Highly verbal
Quick, sharp, surprising analogies
Sticking pin into balloon (deflating)
Extreme: ridicule

Finally, an ability to integrate humor and wit may just strengthen our resiliency while helping civilize the world.

Here are illustrations of the 4H(2) Humor Styles:

I. Healing-Hostile Humor

A. Healing.

1. Absurdity to the Rescue. The first example of healing humor actually has a 9/11 context: upon reopening after the tragic events, the BWI airport hired Groucho Marx impersonators to banter with the crowds waiting on line to help reduce understandable traveler anxiety. The absurdity of it all struck a positive nerve and facilitated a much needed emotional release. As psychiatrist and humor authority, David Fry, noted, “Laughing with gusto is like turning your body into a big vibrator, giving vital organs a brief but hardy internal massage.” Others have likened full-throttled laughter to “inner jogging,” as it releases chemicals such as endorphins and dopamine which have a mind-calming, pleasure inducing effect.

2. The Face-Saving Yet Ego Affirming Defense Mechanism. Healing humor not only helps transform order (and disorder) into the comically chaotic and cathartic, but it is based on ego strength and the awareness of limitations, not simply on anxiety-driven self-deprecation. Such a humorous perspective reflects a loosening of inhibition and lowers the volume of rigid or judgmental inner voices. This humor also looks at life events the same as everyone else and bravely if not ironically may see something different. For example, the early 20th c. French novelist, Anatole France, upon turning 75, looking in a mirror, observed: "Mirrors just aren't what they used to be."

This is not a passive stance but an active one, providing "Triple A" stress relief insurance:
a) Aggression. There's a confident, if not somewhat competitive, component to self-effacing humor. It tells an audience or an antagonist, "I can poke fun at myself even better than you can poke fun at me." Or, "You only know the half of it…my pain, my cleverness, etc."
b) Affirmation. When audiences laugh warmly at such humor, they vicariously acknowledge their own shortcomings and, most important, are likely admiring the humorist's display of openness and courage.
c) Acceptance. The ability to expose flaws and foibles often is a tangible sign of self-acceptance; perfect performance has been replaced with the modus operandi of purposefulness and playfulness.

No less an authority than Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and a student of humor, recognized the power of this “highest defense mechanism.” For Freud, the capacity for mature humor – by which he meant internalizing the “parental” encouragement of our efforts and the gentle tolerance of our failures – is perhaps the greatest gift such figures (whether actual or cultivated inner voices) can bestow upon a child…or a “Healing Humorist” can share with a colleague. Of course, sometimes those “parental voices” come with a little static.

3. Share and Smooth with Edgy Humor. Consider a “healing” example that involves a ritual of sending humorous cards to family members, especially to my parents. The cards are particularly effective because they capture or play upon a certain tension that exists within the relationship. A recent Mother’s Day card said, “To the woman who helped me become the man I am today.” The opened card continues: “Of course you have to take some of the blame!” Being able to poke a little fun at us both and also share the laughter definitely continues to smooth some of those rough edges in the mother-son tie.

B. Hostile.

1. Even Cutting Humor Can Heal. Here's a classroom vignette pitting me against a demoralized yet demonizing antagonist that raises two key questions: First, there's the issue of "is message sent message received?" As will be evident shortly, this question needs to be considered within the psycho-social-cultural context being used by different parties to interpret the meaning of certain actions and to attribute the motivational stance or bias of certain actors? Next, did my overt and covert counterpunch fulfill my intent: to disarm hostility and preserve harmony without being harsh or hurtful? Let me illustrate. I was leading a two-day Stress Management workshop in Salt Lake City, Utah for a federal government agency that was experiencing interpersonal tension and morale problems. The first day seemed to go well. The most tangible evidence was that the next morning a few folks initiated buying donuts for all forty participants. So a variety of donuts were being distributed before the class formally starts. All of a sudden, a male audience member, who later identified himself as a Mormon, began vehemently protesting: "You call yourself a stress expert, and you're going to allow them to pass out those donuts; with all that fat and sugar!"

I was taken aback. I acknowledged his beliefs and his concern for the nutritional issues as regards physical and psychological well-being. (A few years earlier, for a legal magazine, I had written about changing my diet and exercise regimen. I always liked the title of the article: “Hard Realities vs. Hard Arteries: Fat Food for Thought.”) Before I could finish, our pedantic protester cut me off, continued the challenge, and then declared: “How can I trust anything you say about stress, when you take such a hypocritical position!” Trying to be reasonable, again agreeing with some of his concerns, still I recognized the buying and sharing of donuts as a real form of social nurturance and support. Both of these are important for relieving stress and building emotional health and group morale.

Our nutritional moralist seemed undaunted. I also realized that this ongoing confrontation was agitating the entire group, though no one said anything. I didn’t want to lose control of the atmosphere of positive learning and sharing, nor did I want the audience to lose trust in my capacity for leadership. The tension reached a critical point. I reflexively went into a self-effacing survival mode and replied with maybe a shade too much impatience and irony: “Well, I guess the only way I can justify my behavior is to paraphrase the American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘[Too much] consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’”

A woman from the audience fairly shouted, “That’s a good one.” The confrontational standoff was over. My antagonist was disarmed and deflated. At the time, I mostly thought I was poking fun at myself to get Mr. Moralist off my (and the audience’s) back. But in hindsight, I wasn’t simply self-lampooning, but was also wielding a witty (albeit unconscious) weapon. A more direct message could have been: “Obviously, you are not pleased with my approach. I wish it wasn’t creating such doubt. I’m willing to talk more during the break or at lunch. However, right now I have a class to lead, and we all need to get down to work.” And if this still wasn’t sufficient, that is, if the individual could not cease and desist, I would then have to ask him to leave the room until he was ready to participate in a non-disruptive manner.

Today, when I share this story with counselors, educators, or trainers, a number gasp, groan, or grimace. I truly did cut down Mr. Mormon in public. I was not psychologically correct, for which I have conflicting thoughts. And yet, in the spirit of embracing contradiction, my counter ultimately had a healing effect. By the afternoon, Mr. M. could venture out of his crusty shell, this time without fighting dietary demons or Stress Docs. With the help of a group exercise, he began to acknowledge to the entire class his intense feelings of work burnout. This out of character level of honesty and vulnerability was made possible by disarming his previous offensive defensiveness. And it garnered him, not the moral high ground, but down-to-earth emotional sustenance and problem-solving support from colleagues (who had been inhaling his burnout fumes for months).

The moral: By momentarily disarming an antagonist (perhaps with a tad more antagonism than consciously intended, but without malicious intent), while still pursuing understanding and healing, you can improbably both set limits on and also support a “stress carrier.” The “too much consistency” message (and an audience member’s enthusiastically aggressive second), defused the threat to our learning environment. It also eventually short-circuited a self-defeating burnout-blowup cycle and opened a path and process for honest sharing along with some healing, collegial empathy and acceptance: the competence of the leader, the working integrity and harmony of the group along with the humanity and social standing of a wounded participant are all reaffirmed. And by mixing caring and can even (symbolically or moderately) eat donuts!

II. Harmonizing-Harpooning Humor

A. Harmonizing.

1. Using the Anger of Grief to Rebuild an Alliance. first two definitions of “harmony” are: 1) “agreement in feeling or opinion; accord: live in harmony” and 2) “a pleasing combination of elements in a whole or order; or congruity of parts to their whole or to one another”: color harmony; the order and harmony of the universe. Years back a Federal court was automating its record keeping system and was experiencing some opposition from a number of employees. This was especially true for those most affected by the change in a key data form. Not surprisingly, employees had not been consulted. The obvious emotionally charged questions: why weren’t the folks in the trenches, the ones most directly involved with the informational processing changes, consulted about operational dynamics and consequences? Why isn’t our experience respected and our perspective valued?

Instead of only focusing on employee resistance to change, I challenged management to examine their one-sided decision-making process. I also thought employees were grieving, that is, experiencing feelings of loss, both of a familiar mode of operation as well as the loss of job control and sense of professional authority and autonomy. After discussing the managerial missteps, I shared a "pass in the impasse” aha! with the court leadership: "Let's have a 'forms funeral.'" All employees would have a chance to bemoan the loss of the old, express concerns about new procedures and, most important, criticize “unilateral” authority for not initially seeking employee input. Not surprisingly, this novel, perhaps somewhat absurd communal catharsis broke through the barriers both to accepting change and to participatory decision-making. We also began healing some organizational wounds. In Yin-Yang fashion, honest expression of aggression and acknowledgement of missteps along with a pledge for more participatory decision-making produced tangible accord. Even more significant, though, there now was a basis for organizational synergy: not only is the whole potentially greater than the sum of the parts, but ongoing collaboration will generate a new congruity – transforming seemingly disrespected and disconnected parts into more respectful and actively coordinated partners.

The metaphor of a “Forms Funeral” might well resonate with the early 20th century disabilities pioneer and universally-acclaimed humanitarian, Helen Keller, who observed: 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. On a more pedestrian level, a healing humor that also harmonizes not only encourages an ability to walk in another’s shoes, but may enable all parties to acknowledge and feel each other’s bunions! When orchestrated humor helps a) affirm professional identity, b) break down social-cultural barriers, c) productively resolve conflict and d) facilitates two-way understanding through the embrace of a mutual mirthful metaphor illuminating how “we’re all in this rite of passage together,” there’s a “higher power” at work and play.

B. Harpooning.

1. Bending the Roles to Regain Resilience. My conception of “harpooning humor” has little do with an Ahab-like obsession. I’m not looking to kill the whale; the objective is to lance and momentarily silence a big, blubbering, babbling ego and “shrink” it down to a less bombastic or bullying scale. And you don’t always need a visible target, only one in the mind of the beholder. Consider this vignette. The first involves a very challenging moment in a workshop with nurse supervisors and their administrator. These professional women were itemizing tensions and frustrations with their primary "stress carriers"...the mostly male doctors. (A "stress carrier," by the way, is someone who usually doesn't get ulcers, just gives them!)

Perhaps I had become the symbol of the male species, for the administrator, voicing the group's anger, impatiently cried out, "What happens if you're just tired of always accommodating these physicians; of being the one who has to bend? Then what do you do?" Listening between the lines, I heard, "Okay, Mr. Expert, let's have your revelation."

Believe me, at this point, divine intervention seemed like my only hope. Fortunately, only time froze and not my brain. "How about this," I blurted out. "Tell the physician you may not be your normal cheerful self today. When he questions 'why not?' say, 'I hurt my back.'" I paused. "Now when the doctor asks, perhaps somewhat haughtily, 'How did that happen?' in a most humble manner reply, 'I'm not sure, but I think I've been bending over backwards for too many people, lately.'"

Well the women roared their approval. A psychiatrist, Kris Ernst, once noted: "what was once feared, and is now mastered [even if only in one’s mind; remember, “Conceiving is Believing”]…is laughed at." Of course, the Stress Doc’s converse applies: "what was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master."

2. Turning the Bait into Playful and Purposeful Bite. Sometimes you are baited into an ongoing interpersonal battle; transform your goal into “bait and switch” – lampoon both parties and calmly leave the scene with laughter in the background. As a mid-'90s Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant at a large US Postal Service Processing & Distribution Plant walking the workfloor was commonplace. (Believe me, humor was not a luxury.) One day, I came upon a couple bantering, seemingly playfully, if not a bit seductively. A collegial chorus was also present. The back and forth turned increasingly provocative when the woman suddenly mouthed the "f u" expletive while throwing her antagonist the proverbial finger. The onlookers quickly warned the couple about me: "Be careful, this guy is the 'Company Shrink.'" Then the guy egged me on: "Now what do you think about what she just did?" With tension building, I nervously paused, then rallied: "What do I think? I just think she thinks you're # 1," and walked off with collective laughter behind me. (A vital humor skill: learn to playfully bite the hand or hands that feed you!)

The remaining pairs of humor styles – Humanizing-Higher Power and Humbling-Heroic – will be illustrated in Part II. Until then…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote & kickoff speaker, webinar presenter, as well as "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant. He is providing "Stress and Communication, as well as Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building" programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and 13th Expeditionary Support Command, Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services. Mark has also rotated as a Military & Family Life Consultant (MFLC) at Ft. Campbell, KY. A former Stress and Violence Prevention 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.

Eight Humor Styles in Action: Building Stress Resiliency with Interactive Humor – Part II

III. Humanizing-Higher Power

A. Humanizing.

1. Paradoxical Perspective. One way of employing “humanizing humor” is to capture the seemingly contradictory or paradoxical nature of our species. For example, consider my one “holiday” joke that distinguishes the familiar phrases, “holiday blues” and “holiday stress.” Now holiday blues is the feeling of loss or sadness you have when, over the holidays, you can’t be with those people in your life who have been or are special or significant. And holiday stress…is when you have to be with some of those people!

2. Surprising and Provocative Links in Context. A second manifestation of this humor is taking natural, emotionally charged aspects of being human and then playfully linking them in an unexpected, if not witty, fashion, a fashion that may tweak convention. Remember, you often need to be sensitive to your audience’s comfort threshold and be cognizant of cultural context, especially when wading into provocative areas, like sex or religion. For example, when I moved from "devil may care" N'Awlins to politically conscious if not correct Washington, DC I had to rethink carrying over a stress workshop closing punchline: "They say laughter is the best tension reliever and sex is second…So if you're having funny sex you're probably in good shape!" (In fact, one New Orleans conference group expressed interest in bringing me back to give a talk on “Funny Sex.”)

However, politically cautious DC audience dis-ease eventually required using a different close, one that played on a familiar adage. I now stress the importance of "The Serenity Prayer": "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know where to hide the bodies!" (Okay, so you can take the boy out of "The Big Easy" but not the irreverence from the boy.) And even with this closing, I’m conscious of context. With a military audience, I modify the last phrase: “and the wisdom to know where to hide the…money!”

3. Both Self-Effacing and Self-Affirming. Humanizing humor helps me accept my flaws…with a little attitude. For example, as I've middle-aged, I occasionally take jibes about my hair loss. I firmly remind the moprakers that, "You should have more respect for my hair. It was recently placed on the World Wildlife Federation's endangered species list!"

4. Bridging Humanity and Cultural Diversity. Little did I know that such a playful yet feisty attitude about my hair (or lack thereof) would one day morph into a truly powerful response in a highly charged social setting, i.e., with a racially divided jury. Employing humor to resolve contemporary cultural conflict is dicey. Nonetheless, by carefully exploring the face-saving power of self-effacing humor, you just may discover a small "pass in the multicultural impasse." Let me illustrate. Several years back, I was on jury duty in Washington, DC. An African-American male in his early 20s was accused of selling cocaine to an undercover African-American policeman. Our jury consisted of nine African-Americans and three Caucasians. Tension was building as we deliberated upon the case. In particular, a number of the African-American jurors questioned that the police had mishandled a piece of the evidence. (To me, this piece of evidence did not appear critical in establishing the fact of the alleged sale.)

Based on the increasingly pointed and heated discussion, it was clear that most of the African-Americans were leaning toward acquittal. Two other white jurors and I along with a black middle-aged male were swaying in the opposite direction. After an informal poll and more frustratingly fruitless attempts to influence each other's position, a middle-aged black woman next to me cries out, "Well, it seems that the white folks and this one black guy are holding us up." Suddenly, this black male juror jumps up and stares hard at his accuser, i.e., the accusation being that he's just going along with "whitey." Then, in an agitated, increasingly loud voice, he challenges back: "What are you trying to say? Just what are you trying to say?" The room crackles with tension. The African-American forewoman seems paralyzed.

Now, a young black woman, on my other side, with long, pretty braids anxiously blurts out, "This is ridiculous. All we're doing is pulling our hair out." The electricity and anguish jolt me into action. I fairly shout, both at my neighbor and the others, "Hey, that's not fair. You have a lot hair more than I do." There's a startled pause...then the room erupts with laughter. The forewoman eventually says, "Guess we needed that. Now let's get back to the facts of the case." And we did, in a respectful and more tolerant manner. While we ended as a hung jury (six to six, by the way) we didn't finish a racially hung up one.

Closing Points. Escalating tension is ripe for humor intervention. And when the tension is driven by cultural concerns, if used carefully, humanizing humor can play a powerful healing and harmonizing role as its universality transcends diversity. A self-effacing humor intervention that absurdly pokes fun of one's own flaws and foibles may just sneak under that too sensitive "political correctness" radar and allow the warring parties a stress relieving laugh. And the group can productively return to the task at hand…status quo ante bellum.

B. Higher Power.

1. We’re All in the Same Ark. Unfortunately, tension continues among many diverse groupings, and not just those within the human variety. According to Walt Kelly, creator of the classic cartoon, Pogo, “civilized man” is not only a danger to his own species…but endangers many others as well, including “so-called” wild animals. And while I’m not sure that Kelly was a conservationist, his cartoon certainly has timely relevance for all manner of intra- and inter-species relations. Consider his down-to-earth “higher humor” perspective. One gloriously sunny day, Kelly’s protagonist, Pogo, a warm-hearted possum, and his cynical catfish friend, Porky, are lazily boating down the Okefenokee Swamp. Porky avers, “I must say God did all right…but he should have stopped just one day sooner.” Pogo replies: “Don’t be so misanthropic, Porky. If it wasn’t for human beans life wouldn’t have so many laughs.” Porky’s immediate retort: “It wouldn’t need as many!”

Being human, we need the laughs, especially from a “higher and humanizing humor.” As quoted in Part I, according to film pioneer and humorist, Charlie Chaplin, “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.” With a touch of prophetic irony, the Pogo cartoon encourages some knowing laughter but, more importantly, Kelly is asking the human animal, one of God’s mighty, if not almighty, creatures, to engage the planet and its various inhabitants with a bit more humility.

2. Let’s Get Literal. Southwest Personnel also integrate humor as part of their daily “high-in-the-sky” routine. For example, I recall a flight in which a steward was giving the standard safety orientation on seat belts, emergency exits and oxygen masks. Now I suspect many listen a bit apprehensively or try to tune out the familiar speech. However, this professional humorist got everyone’s attention when he calmly noted, “As part of our trip will be over water…in the unlikely event this flight becomes a cruise your seat cushion is removable.” There was a palpable pause, then a wave of laughed rolled down the aisles. This ironically playful “reframe” decidedly produced some unanticipated stress relief.

3. Encourage Disarming, Daring and Defiance. With an oppositional predisposition to question or lampoon the conventional and the self-righteous and/or armed with a “higher truth” you are often ready to embark on a path that may be grand or grandiose (or maybe both. Hopefully, yours is a non-fundamentalist or fanatical truth.) The challenge: caught in an ego entangled, thorny dilemma or steeped in honor-bound, “b.s.”(be safe) tradition, can you employ a humor that removes blinders, helps others see what they can’t or won’t see, upholds diverse sides, and appreciates life’s subtleties, absurdities or possibilities. According to creativity guru, von Oech, Sacred cows make great steaks!

Actually, the struggle involved in dismantling or surmounting that sacred wall has the potential for generating uncommon vision and vistas along with fresh pathways and processes. (Of course, some of us have been around long enough to know that at times there may well be a fine line between vision and hallucination! ;-)

To see and think anew not only means getting out of the box; sometimes the box may have to be torn down or blown up. As one of the giants of 20th century art, Pablo Picasso (a man of many, and not always endearing, paradoxical qualities), observed: Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction. (Here’s where the humorless fanatic can be quite problematic: When your goal is to create an absolutely pure or “righteous” standard or society, then anyone viewed as not being one with the in-group is quickly judged to be “unpatriotic,” perhaps an “Illegal.” Or another’s differences are not simply perplexing but are deemed threatening or sinful and must be shamed and condemned; sometimes the sinner must be eliminated not just lampooned or excommunicated.)

For me Picasso is not talking about destroying individuals but about breaking away from outmoded ways of sensing and conceptualizing. You often have to disrupt habit chains or decisively challenge “less tried and now accepted as true” assumptions in order to “see what everyone else has seen and think what no one else has thought” (Albert Szent-Gyorgi, Nobrl Prize-winning scientist). And while the tearing down, explosion or breaking apart process may be painful or scary, it paves the way for two essentials for creative exploration:

1) it clears the familiar playing field; you have a new (or mostly clean) canvas to work with and
2) it often induces a state of uncertainty and confusion which may drive you to perceive and build fresh, perhaps even fantastic, connections or relationships among the seemingly disjointed or random ideas and/or elements in your head or problem-solving field. As Mark Twain noted, “wit” loves to discover, play with and combine the unexpected: Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which before their union were not perceived to have any relation. Now whether this conjunction produces any brainchildren is another matter.

4. Discovering and Designing the Truth in a Lie. In addition to the creation-destruction paradigm, Picasso also proposed another seemingly contradictory epiphany: Art is the lie that reveals a greater truth! What does he mean by these “higher” paradoxical observations? For example Picasso drew a soon to be famous portrait of the women of letters and salons, Gertrude Stein. One viewer told the master that his painting did not look like its subject. Picasso’s reply, “Give it time…it will!” So artful exaggerations may foretell the future; they may also enable you to more clearly and less solemnly perceive the past and present.

Let me illustrate these two paradoxes – “destruction as creation” and “lie yielding truth” – by sketching my signature “psychohumorist” ™ 3 “D” – Discussion, Drawing & Diversity – team building exercise. Participants are divided into small groups (4-6 people/group). They are given about ten minutes to identify sources of workplace stress and conflict. That’s the easy part. Then in the same amount of time, the group must produce a team picture that captures the individual stress perspectives. Invariably, a number of the participants experience some confusion, if not anxiety, at the prospect of transforming individual perspective into collective visualization. But once the group realizes they have to discard or replace linear and logical thinking with visual metaphor and holistic figure-ground story telling through pictures, suddenly the conceptual and operational fog lifts…And creative energy and laughter erupts.

An Out-Rage-Ous Design

Here’s one of my favorite group designs. The audience was comprised of NASA and Lockheed Martin supervisors and managers. There definitely was a preponderance of analytical, left-brained individuals who, despite some initial puzzlement, threw themselves into the exercise. There was considerable workplace anxiety; news of budget cuts and personnel reorganization was in the air. One picture (done on full-size flipchart paper with broad-tipped colored markers) was a classic. On a cliff is a devil-like figure, with pointy ears and a long tail, with a trident in one hand, a whip in the other. The executive/devil is driving this flock of sheep to the cliff’s edge and beyond. Actually, the sheep have only one option: jumping off the cliff. And the safety net below has gaping holes. While the content is an exaggeration, you can’t miss the emotional message. And did you note the oppositional pairing of the devil and the sheep? Believe me, the crowd roared their approval.

Which brings us to the Picasso Paradox: As the devil vs. sheep picture reveals art may not just illustrate but also illuminate. Art may create exaggerations and even psycho-logical or out-rage-ous depictions that help dispel illusions. After another workshop, I recall a CEO observing, “I get written reports all the time. But these drawings give me a clearer sense of what’s really going on in the trenches.” Perhaps a vivid yet playful picture that provides a wider and deeper perspective may induce a “higher truth.”

Drawing with a group of colleagues who know your pain heightens emotional support and distance by placing tension producing images-issues in an exaggeratedly familiar and/or a novel or surprising psychological and situational context, thereby evoking stress-relieving laughter. Art often removes or at least poke holes in the “Emperor’s Clothes.” (Do you recall the maxims involving fear, mastery and laughter?: What was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at. And, what was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master!

For some NASA managers and employees there likely was a loss of positions. One manager-in-training in response to her company’s downsizing lamented: “I once had a career path then this boulder fell from the sky and crushed it.” While such pain is surely palpable, higher humor shared with kindred spirits lightens, even if temporarily, the sense of loss and may help one to let go and rise anew. As acclaimed philosopher and author, Albert Camus, observed: Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand the loved one obstructed a whole corner of the possible, pure now as a sky washed by rain.

IV. Humbling-Heroic

A. Humbling.

1. Affirming a Higher Standard of Sibling Rivalry. Years ago I shared with my younger brother (a research-oriented Clinical Psychologist) what I thought was a creative “family therapy” intervention. Without acknowledging any artfulness on my part, he immediately said, “You should have said something like…” and proceeded to come up with clever reply, albeit one that could easily be construed as insensitive, if not hurtful. When I reflexively grimaced, he retorted: “What…were you afraid the guy would have punched you out?” “No, I declared, counterpunching. “I just have a higher standard of plagiarism.” Sometimes you can slyly push back and put the other in his place while subtly reaffirming your own authority and integrity.

2. Exposing the Rigidly Righteous. A “black-white” or “all-none” person trying to reconcile seeming contradiction may well 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, but insist on their being “one right answer.” 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 complexity or supposed 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!" Can you hear the air coming out of the ego balloon?

3. Lightly Lancing the Self-Absorbed without Collateral Damage. As a workshop leader, I'm often questioned or challenged. I don't mind being put on the spot. Actually, in a weird kind of way, I get excited. I'm up for the intellectual and psychological confrontation; maybe adrenalin is my mental testosterone. However, I am concerned when others get caught in the collateral crossfire. For example, I was leading a two-person role-play exercise for a federal government agency that was reorganizing. One role-play dyad involved a rather good-looking gentleman in his late 50s and a woman no more than half his age. In the role-play, the gentleman is to try and help his partner grapple with an actual problem: with the agency's reorganization, the young lady is being transferred to another department. She is upset both with the loss of the familiar - tasks, colleagues and friends - and because her commuting time may now double or triple.

In the feedback segment, the suave-looking fellow raises his hand and, with a somewhat self-important tone, comments, "I didn't really have my heart in this exercise." Glancing at the woman, I catch a fleeting but perceptibly pained expression. Looking at me, she exclaims, "I thought he was sincere." In the pregnant moment, a face-saving reply spontaneously generates. Turning to the fellow and the audience, I playfully observe, "Gee, you know this guy broke a lot of hearts when he was younger." Well, our male lead cracks up laughing, and the audience, including our female protagonist, follows suit.

When I share this vignette, people often ask: "How did you come up with that response?" My answer can only be speculative; events transpired so quickly. But here are some of the variables that I was processing:

a) the age-difference between the players,
b) the striking appearance of the gentleman,
c) his too detached or self-centered statement,
d) her pained look, and
e) my own empathy for the young woman when a belief (about her partner's intentions with respect to her plight) is contradicted; also, I suspect she's feeling duped or somewhat exposed.

So my psychohumorist goals are manifold: to help our female player in distress save face while lancing, with a subtle thrust, Senor Suave from his high horse, yet still allowing for a gentle(man's) landing. And the psychic swordsmanship is double-edged: while appealing to his vanity and former conquests, that is, stroking his ego, I'm also lightly exposing his egocentric manner and "too cool" persona.

Psychohumorist ™ Tip: Try unusual or unexpected observations and interpretations of events. First, this will surprise the parties involved. And, if you've captured some understanding of the setting, actions and/or motives, then you just may relax or disarm defenses. It's safer to acknowledge our foibles when they are playfully teased out with laughter. So seek the higher power of humor: May the Farce Be with You!

B. Heroic.

1. Burnout Battlefront Humor. Heroic humor is not just daring and valiant; it’s also “M*A*S*H” humor”-like enabling us to survive the burnout battlefront. I recall a stress workshop with VA Hospital Head Nurses. These women were feeling stretched to the limit by demanding doctors, impatient patients and visitors, staff productivity and morale pressures, not enough supplies, difficulty communicating with the administration, etc. The tension in the room both crackled and hung heavy like an impending storm or siege. Then each nurse thunderously barked her name and work station: Johnson, W-14, Thomas, W-16, Sanders, W-20, etc. I reflexively responded: "It sounds like you're reporting from your battle stations." The spontaneous and palpable sighs and nodding heads let me know I was psychologically on target.

At the same time, these nurses knew how to circle their medicine carts against those perceived antagonists or, at least, to defuse momentarily their "combat fatigue" with some feisty survival humor. The nurses' favorite supervisory battle cry: "Do your eight and hit the gate," "Nine to five and stay alive." Hey, she who laughs last...lasts!

Alas, there are limitations to this kind of heroic humor and the respite it provides. Such humor, based on frustration and aggression, while understandable, too easily results in an "us against them" mindset. Overt conflict or passive-aggressive behavior patterns spilling into operations and work relations is almost predictable. Remember, sometimes the most important thing survival humor can do is provide a warning signal when your capacity for laughter dries up, when your funny bone has gone totally numb: it’s likely time for some “R & R” if not permanently moving away from harm’s way.

2. Unconventionally Defusing Systemic Tension in a Hazardous Environs. The next “battlefront” scenario comes from a State Department Manager stationed at the American Embassy in Kuwait in 1990 as war clouds were gathering in darkness and intensity. Not surprisingly, war-zone tension began to invade in-house. Being restricted to the compound was exacerbating stress levels; interpersonal sniping was on the rise and generating numbers of working wounded. The Ambassador decided to intervene before the internal grumbling and overt grousing eroded psychological coping capacity and organizational morale. He told his second-in-command to inform personnel that the next day was a holiday and that all embassy staff would be going to the beach.

His deputy, incredulous, protested: “Sir, a war could break out any moment. It’s not safe to leave the compound!” The Ambassador, nevertheless, reaffirmed his desire to have people ready to go to the beach the next morning.

Bright and early the next day the Ambassador descended the stairs in bathing trunks and robe while carrying a blowup rubber ducky. Most personnel were not similarly attired. “Ye of little faith,” declared the Ambassador and proceeded to march everyone outside. And lo and behold, during the night, somehow, this Ambassador had managed to have tons of sand trucked in and dumped in the compound. And staff had a tension-relieving, fun-filled day at the beach. The in-house stress siege was broken; the embassy personnel regrouped their individual and group resources and professionally weathered the war storm.

Strategic Points. Defying conventions or rules, whether in relation to an external enemy or, when critical, even regarding departmental procedures is a key weapon in the motivational humorist’s bag of tricks. When an authority figure is both brave and playfully absurd in the face of hazardous threat or bureaucratic rigidity, the role-modeling and morale-building effect is contagious. (This scenario surely illustrates the incongruous function of humor.) Add some visual props and others can come out of their battle shell and play. Active planning for and participating in a group grief process such as a Forms Funeral (Part I) or in a absurdly defiant Beach Ventilation-Celebration allows stressed individuals to go from pawns to performers, immediately enhancing a feeling of self control and communal safety. And team rejuvenation, not just tension relief, may be your final reward.

3. Be Vivid and Visual, Surprising and Self-Effacing…and Out-Rage-Ous. I invariably close out my "Practice Safe Stress" workshop (a clever witticism, in my humble opinion) by informing the audience of my secret identity. Putting on a Blues Brothers hat, black sunglasses and pulling out a black tambourine, I then announce my pioneering efforts in the field of psychologically humorous rap music, calling it, of course…"Shrink Rap" ™ Productions. Once the groans subside, I counter: "We'll see who has the last groan," and suddenly belt out, while prancing about the room:

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...

The boss makes demands yet gives little control
So you pray on chocolate and wish life were dull.
But office desk’s a mess, often skipping meals.
Inside your car looks like a pocket book on wheels!

There's more, but I'll spare you. (Actually, the Rap Performance maybe lasts 90 seconds. I’m definitely following Shakespeare’s pronouncement: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”)

The crowd goes from bewildered to bowled over. After the laughter and applause dies down, I revert to self-effacing form: "That's okay; I've been doing this long enough. I know when an audience is applauding out of relief." I then sneak in a self-effacing counter to the applause, with a disclaimer: “After twenty years of all kinds of therapy – from Jungian Analysis to Primal Scream – I have one singular accomplishment…absolutely no appropriate sense of shame.” (People may question my capacity to sing or keep a beat. I often say, “Another white boy without rhythm.” However, no one questions my daring or courage.)

My final comment is delivered in a slightly smug manner: “I know what you’re thinking: ‘Mark, don’t quit your day-job.’ It’s too late…This is my day job!”

Clearly, I’m joyfully on the performance edge. Providing some witty lyrics while poking fun at my own absurdity – definitely confronting my “Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure” – is a great way to break down barriers and bond with an audience. (I’m both “saying funny things” and “saying things in a funny way.” The former reflects the essence of wit; the latter, humor.) The audience truly gets a taste of exuberant energy, for which so many folks hunger. And, remember, people embrace and are more open to a serious message when it's gift-wrapped with humor.

Perhaps two complementary aphorisms capture this unique role of interactive heroic humor as both catalyst and bridge in the process from victim to vision to vital action:

"What was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at." (Ernst Kris, Psychiatrist)
"What was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master." (Mark Gorkin, "The Stress Doc")

So, hopefully, you now are inspired to pursue some luminous lunacy, to explore the role of heroically healing humorist, maybe even to put all “Eight ‘H’ Humor Styles” into action – Healing-Hostile, Harmonizing-Harpooning, Humanizing-Higher Power, and Humbling-Heroic. Surely, such commitment and courage just might help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote speaker and "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. An Adjunct Professor at Northern VA (NOVA) Community College, the Doc is leading Stress, Team Building and Humor programs for the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions, Ft. Hood, Texas. Mark 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); email or call 301-875-2567.