Sunday, July 31, 2011

Reflections on Readers’ Responses to “Requiem for a ‘Last Angry Man’”

As a writer and communicator, this has been an unprecedented week. First, I took the plunge and wrote about my dad’s recent death while also reflecting on his immigrant family “fight to life” struggles and the ebbs and flows, the highs and lows of a father-son relationship. (For the essay, email or Click here: Stress Doc: Notes from a Motivational Psychohumorist ™: A Requiem for a “Last Angry Man”: A Son's Eulogy or .) However, what has most moved me, actually, unsettled me, hopefully in a good way, is the outpouring from readers of my blogs. Who are these readers?: some are friends, some are friends who’ve become “family,” some are colleagues or clients through my speaking or coaching work, some are former AOL chat/stress support group members, but many are people who I’ve come to know (or, at least, have some connection with) in response to an initial online question or request that then encouraged a mutual, often soulful dialogue of ideas and emotions. This communication trigger was usually related to a host of psychological or interpersonal questions or issues played out in our own hearts and minds, in personal relationships and with our families, or via the struggles in today’s demanding-challenging workplace.

Before engaging in further reflection about readers’ responses, here’s one conceptual observation. I often hear or read that non-verbal communication – such as facial expression or body language – is so much more powerful than the written or spoken word in conveying a message or influencing the message’s interpretation or its impact on a receiver. Alas, I believe the power of words is being shortchanged, if not swallowed up, in today’s hyper-visual-hyperactive-hyperlinked world. Once again this week has demonstrated that a recipe of:

a) clear and (relatively) concise, emotive and analytical, written/verbal communication regarding our diverse yet overarching “life and death” human experience that
b) portrays ideas and actions reflecting hard-earned knowledge, humble uncertainty, and interpersonal integrity through
c) personal inflection along with universal imagery and empathy (i.e., “not only have we walked in common shoes, but also have similar bunions”) and that
d) yields provocative stories mixing poignancy, playfulness and/or passion that may well provide food for thought if not a psychological feast from which a varied group of individuals can share a common table, dine and converse – both nurturing themselves and one another.

Insights and Intuitions

Enough of my writer’s recipe and rant…so what has the Stress Doc learned from this prolific, poignant and passionate sharing?

1) there’s a community of compassionate people who will stop and take the time to read your words, to acknowledge you and reach out when human connection is needed and wanted, maybe more than I fully realized (both regarding this community’s extent and vibrancy as well as my own need for connection and nurturance; as a wise friend, recently retired from the military, exhorted: “be tough…just not too tough”),

2) I feel like “Requiem for a ‘Last Angry Man’” touched a mental-emotional mind field and readers’ memories and personal associations poured forth. I suspect writing about my father made the piece especially evocative; it seems considerable numbers have tangibly distant, opaque, explosive, complicated, double-edged relations with their fathers or perhaps with the significant males in their lives; or lost a father figure way too soon,

3) there’s something about the subject of death, the final earthly transition, that especially speaks to those presently in the depths of personal and/or professional loss or transition; perhaps death is a reminder that the clock is always ticking and it will eventually wind down: when once there seemed unlimited time, now there’s a sense of time running out. Should I hold on and hope; should I let go and daringly jump? Or am I ready to let go and reach out? If I may appropriate one reader’s compelling observation, is it time to find “the courage to face those emotional demons square in the eye?”

4) in addition to the sheer numbers, the quality of many of the responses – the thoughtfulness and insightfulness, hints of pain and poignancy or open expressions of the same – however brief, say to me that most of us have multi-generational, richly deep and complex, if not sometimes chaotic, family/relationship stories to tell and share…and, I believe, we need to do so. On the one hand, I want to say sooner rather than later; yet, I realize it took my father’s death to give birth to the requiem. But I have been cogitating about him and trying to capture our intense relationship, and the implications for my own identity and career struggles within a family context for many years. (And clearly I’m not alone in this quest.) Here is a poem written around 1992:

Gravity’s Edge

Dad, I had a dream
A dream for only you
Why were you so lost in space?
A silent world so blue.

I was but a moon
You my rising sun
Both shadowed by our mother earth
Did you have to run?

How was I to know
Your flame was dying out?
My protective blazing star now
Sucked by soular doubt.

Daddy, daddy there’s a hole
Black as it can be
I’m falling, falling
Faster, faster
Who are you? Who me?

Daddy there’s a hole
Black as it can be
I’m falling, falling
Faster, faster
Who are you? Who me?

Drifting on the edge
Outside our galaxy
The void is now my only light
The price of being free.

Can I accept the fate that
Defies gravity
To forsake my body earth
And do his artistry.

It’s moon time; the force of rhyme
Lunacy’s ebb and flow.
A moment of connection, yet
Again…I must let go.
Must let go.
Let go.

Daddy, there’s a whole
Bright as it can be
Blinding, banging
All expanding.
I and Thou are Me.

(c) Mark Gorkin 1992
Shrink Rap™ Productions

So please, drawing on mind, heart and soul, start or continue to capture and express images of those most burning, searing hot-icy relations and interactions that scorch and blister as well as lighten up and illuminate our past, present and future. And share with others your luminous or dark, or darkly luminous, stories – whether a radiant touchstone or a small quiet gem. They are more compelling than we often imagine. (Please see readers’ sparkling bright, yet also subtly shaded and shadowed, healing crystals below.) I have a newfound and profound respect for the simple adage: “Each one teach one!” Words to help us all grieve, reintegrate and embark on new journeys, and to…Practice Safe Stress!

Reader’s Responses to a “Requiem”

Thanks for sharing, Mark. So many people would never have had the courage to face those emotional demons square in the eye, as you did with loving results. What a tremendous complement your dad gave you when he said that never before had he felt so loved. We are all works in progress. . . but sometimes it’s so hard to let go of the hurt from the past and recognize that we are who we are today because of those struggles. . . and triumphs. You have honored your dad’s legacy in trying to understand his struggles. . .and in sharing his story. I’m not a therapist, but I know that grief is a difficult emotion that seems to wax and wane sort of like an ocean wave. Here’s wishing you a peaceful journey.

P.S. Keep those blog posts coming... there’s always something in them that touches me or reminds me of another way to look at things.


Dear Mark:

I know you from the NIH and once participated in your 17th Street groups, this was way back in the day. I felt compelled to write in response to your requiem/eulogy, and to send you sympathy over what must be an epic loss. What follows are some very random, disconnected thoughts:

Many of the things you wrote about run through countless American families, especially families touched by the Depression, immigration, the War, or the Holocaust. They include alcoholism, military service (as a form of escape), depression, uncontrolled anger, and abuse (I speak mainly of the verbal kind here -- screaming, tantrums). I think an entire generation was lost to trauma from world events played out around them. Those individuals inherited their parents' depression, anger, and rage, much like family heirlooms. And often those traits have been passed down to us, their descendants.

I always like to say people don’t know what they need to know when they need to know it. Your own father, perhaps having to do with environment, training, and upbringing, didn’t know what he needed to know (about parenting, himself, life). Mental health professionals then didn’t know then much of what they know now. And of course children born into these dramas are left to make their way in the world with the faulty information they are provided. So by time they reach their 50s and 60s, they look back at the events of the past with insight gained over a lifetime. But if only it could be applied, but one can't travel back in time.

I think people who grew up in the Depression, give or take a decade, are tough nuts to crack because they had it so tough: wearing cardboard shoes, walking for miles to school, poor insulation from the cold, and absent, angry (often immigrant) parents. I think our parents and their parents were/are largely traumatized. My father told me he never had toys; toys were something other kids had. Not a single toy. He played with sticks. He said if you had a stick and a knife, you were at the top of the world.

In her later years, my own Grandmother refused to eat margarine because of the deprivation she once experienced. Butter was once out of reach, so she made sure to reach for it when it was there. She also never forgave Japan for Pearl Harbor and wouldn't have anything to do with the Japanese, including sushi and Japanese products. These were ways she could get back at that country.

There’s a certain personality type of a hustler, meaning someone who had to hustle to survive. I see this in my own dad and his mother, both of whom came from immigrant stock and scratched and clawed their way out of a hole. A rubber band, a length of twine, or a lid from a plastic container were all saved for their potential use. This meant the accumulation of many things the rest of us would otherwise toss away easily. They were deeply affected by their immigrant background and by the deprivation they once experienced.

Now, my father and I stare at each other (he’s 80) when I visit. There is much left unsaid. But we understand a great deal. And we go on. I send you my condolences and wish you peace.



What a lovely piece. I, too, have been dealing with my parents’ mortality; my mom died a few years ago at age 84, and my 88 year old father’s dementia is progressing many miles away from where I live. Like your father, mine was not always an easy man to live with. But you capture well the lifetime of struggle and connection with those we love dearly, despite the ways they may fail us—or we them.

It is always wonderful to hear someone who can really write put these kinds of stories forward. Many thanks for that. Keep writing and keep growing. And please accept my condolences--for you and your family.

Best regards,

Wow. I am so happy that you shared this. Someday, I should commit to written words something similar. I was asked to eulogize my Dad at his funeral. It was tough, but also cathartic…just talking about my weird, eccentric, brave father in public. Hang tough Amigo. It gets no easier. Last night, H (my youngest) was helping me sort through 30+ years of memorabilia all stored over time in numerous Rubbermaid containers. (great visual for a book there…”Going Through the Rubbermaids”!) In them were many pictures of my Dad and my Opa…neither of whom H ever met. I would look at a picture, or read a letter Dad sent me while I was deployed to some far-flung battle zone…and H got to know his grandfather a bit from that. So, they never leave you as long as you don’t leave them.

Much love…you’re a Hell of a mensch yourself, BTW!

Mark, that is such a beautiful eulogy to your father. My condolences to you and your family. Best wishes, through tears…

sure, you can share with my full name and full blessing. I'm now training in psychotherapy with the AABCAP in Australia, and our conversations over the past few years have helped me enormously in getting to this point, and getting past my own burnout in teaching and counselling. My father died not long after I turned 18 so it's been a struggle to grieve for him, not having that time together as adults to battle things out and meet on different terms. Your ability to reach so deeply into your own story is helping me in turn to reach into mine, best regards, Carolyn Minchin.

My dear Mark,

Thank you so very much, for sharing your feelings, the so special feelings for a very special man, a Dad, who’s sensitive and warm hearted son, missed so much his affection ..............

For everything there is a reason... under his hard face, was a very turbulent soul, that loved his family, but the same time wanted to show how strong he was trying to reassure his confidence, in the arms of another partner and yet, how life is, his first choice, his wife, was nursing him up to the end.....Your mom, the strong pillar of the call her anxiously controlling, she had to be that way, take over both sides Mark, to be the sweet mother and the strong father, as she could see how fragile his personality really was...

But you my friend, you swam through rough seas, high waves, but you arrived at the finish line as a winner.

In one of your mails you wrote that you have two sides.......well, I think he had too!

Keep the memories of the few but full of love moments you have had with him, and be sure that behind the hard face, was a heart full of love for you.

Sometimes, as parents, we expect our children to do things the way we would like to ... or to follow paths that we would like to follow and for reason we couldnt. It is very Wrong…but the older generations were more fixed on those opinions.

That’s the way they have grown up. To show emotions is not for a man…is only for little be with your kids is not for a man, is the “job” of a woman,, and when they realize what they have missed, is too late to cover the distance and reach them.......But for sure it does not mean they had no feelings..

Please take care of your self, and your mom whenever you can. She can put a hard front as well, but I'll tell you a secret.....we moms...we love to be pampered from our kids.

As for my mom is going better thank Heaven,

Meh agape


Dear Mark,

I was deeply moved by your eloquent elogy to your father. He seems like a complicated, somewhat opaque guy to get to know. I'm glad you finally broke through in the end. There was a degree of closure, even though it still must be difficult for you.

My father was also rather opaque -- until he reached his boiling point, and then all hell broke loose. He was the product of immigrant parents who never learned English. He broke with them after serving in the Army in WWII and marrying. I never knew them. It must have been hard to divorce his whole family. We had a decent relationship, but hardly ever broke the ice.

Best wishes,


I am sorry to hear of your father's recent passing. Although it is a rite of passage that we all know we can expect, it is still not easy.

What you wrote and shared is appreciated and I admire you for that. You are very gifted in so many ways. So often the gifts we have are born out of much pain and suffering. Recognizing and using them makes it worthwhile.

Keep up your good work including first and foremost, healing yourself. Perhaps another book is in the works?

Good to hear from you.


All my sympathy to you on the passing of your father. Thank you for sharing. One person's story could be part of another person's story.

Please know that you are loved and admired by us. We will connect one day soon and we can update on where we are.


I'm so sorry for your loss, Mark, son of Abraham.
May he rest in peace, may his memory be blessed.
Thanks so much for sharing this powerful and personal family history.
You, too, are a courageous Mensch!

With a tear in my eye,

What a beautiful tribute, Mark. Very touching. It brought to mind the remembrance of my father's death (on my birthday) in 1979. I can feel your pain reading your Euology here. Other deaths hit us hard but when a parent dies, it's so humbling. I feel such a sense of sadness here.

You express yourself with such ease & have advanced yourself forward in a myriad of ways. His influence (besides your Mom's) made you stronger, richer, defined in such a way as to want to help others. [I don't have to tell you that I know] My surviving sister and I decided through all the horrific pain of "that" generation, we had a strength that others couldn't even imagine. Hug your Mom & brother for me.

You know I've always admired you and considered you a mentor. I hope your Practice is thriving. I am very well; many challenges but the strength in me (God given or created) keeps my head bobbing above water. ;-) and no, I haven't learned how to 'walk on water' - yet!! heh heh

Stay safe & well,

Thanks Mark.

I haven't had the time to read most of your emails. But I do scan over them on occasion. This one, by its title, looked interesting and I set it aside for when I found a moment. That came this afternoon.

I take it this is your letter and your life, yes?

While apparently more intense than the conflicts in my family, there are some parallels here, including the different treatment of my brother and I, the alcoholism, etc. Been there, done that, glad to be passed it.
Anyway, thanks for sharing.


Tom (US Navy retired)

Mark, I'm sorry about your loss. It's never easy to lose a parent no matter what the relationship might have been like. I'm glad that you have your writing through which you can process who your father was and the family history that shaped your life. Dianne

Mark, I just had a chance to read this all the way through. It's beautiful. You should be proud. For all he went through and all the craziness he caused, in the end, your father had the courage to confront his own demons. I'm sure the love you showed him was a big part of that. Sometimes children wind up "parenting" their own parents as they get older and experience frailty and illness. It's often the first real love our folks experienced, as so many of your readers have commented.

All the best to you. You're in my thoughts. Dianne

Hello Mark,
I am without words after reading your Requiem. I'm glad you were able to find peace with him and yourself before he died. Sending condolences your way.

Wow, Mark, that was beautifully written, thank you so much for sharing those intimate details of your family life. It really touched me....Your boldness in pressing thru difficult feelings to a real relationship with your father, your bearing your whole heart, and those poignant memories you will always carry in your heart. How precious. My prayers go out to you, your mom and brother. Love, Joy

Thank you so much for sharing these very personal reflections - as always, you have made an impact on me. I am hoping your journey through the grief process will be kind, insightful, and comforting.

I hope to keep in touch with you as I transition from State College.

My personal and professional best to you,


Absolutely beautiful.

Much love,


very nice and meaningful. As only the stress doc himself could write.

Great article. I encourage you to see what you can do to get it in a published form. Perhaps a magazine??


Beautiful! Thank you for sharing.


Thanks for sharing that, Mark. I can't read it quite yet because the anniversary of my Dad's death is just around the corner. But I promise I will in time.

It's hard - take care of yourself.


A friend told me at the time (8 years ago next month) that losing a parent is a profound experience. To which I found myself responding, "No s..t."


Well Said. You are always in my thoughts and prayers. You are an inspiring man.


Thank you for sharing this. What an awesome tribute to your dad.
Have an awesome day!


Thanks for sharing about your father and my condolence to you and your family.


Dear Mark:

Sorry to read about the passing of your dad. My heart goes to you and your family and wish God gives power to endure this loss to everyone in your family.

With regards,


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Requiem for a “Last Angry Man”: A Son's Eulogy

My father died on Father’s Day. I’m not sure his timing was meant to be so fitting, but I have no doubt that he had finally decided to stop fighting, not an easy task for a classic “Type A is for Aggressive” man who for much of his life felt compelled to fight for his survival. I could talk about dad being raised by a mother who went in and out of clinical and sometimes near-psychotic depressions; or his short, bull-like immigrant father who won strong man contests, while also being a gifted carpenter (his artfully crafted inlaid chess table remains a family treasure); his father, too, an often absent parent and a weekend alcoholic; or being overshadowed by his athletically gifted older brother who eventually joined the Navy and left dad to care for his increasingly ill mother after his father left the roost; or a man who volunteered to join the Army during WW II despite having a “family exemption” because of his mother’s health; or a romantic who chose to elope with my mother because of her family’s objection to this guy from the “wrong side of the tracks”; or of dad’s mental breakdown and hospitalization for “manic depression” (in hindsight, a questionable label) when I was one-and-a-half years old; not questionable back then, though, was the start of over fifteen years of electro-shock therapy (ECT) as my parents were afraid to question the medical establishment’s treatment of choice for depression. (By the way, he finally stopped the shock, during my parent’s short-lived marital separation when a woman with whom he was casually involved told him, “You’re nuts, you don’t need shock therapy, get some psychotherapy!” He did… eventually staying in group therapy for a dozen years, never needing another electrical jolt to keep him “functioning.”)

Or should I talk about his existential crisis at work as the Mafia increasingly infiltrated the New York City garment center (this was the early ‘60s version of “downsizing”; I call it frightsizing!)?: would he leave his successful, twenty years sales position, tear up his security fabric, or agree to report to “el Capo” Tommy D? (I still recall his anguished hours and days wrestling on the couch, not sure if dad was going to kill himself or someone else for having his world violently turned upside down. Eventually he jumped from the rat-infested ship; yet after anxiously taking a job with another controlling big company, dad realized he had to be on his own. He forged a position as a sales rep for a small business owner with his own fabric warehouse. Eli was a “goniff” or small crook in his own right, but at least not of the “organized” variety.

And his world flourished – making more money than he ever had, reuniting with my mom, continuing with therapy, taking up tennis as a new mid-life passion (his crowning moment when he defeated his athletically gifted brother in a match). Of course, living at home was like living in a family encounter laboratory. As I once penned:

What made him break from our mistake, perhaps we’ll never know.
But in the wake of psychic quake, a formula to grow.
The silence cracks, each spouse attacks, the couple hardly known.
But on these tracks of broken backs, emancipation sown!

Cries of a Lifetime, a Lifeline, and the Unraveling

And for me, the start of my emotional emancipation – of transcending a childhood riddled with fears and unrecognized talents and gifts, of being overly aligned with a brilliant yet anxiously controlling mother while emotionally distant from/ashamed of my "irrational," sometimes problem-drinking father – began at age twenty-one: I followed my dad’s footsteps into psychotherapy. And six years after learning about his bouts with depression and shock treatment, I finally had the courage to ask, “Dad, why did you need the shock?” And then crawled onto his lap, put my arms around him, holding on for dear safety, burying my head in his neck for forgiveness, and cried uncontrollably, pure unadulterated emotion pouring out, as he recounted his fears of being like his sick mother, his desperation of not knowing whether he could both support a family and fight his inner demons…And finally my admitting and understanding that I had so many similar fears and feelings of shame. (Dad later shared that he had never experienced such an outpouring of emotion and love in his life.)

A decade later, wanting to understand the difficulty in recalling so much of my childhood, I began asking my parents pointed questions which triggered a verbal explosion that, after much physical posturing and verbal battling between father and son, (my mother had left the room), reversed the roles: backed into a corner, dad finally let go of his defensive yelling and tearfully relived and acknowledged a young father’s shame (surrounding his shock regimen), guilt and helplessness (survival fears), thereby dissolving his defensive rage…and now, allowing me to take him in my arms, he cried uncontrollably. (And this man never cried, except at poignant theatre or movies.)

I was going to talk about how the vascular strokes in his early 70s began to change the hard-edged but honest communication he and I had evolved over the decades, despite my living out of town in New Orleans and DC. He no longer wanted, nor felt strong enough to handle, that real give and take battle, the staple of our rebuilding a father-son bond and a unique level of trust. My dad’s recent death evokes multi-layered sadness, not just for the immediate loss but also for the steady dissolution these past fifteen years of our once uncommonly open and authentic interaction. Still, I can’t resist recalling one trust-building vignette:

My younger brother, Larry, and I were visiting my folks in Florida. To give the story some context, as a child, Larry, was the sibling who bonded more with my father. There definitely were sibling rivalry issues. Larry was also in the psychology field, receiving his doctorate in Clinical Psychology; by comparison I burnt out working on my social work thesis and was ABD. Unlike his older brother, Larry was a researcher; he had studiously avoided psychotherapy. To continue…during the visit I noticed how if my brother said something critical of my dad, my dad seemed to ignore it, while if I questioned or challenged him, there was definite aggressive push back. At some point, the frustration building within, I finally said to him, “Dad what’s going on? Are we reliving the old days of you and Larry as allies? If Larry says something smart you ignore it, me…you’re all over me.”

Fortunately, my father was way ahead of me. His succinct reply: “Nah, Larry can get defensive; you… I know you can take it!” (Perhaps not surprising, as my dad and I moved away from more intense and genuine relationship communication, or as he more passive-aggressively criticized my at times financially-challenged “word artist” life style – partly because of not understanding my motivation, partly because of his "fear for my security" which, naturally, overlapped with his own fears – he and my financially successful brother regained their comfort zone.)

But despite selective retrenchment, the person who could really both take it and fight, truly, was my dad. Four years ago, at eighty-four, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. As my doctor explained, even though he had stopped smoking forty years before, the two-packs-a-day damage was done. The amazing thing now was his ability to handle three and a half years of chemo with an uncomplaining acceptance yet “determined to keep on fighting” spirit. For a man his age, Dad totally defied the chemo treatment life expectancy tables. When my father once tried to tell his oncologist of his admiration, the doctor immediately reversed the tables: “On the contrary, Mr. Gorkin, it is I who admire you.”

So this is the eulogy that I never gave at the placing of the flag alongside his urn-filled ashes, with “Taps” being played in the background, at the quietly comforting, tree-, grassy knolls- and lagoon-covered grounds of the military national cemetery near Boynton Beach, FL. Beside the three soldiers in dress greens, it was only my mother, brother and me. Despite his success as a salesman, my father was basically a loner and this simple unadorned ceremony captured his wishes and much of his Spartan essence.

As was written on his head stone: Abraham Gorkin – A Courageous Mensch, Loving Husband & Father.

Amen and women to that!

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, July 18, 2011

Retreat Exercises and Interventions that Changed Organizational Cultures: Two Unexpected Discoveries and Declarations

Last week produced a “déjà vu” experience although it was definitely not the “déjà vu all over again” variety. For only the second time in my speaking career I received unanticipated feedback from participants of a workshop two or more years after the actual event. This is not trivial as one of the challenging aspects of being a speaker and “Motivational Psychohumorist” ™ is whether my entertaining “soft skills” programs have any tangible long-term consequences. Delayed feedback is especially meaningful when the workshop or conference event is a one shot effort or there isn’t a planned follow-up.

Before illustrating the present let me fondly recall the past. About five years ago, at a conference for various legal professionals, a manager from a large DC law firm greeted me: “Hello, Stress Doc.” Upon seeing my sheepishly puzzled grin, she continued. “Don’t you remember you spoke to the managers of our law firm…And we did the drawing exercise?” (First, the two-hour workshop had likely been held four or five years prior to this encounter. To further clarify, the aforementioned exercise, now named my “Three ‘D’ – Discussion-Drawing-Diversity – Team Building Exercise,” is the closing showstopper at most speaking and workshop events. Basically it asks groups of 4-6 participants to identify sources of everyday workplace stress and conflict or to list barriers to more effective and creative team coordination. After ten minutes of discussion people are given an equal amount of time to transform their verbal ideas into a visual story or metaphoric image, e.g., a sinking ship, a slippery mountain slope, a three-ring circus, a menacing “troublesaurus” stalking the workers at a plant, etc. Participants then do a “gallery walk” eyeballing their colleagues’ images without discussing their teams’ creation. Finally, each group selects a spokesperson and holder for the “show and tell.” Of course I remind the groups, “Don’t everybody volunteer to be a holder!” The closing exercise invariably becomes a “Show and Tell morphing into an ‘Aha,’ ‘I’m Not Alone’ and Lampooning Laughter” experience. It’s a visceral-verbal-visual four “c”-ing event – building “camaraderie, collaboration, creativity and community.”)

Enough background, let’s return to the manager’s story. Once again my silence triggered another question and explanation: “Don’t you remember our “stress picture” and what you said?” My look must have said, “Tell me more.” She continued: “Our group drew these pigeons overhead with people standing below. And raining down on the crowd were these brown pellets. Then, before we could comment further, you chimed in with, ‘Oh, Raisinets.’”

While I was mentally patting myself on the back, the woman shared the real impact of the experience beyond her personal vivid memories and my clever reframe. As it turned out, the exercise became woven into the corporate culture. Whenever a stress or crisis issue arose that disrupted all the managers, the head of the managers would buy a box of Raisinets for all the participants. Talk about keeping workshop meaning, morale and momentum alive. Now that’s an “emotionally intelligent” leader!

The Name Game

The second vignette involved my leading a day-long “Team Building” offsite for managers of an IT Division of the Department of Commerce in July 2011. I had led a somewhat similar retreat with this group two years earlier. For the 2011 retreat I wanted to use a different opening – my “Three ‘B’ Stress Barometer” Exercise. Basically, groups of three or four discuss, “How does your ‘Brain, Body and Behavior’ let you know when you’re under more stress than usual?” However, the “Three B’s” didn’t have a chance.

The manager’s group clamored for our 2009 icebreaker: “The Nickname Exercise.” They enthusiastically recited names that two years later are still in play and continue to evoke peals of laughter. Now they desired to give nicknames to the new managers; some folks even wanted to do a personal name upgrade. (These are IT geeks and gurus after all!) All this banter provided incontrovertible evidence of the Director’s pithy observation: “That exercise really stuck!”

Let me outline the exercise. In small groups, team members interview each other, trying to discern quirky yet essential or even contradictory aspects of a personality or character. Nicknames often reflect a person’s passion or talent, while gently skewering the same. I especially like ones which have a playfully teasing or self-effacing quality. The best of them are usually visual and alliterative and may be a play on words. Two years before I had provided such examples as, “The Splendid Splinter” (Ted Williams), “The Louisville Lip” (Cassius Clay’s nickname before he became Mohammed Ali and “The Greatest”) or “Sitting Bull” (which was, of course, not a nickname but his Native American appellation). Since then, I’ve added to my repertoire. One day a Ft. Hood 1st Sergeant who had witnessed my animated speaking style told his colleagues, "The Doc is a firecracker!" Then a month later, another workshop participant commented on my meaningful, “philosophical” approach to subject matter. Now a personal moniker (in addition to “Stress Doc,” provided me years ago by the TV Editor of the New Orleans’ Times Picayune) jumped out: Philosophical Firecracker! The nickname aptly captures a Yin-Yang duality –- having both an introspective (cave) and extraverted (stage) nature.

Returning to our IT Managers, these folks came up with a bounty of nicknames, both past and present: “Hit and Run,” (a troubleshooting consultant), “Southern Comfort,” (a name reflecting both family geography and a mostly soft spoken, empathic temperament) and “The Logical Lotus” (an analytical Asian woman). Some people had been anticipating this exercise, one fellow changed his to “The Great Kudzu” (as he has to be everywhere; I don’t recall his original name), another Director chose “Crazy Glue” over “Super Glue” (though it was clear he was viewed as instrumental in keeping the division together, if just barely, on the functional side of “more work than can ever be managed” chaos).

Still…Not the Whole Story

While the Nickname Exercise had staying power, this time around it was our beginning and ending process that truly was empowering. By going with the group flow and frolic and delaying my planned opening agenda, we all immediately began to bond. And clearly, I was comfortable sharing the reins of control with the group. An unspoken question often hovering in the retreat workshop shadows: what is the optimal balance between spontaneity and structure?

After “Nickname: Part II,” I orchestrated a series of exercises culminating in one that would have small groups problem solving division-specific issues related to communication and role-boundary-follow-up breakdowns. Just as I was about to introduce this problem-solving exercise, “The Logical Lotus” asked if we could begin addressing communication and coordination issues specific to the group. Clearly, the managers and I were converging towards the same spontaneous-structured agenda page. And my subsequent role transition from workshop leader to group process observer-participant, actually sharing the facilitator role and once again following the group’s lead, seemed to be critical to our evolving success as a working partnership. Consider these illustrative testimonials:

U.S. Department of Commerce | International Trade Administration
[One-day Management Retreat/team building workshop/facilitation for 15 Information Technology Division Managers, Glen Allen, VA]

July 12, 2011

Thanks Mark. I too appreciated the way you let us run with our own issues during the second half of our session, and agree with you that between the two of us, we helped the group produce some useful outcomes.

The challenge now is follow up. Haha!

I’ve got a return engagement for you on our list of follow-up actions, so I’m hoping it will not be too far in the future. It sounded like the fall would be a realistic time.

Thanks for your contribution to our team in the two sessions we have had with you. It has been fun and productive.

Rod Smart
Director, IT Policy and Coordination
Office of the CIO
U.S. Department of Commerce | International Trade Administration

July 8, 2011

Hello Mark,

Thank you for bending your program backwards to help us applying your approach to our daily problems. I think we understood better and learned more solid both our problems and your approach. Your facilitation pushed us to think, take actions, and be accountable for result.

Thank you for including me in your newsletter list. I’m looking forward to learning more your wisdom and approach.


Haiping Lou
[Editor’s note: “The Logical Lotus”]

Closing Summary

Two vignettes unexpectedly reveal the staying power of group exercises as well as their impact on organizational culture. The discoveries were illustrated by chance and planned encounters which enabled reflecting on past experience as well as understanding and going with the group process flow. Key factors include: a) interactive and imaginative exercises that allow for participants to poke playful fun, b) sharing and creative interplay strengthening a sense of camaraderie and community, and c) the leader or facilitator recognizing the meaning of the interchange while acknowledging and following the group’s pain and passion, energy and ideas. Word’s to cultivate a collaborative culture and to help one and all…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, July 4, 2011

The Evolution of Team Synergy: Transforming Parts into Partners

That the term “synergy” keeps showing up on my mental radar and calendar is not surprising. But yesterday, I experienced the “mother nature” variation. Meandering along the banks of the Chagrin River, 20 miles east of Cleveland, I stepped off the heavily wooded path at the confluence point of two streaming tributaries. Walking along a pebble and rock-strewn beach-like area, I discovered a small depression not more than a few yards from the babbling flow. I also spotted and positioned a slab of rock that conveniently became a back support as I lowered myself into this natural “easy chair.” The surrounding visual-tactile-audio mindscape was an array of 100-foot trees on both embankments –- one flat the other hilly –- seemingly converging and sculpting an endless green carpet-Cayahuaga Sky Blue vista. In this theatre au natural, my skin was being toasted tenderly by a radiant sun; and basking in the cloudless, 80 degree, low humidity ambience was made even more delicious by a caressing and cooling breeze. The background stereo of rushing river and rustling trees, complemented by periodic chirping (along with sudden yet graceful swooping) evoked memories of Beethoven’s Pastorale (#6). My late afternoon interlude at the sensorium was complete.

Not only was a sense of sanity being restored, but this dynamic symphony of sights, sensations and sounds resulted in that synergistic summation –- “when things work in concert together to create an outcome that is in some way of more value than the total of what the individual inputs is” ( And for me, the unexpected outcome, the resultant paradoxical synergy state, was that fleeting fifteen minutes of mind quieting serenity, along with a renewed sense of awe for the holistic interplay of human-nature “Soular Power!”

From the Sublime to the…

My high school chemistry teacher, 4’10” Shaky Jake Lieberman (more wily leprechaun than learned professor), after regaling us with stories from his two favorite avocations –- boxing and the opera –- would invariably declare, “Okay, boys, time to move from the sublime to the ridiculous; let’s get back to chemistry.” (Those days, Stuyvesant H.S. in NYC only had male students.)

Guess it’s time to leave the sublime (for awhile, anyway) and examine synergy from a more practical, everyday perspective. Synergy comes from the Greek word synergia, meaning joint work and cooperative action. From a technical vantage point, it is the increased effectiveness that results when two or more people or businesses work together and, I would add, the result is most pronounced when there’s a mix of some commonalities along with distinct differences. And as we’ll see, this combination has implications for the productivity of dyads and teams.

Stress Doc ™ Meeting the “Great Ideas! Guy” (sm)

For example, I recently co-authored an article with Jeff Peden identifying “Top Ten Obstacles" to improving leadership-business partnership, performance and profitability. Our partnership was definitely synergistic – a common capacity for “emotional intelligence” played out in mostly dissimilar (e.g., corporate vs. government) arenas, thereby yielding varying takes on human-system motivation and interaction. Experienced in corporate sales and customer service, Jeff recently wrote and published Take It To The MAX-The Ultimate Strategy for Maximizing Profits and Growth. He asked me to review the book. (Jeff was aware of my book, Practice Safe Stress: Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout and Depression.)

Jeff had many excellent ideas (not surprising, he’s the “Great Ideas! Guy” (sm ;-), but also evident was that too many business and organizational leaders, despite knowing what they should do, frequently don’t turn ideas into action. Fittingly enough, Jeff jumped at my idea for a collaborative piece on key psychological barriers contributing to this leadership-performance gap.

If I may say so, the result was a yin and yang, two “hearts singing and minds dancing” essay. For example, our give and take captured the double-edged quality of “loyalty”: Jeff added the participatory-cooperative (1) aspect to my repressive-controlling (2) precept thereby expanding the Stress Doc’s “Law of the Loyalty Loop”:
(1) Those who help plan the battle don’t battle the plan and
(2) Those who never want you to answer back always want you to back their answer!

While I could enumerate other “whole is greater than parts” examples, I’ll close with a straightforward declaration: with the breadth and depth of the ten obstacles ** along with our relative precision (the essay is approximately 2500 words, thanks, mostly, to Jeff’s editorial talents), “Top Ten Mind Barriers to Maximizing Leadership-Business Performance” reflects the conceptual and experiential diversity and uncommon synergy of a psychology and business brainstorm-collaboration. (Email if you missed the essay.)

** “Top Ten Obstacles" to improving leadership-business performance, partnership and profitability:

1. Time Pressures
2. Stress Overload
3. Lacking Perspective and Experience
4. Are You Going the Way of the Dinosaur?
5. Underdeveloped Emotional Intelligence
6. Need to Be an Autocrat
7. Judgmental Bias
8. Grappling with Your Intimate FOE
9. Fear of or Clinging to Success
10. Masters of Mendacity

The Evolution and Variation of Team Synergy

Now let’s take the next evolutionary step. How do you go from being part of a dynamic duo to creating or facilitating a high task and high touch synergy group? To do this let’s expand our focus:
1) first by reanalyzing our conception of the idea and ideal of team and then 2) examining the behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their individual parts (Wikipedia). Here are "Three Conceptual Tools for Rethinking Team Synergy":

1. There’s No “I” in TEAM. 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 the collective and that harmony is its own reward. But what about the inverse: does individual talent (not necessarily in a formal leadership role) impact the capacity of the group to meet its goals around performance and productivity, morale and camaraderie? How about these TEAM acronyms:
a) Talent Engages All Members or
b) Talent Energizes Ambitious Motivation

And might individual differences, including difference of perspective or culture, challenge the team to reach another level of evolutionary function?

The original TEAM saying – Together Each Achieves More – in some ways is similar to another popular, or at least, oft-heard, saying, “There’s NO ‘I’ in Team.” (Of course, some people think the latter is a shorthand code for suppressing disagreement, difference or dialogue.) My discomfort with both motivational mantras is their downplaying the role of the individual, especially the need for individual(s) thinking and behaving outside the conventional group “form and function” framework. The contrarian and the community must generate optimal conflict and positively provoke each other’s mindsets and skill sets. As John Dewey, 19th c. pragmatic philosopher and “Father of American Public Education,” 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.

Such a provocative collaboration is critical especially in rapidly reorganizing times that demand new ideas, idiosyncratic intuitions, relevant data and flexibly focused adaptation for the survival of the fittest (government bailouts not withstanding). As Adam Gopnik noted in, Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009): Repetition is the law of nature but variation is the rule of life.

Components of Organizational Variation and Vitality

For teams and organizations in the throes of uncertain times, life-evolving variation tends to emerge from:
a) the diversity and varying talents/vulnerabilities of community members; a history of organizational research shows that optimally diverse teams invariably come up with more creative solutions in experimental trials than more homogeneous groups,
b) unexpected, error-disrupted, compelling or chaos-inducing developments in the environment,
c) a heightened motivational state of “constructive discontent” and a “whatever it takes” exploratory mindset,
d) the resultant clash- or crisis-induced, “necessity as mother of invention” problem solving,
e) a capacity to coordinate people and resources, and
f) the opportunity for post-chaotic transitional grief (or debriefing) as well as designing structures and strategies that incorporate and sustain the significant variation into everyday operations. In an organizational system, acknowledging, grappling with and ultimately integrating individual difference and convention-busting conflict is vital for achieving that ebb and flow of productive stability and evolutionary synergy.

2. There’s No ‘I’ in Team….So how did I resolve my differences with these motivational clichés? The answer alluded to above actually takes on a semantic twist: “There’s NO ‘I’ in Team…but 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.”

The creative individual 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” challenges, 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).

“Individual Creativity” and “Interactive Community” in Action

A thank you note from a recent Stress & Team Building Workshop concerning the emergence of intimate and productive group engagement illustrates synergy’s surprising dimension. The “honesty” referred to below reflects the intimate sharing both in small groups and the extra-ordinary public testimonials of personal trials by fire. Also unanticipated was that the creative facilitator (white male) and the larger community (primarily black females) spoke and shared a meaningful degree of a common language and world view. And finally, another paradoxical, if not synergistic, phenomenon may have helped bridge the cultural divide: People are more open to a serious (or surprising) message when it is gift-wrapped with humor!

Cleveland Council of Black Nurses sponsored by Case Western Reserve/Skills and Simulation Center [2-hr "Practice Safe Stress and Team Building through Humor" Program]

April 4, 2011

Dear Mark,

Thank you so much for the wonderful workshop that you presented for the Cleveland Council of Black Nurses. As President, I truly appreciated your humorous, but principled approach to "Team Building". You worked miracles & brought about an honesty that I did not think was possible.

Again, thank you & I would certainly recommend your workshops to all in the health care fields. The program that you presented was truly "Tailor Made" for us.

Barbara Rogers, RNMSN

216 921-3204

In closing, while the “winning” benefits of “IC2” Team Synergy have been illustrated, one must not overlook the potential dangers: a) the creative individual may be pushing the envelope too far and too fast, beyond group norms-traditions and the bounds of calculated and acceptable risk-taking and b) the community sees “difference and disagreement as disapproval or disloyalty”…and isolates or shuns divergent perspective while demanding group think.

3. Relation and Rejuvenation of “The Whole and the Parts.” Perhaps the most recognized description of synergy is the classic phrase: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And our previous analyses of synergy, each in its different way, speak to this non-linear summation. So what enables 2 +2 = 5? What enables Mother Nature and human nature to be serenely at one with one another; what sparks two consultants with varying backgrounds to produce an article that surely could not have been written separately; or what allows a roomful of nurses to discover, bond and candidly reveal an unprecedented and “miraculous” range of individual and collective voices and stories? For me, the magic lies in creating an atmosphere of free-flowing communication –- from conflict to communion –-while orchestrating surprising intermingling amongst the reawakened and fertile parts. The energized parts are not afraid to acknowledge flaws and foibles, nor afraid to test relational norms and be a bit “out-rage-ous.” And yet their interaction facilitates understanding of both individual-cultural difference and common humanity. And this empathy (“not only have I walked in your shoes, but I feel your bunions”), often enhanced by shared memory and self-effacing laughter, becomes the electric current for renewed connection. In time, the synergistic process and product distill the complexity of life into an essential yet elegant simplicity. Engaged in a “jazz riff,” status barriers are surmounted; the distinct parts form an insightful and unified collaboration: Now “Parts” are transformed into “Partners!” And as we’ve come to appreciate, “Individual Creativity” and “Interactive Community” is the formula for winning teams and associations.

Surely an inspiring notion and words to help one and all…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 a "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.