Sunday, June 24, 2012

Burnout and (Vicarious) Trauma-Inducing Work Environments: Part III - “Dirty Dozen” Stressors and Critical Strategies for Defusing Dysfunctional Fire

This article focuses on the ways that organizational-cultural systems foster a TNT – Time-Numbers-Technology – driven and distracted, burnout-prone environment. It also highlights broad, organizational burnout prevention structures and dynamics or “Seven Management Strategies to Defuse Negative Workplace Stress.” Please email if you’d like more info on how the Stress Doc can help defuse a smoldering-walking on eggshells, conflicting-exploding, or imploding-underperforming work environment through a variety of workshop, team building, coaching, and consulting programs.

Burnout and (Vicarious) Trauma-Inducing Work Environments: Part III - “Dirty Dozen” Stressors and Critical Strategies for Defusing Dysfunctional Fire

Part I of this series captures the realm of Vicarious Trauma and Caregiver Burnout, illustrating its common occurrence among many roles and relations in contemporary society. In addition, the essay examines how the humanitarian if not heroic efforts of helpers and healers can without sufficient awareness and supervision become a disguised and hazardous process of codependency. Part II more specifically examines some common psychological dynamics, cognitive beliefs, personality characteristics, and patterns of coping and caregiving between Codependency and Vicarious Trauma, especially how “E”asy it can be for an excess of empathy and enthusiasm to transmute into exhaustion along with unrealistic expectations, egoals, and varieties of inverted exorcism.

Now we come to Part III which focuses on the ways that organizational-cultural systems foster a TNT – Time-Numbers-Technology – driven and distracted, burnout-prone environment, though I’m not yet specifically examining dynamics that encourage VT. However, in a 24/7 always on, “do more with less” world that seems to forever cycle between constant upgrading and the next downsizing (or “frightsizing” as I like to call it) should it be surprising that employees increasingly alternate between feeling “lean and Mean” or exhausted and burnt out? And in a hazardous work environment, one’s resistance to VT is definitely compromised.

Three key questions need to be on employers’ and HR professionals’ minds: 1) what are some of the signs of an organization stoking the burnout fires and 2) how can I identify burnout in my troops? And finally, 3) what strategic steps are needed to defuse these burnout issues both from an organizational and an individual perspective?

Fueling the Burnout Fires

Let’s begin with “The ‘Dirty Dozen’ of Dysfunctional Organizations.” (The following updates the list that first appeared in my book, Practice Safe Stress: Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout, and Depression.):

1. From TLC to TNC. People are always on call; there’s little boundary between work and home. Work environment is driven by "time, numbers and crises" not by "tender loving care." Beware a philosophy that extols customers as kings while treating employees as peasants; it's a formula for revolt, inertia or sabotage.

2. Rapid and Unpredictable Change. Both a constantly reorganizing or downsizing as well as an expansionary mode heighten stress levels. Also, unstable leadership and a revolving supervisory team/work force, and adjusting to new personnel along with a loss of institutional history and wisdom heightens pressure. Rules and procedures don't appear to be operational; "the book" has lost some critical pages. Chronic uncertainty and mistrust from lack of timely information or from communication not perceived as genuine or accurate.

3. Destructive or Demeaning Communication Style. The norm is condescending, explosive, or passive aggressive styles of communication; there’s excessive workfloor razzing or scapegoating. Managers are talking over employees; nobody is truly listening. Either defensive counterattacking or robotic groupthinking is common. You're turned off from the repetitive, mindless mantra: “There’s no ‘I’ in team."

4. Authoritarian Leadership. Rigid, militaristic mindset; "superiors" vs. "subordinates" or "inferiors" pollutes the ambience. Typical slogans: "You don't get paid to think" or "My way or the highway." Leaders blow up if challenged and break up any participatory decision-making or team building efforts. Often try to cloud the real problem by blaming, intimidating, or targeting others.

5. Defensive Attitude. There’s an overall dismissive attitude regarding feedback with little interest in evaluation of people and policies. Only numbers count. Not safe to give feedback; people quick to feel disrespected or rejected. Yelling and intimidation or, conversely, avoidance and minimizing are the preferred ways of dealing with conflict.

6. Double Standard. Different policies and procedures, bias in application, for management and employees, blue collar or white collar, racial or sexual discrimination – "Workfloor vs. Tower" dichotomy. Double standard also manifests as management gets substantial training or support for dealing with change processes and employees get minimal orientation and ongoing support.

7. Unresolved Grievances. No mechanisms or only adversarial ones – "us vs. them" – to settle grievances. Or, dysfunctional individuals protected or ignored because of contractual provisions, red tape, cronyism, or union cover, etc. Management has abdicated its leadership role; it fears or is or ashamed of having inadequacies, incompetence, or dysfunctional system dynamics exposed.

8. Emotionally Troubled Personnel. Management not actively assisting troubled employees get the help they need; no (safe/confidential) Employee Assistance Program (EAP) option. No coaching for supervisors dealing with dysfunctional personnel. “Good old boy” system turns an eye in the face of dysfunctional stress carriers and team killers. This gap can create a tumor for the work team – scapegoating, loss of respect for leader, apathy and lowered morale, etc.

9. Repetitive, Boring Work. Not just an assembly line syndrome. Also, "The Bjorn Bored Syndrome": When Mastery times Monotony provides an index of Misery! Your niche of success becomes the ditch of excess and stagnation. There’s a lack of opportunity for job stimulation-rotation-transfer or not enough new blood is coming into the system. And in a bad economy, people who are feeling burnt out, and would normally make a job change, cling tighter to “the devil they know.”

10. Faulty Equipment/Deficient Training. Equipment or procedures (or lack of the same) that don't allow people to work effectively or efficiently…and then workers are criticized for not being productive. Also, tensions rise when management rapidly inundates people with new equipment and operational standards while not providing sufficient time and resources for successful training/startup.

11. Hazardous Setting. Disruptive ambient work conditions – temperature, air quality, repetitive motion issues, overcrowded space, and problematic noise levels, excessive overtime, nocturnal schedule, and interrupted sleep, etc. There's an inflated number of health claims and/or grievance procedures. Personnel shortage results in lack of backup resulting in potentially dangerous work expectations and conditions.

12. Culture of Violence/Abuse. There is a culture or past history of individual violence and abuse, e.g., family battering, gang membership, etc. The person has been exposed to violent or explosive role models often with a context of alcohol and drug abuse. There is also an abusive systemic culture. Leadership covertly uses peer bullying to keep certain employees in line. There is cultural tolerance for predatory or discriminatory behavior. The workfloor is dubbed “The Plantation.” Finally, under sufficient stress, employees with lingering Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) can be set off.

This “dirty dozen” provides a slightly larger than life portrait of a hazardous work environment. While somewhat "blue" in tint, the "white collar" world also needs to pay heed. No matter the color, these dysfunctional workplaces both overtly drain and frustrate employees and generate a smoldering background. Now a seemingly trivial event can set off a chronically stressed, troubled individual. Of course, some folks are ready to go even in the best of environments.

Strategies for Defusing Workplace Stress and Strengthening Resiliency

So what’s an enlightened business owner or professional management team to do? The next segment will outline how organizations, professional healers, and personal helpers can encourage commitment, build morale, strengthen mind-body-spirit integrity, and prevent the spread of burnout and VT.

Let’s begin this survival strategy spotlight by outlining some broad, burnout prevention dynamics or “Seven Management Strategies to Defuse Negative Workplace Stress” posited by American Psychologist along with fleshing out by the Stress Doc:

1. Workload Fit – workload corresponds to a workers’ capabilities (sufficient training, experience, supervision, etc.) and resources/tools for meeting job demands; when “doing more with less” is morphing into “doing more with nothing” there’s a problematic gap between expectations (if not fantasies) and reality; “good stress” occurs when people have to mostly stretch into high yet doable workloads and time lines and not chronically strain and drain; and speaking of viable resources, technology/equipment is not always breaking down; you can reach knowledgeable people in a timely manner when you need directions or assistance,

2. Stimulating Work – people find their work meaningful, challenging, and rewarding; there’s opportunity for new and relevant learning along with applying knowledge and skills; and there’s a chance to achieve "Organizational IRAs": Incentives, Rewards/Recognition, and Avenues for Advancement ,

3. Role Clarification – ensure that roles and responsibilities are clearly defined; and when role conflict invariably occurs in our TNT-driven and distracted world, there is a safe forum and trusted facilitator/mediator to resolve tension, confusion and discrepancies; sometimes you may need a task or matrix group to rewrite roles and responsibilities,

4. Employee Participation – allow employees input regarding actions that affect their job; absent this input, employees may feel like “pawns” simply being pushed around – their experience and knowledge seems devalued, they feel “out of control”…and people can both burnout and burn-up – smoldering passively and exhaustively, acting out aggressively, or getting even passive-aggressively,

5. In-house Communication – improve internal communication, especially about career development; employee participation and effective communication-coordination requires the existence of internal sharing structures – from regular team meetings and periodic division-wide or “all hands” meetings to focus groups and matrix planning meetings; and the key is that these small and large group venues really do ask for and act upon reasonable employee input; alas, sometimes workplace trust must be rebuilt for these sharing structures to operate effectively and efficiently, to yield workplace synergy – transforming parts into partners,

6. Workplace Socializing – time for social interaction among employees; encouraging formal and informal interdepartmental gatherings not only is good for morale and networking, but research shows it also plants ideational-operational seeds and cultivates new perspectives as well as possible innovative projects and practices, processes and policies,

7. Flexibility in Scheduling – when possible, create flexibility in employee work schedules to minimize conflict with outside personal/family responsibilities; may need to develop and negotiate pilot projects re: optimal office-telecommunication balance; also essential are strategies for keeping telecommuters in the everyday operational and career development loop.

Part III has outlined some basic stressors and strategies that profoundly impact the work environment and culture. Part IV will highlight the Stress Doc’s uncommon take on tools and strategies for “Building Stress Resiliency” in a TNT work environment-culture. Until then…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 as well as a Critical Incident/Grief Intervention Expert for Business Health Services, a National EAP/Wellness/OD Company. He is providing "Stress and Communication,” as well as “Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building" programs for a variety of units at 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.

A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. The Stress Doc blog appears in such platforms as,, and MentalHelpNet. His award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – was 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.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Surviving the Conference Call Battlefield: Skills and Strategies for Successful Small Group Phone Conferencing – Part II

Part I captured the tension of a high stakes conference call with a high profile client and fellow team members. The essay highlighted the challenging dynamics of the non-Skype phone environment along with the divergent if not competitive natures of the participant egos. Such an electric mixture invariably exacerbates interpersonal conflict and misunderstanding. Yet when conflict is productively engaged it may breed “constructive discontent,” that is, fertile ground for intimate communication and creative collaboration.

Strategic and Empathic Phone Conference Calling

Feeling more settled after final electronic dialogue with the Conference Call Principal, I could address my latter decision to write about our contentious dialogue and to view the experience as a learning lab for improving conference calls. Part II, actually, has relevance for a variety of communication modes and mediums. Here are the “Top Ten Strategies for Successful Small Group Phone Conferencing”:

1. Take Time for Pre-Conference Call Planning. Clearly, as a consulting team we had not done sufficient preparation. In particular, when time is tight, having an agenda plus spelling out presentation time limits is critical. A “visible,” that is, an active and assertive Conference Call Director is essential to make sure the agenda is followed in a timely manner, including allotting the presenters specific time segments and quick feedback when a person is straying from time or topic constraints. If spontaneous engagement with the client breaks through a time boundary, you can always go with the flow…up to a critical point or two. And this leads to another essential planning arena – communication ground rules. Are colleagues encouraged to break in with questions or comments? Are differences in perspective to be aired privately or publicly? My bias is to allow for reasonable and respectful divergence, even if some discord may ensue. As noted from the outset of the essay and in George’s closing comments (both found in Part I), conflict is a spur to reflection, imagination, and clarification; productive conflict will invariably strengthen a product or process and, hopefully, even a partnership. And aligned with ground rules, do the different parties have specific roles and responsibilities? The answer is likely yes; do some review if not an actual role-play to clarify this “r & r.” Adaptation means integration of the forest and trees while allowing for creative bio-psycho-social diversity. As noted by Adam Gopnik, in his book about Darwin and Lincoln, Angels and Ages: “Repetition is the law of nature but variation is the rule of life.”

Which brings me to my philosophical foundation and team building variation on the traditional team mantra, “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 can “C.” Winning teams enable “Individual Courage-Creativity” and “Interactive Critique-Community!”

2. Be Aware of the Obvious Challenges of Phone Communication. On a non-Skype conference call many of the messaging cues and clues are not available. Pacing of speech, volume, inflection, tone, exaggeration, pausing, clearing the throat, etc. are all important nonverbal markers; they can’t fully compensate, however, for the lack of visual data, such as facial expressions, hand gestures, and overall body language. Again, achieving congruity between message sent and received becomes more challenging. Some clear implications: a) use concrete and descriptive images rather than abstract or overly conceptual language, e.g., I recall a manager trainee’s phrase describing the effects of major organizational restructuring: “I once had a career path, then this boulder fell from the sky and crushed it.” Well, you may not want to be overly dramatic, but being vivid and visual gets your message across and b) consider this on point, no “b.s.” variation of the KISS mantra when it comes to phone presentations: Be Smart – Keep It Simple and Short!

3. Find “Small” and Meaningful Areas of Personal and Cultural Connection. Especially when time is limited and there is little opportunity for casual chatting, seize an opportunity for that personal “touch,” e.g., my connecting with the VC around our common ties to Stony Brook University. Here’s another connector: While I hadn’t been conscious of this factor during the call, it’s possible that geo-cultural diversity also supported or, at least, influenced my bold interjection during Allen’s “run-on” presentation. Both my colleagues have southern roots; I’m pretty sure the VC has a northern background. Perhaps placing greater value on the social graces, southerners, in general, may be a bit more accommodating, less impatient, in this situation; “Yankees” tend to be more comfortable with (or at least used to) more abrupt interaction. (And the southerner may feel a greater sense of injury and injustice in the face of such effrontery.) Of course, such untested intuitions and generalizations should be used very carefully and sparingly when exercising strategy.

In similar fashion, be careful of assumptions. For example, Allen concluding that he obviously didn’t need to pause or check in with the VC because her paraphrase captured key points of his presentation, is speculation at best. Just as easily, one might surmise that she had a chance to test her basic understanding, a relief to all parties. Allen now had some confirmation that they were on a common page. Perhaps this knowledge, along with my jumping in, helped Allen wrap up sooner rather than later.

4. Connect to Pain and Passion Using Client’s Words and Language. There’s an urban myth that the meaning of a message is mostly influenced by nonverbal dimensions. Don’t buy it. Words, grammar, and jargon, that is, semantics – “the study of how meaning in language is created by the use and interrelationships of words, phrases, and sentences” (Encarta Dictionary) -- matter…especially when we can (or cannot or do not) speak the language of the other party. When the VC mentioned her concern about the existence of “silos” or barriers between departments in her division, my sharing a story about helping a military brigade remove the same at a pre-deployment/leadership retreat clearly hit home. Conversely, out of frustration, telling Allen that “he was shooting himself in the foot” was a poor choice of words for having him hear my desired message: that a fairly lengthy, non-stop presentation, lacking “check-in” was diluting the accessibility and power of his verbal presentation. And the disruptive effect of my interjection (some would say “interruption”; see words count) was magnified by the conference call’s importance, tight time margins, and competitive milieu. When text is not placed in context, message sent will struggle to become message received.

5. Deliver Meaningful Messages in Organized Chunks. It often takes some forethought and planning for a message to be “short and simple” yet also “smart.” Several keys come to mind: a) try to establish what information is essential and what is of peripheral or secondary import; beware falling in love with your own pearls, b) make concise and clear connections and weave colorful associations or relations among relevant data, c) try to illustrate your ideas by telling a succinct story – whereby your conceptual content is framed by an emotional moral or message, and d) when possible, make unexpected, thought-provoking, imaginative, and playful (but probably not “off the wall”) connections, that is, follow the wit and wisdom of a renowned American humorist. According to Mark Twain, Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which before their union were not perceived to have any relation.

The challenge of organizing meaningful messages is heightened, of course, when you are responding spontaneously to a question or feedback. Alas, too often when a communicator doesn’t receive “MS = MR” feedback, he or she thinks: “Well, let me try to connect or prove my point with another story…and, if necessary, then another.” When connection is up in the air, if the presenter is sufficiently confident, the best strategy is to put on the brakes and check in with the target of your message.

6. Learn to Pause and Check In. In a "T n T" – Time-Numbers-Technology – driven and distracted world, communicators often feel they have to cram in the info as time and attention spans are often limited. Alas, providing your audience with a lengthy, seemingly endless laundry list almost assures that key issues and ideas will be lost in the verbiage. Might we say that the trees will get lost in the forest? Learning to pause, to segment or chunk your message tends to help the receiver catch the gist – details and big picture – without fumbling the ideas, intentions, or implications. (The communicational analogy might be writing concisely, using short and to the point paragraphs.) Momentary breaks from the back and forth also allow the parties to ponder and posit new possibilities. Now active listening may morph into mutually creative sharing and listening.

And surely, another vital reason to check in is receiving feedback, that is, to: a) gain insight as to what degree your intended message was actually received, b) determine the extent to which the receiver is on a similar wavelength and psychologically onboard and, most important, c) discover or, at least, begin to uncover any and all listener unspoken agendas, objections or concerns about the sender’s posited or perceived position, plan, or philosophy; bottom line – are you getting closer to achieving that elusive problem-solving partnership? When social-psychology research confirms that “attributional bias” (making questionable, fictional, or fallible judgments or explanations about another’s or one’s own motivations, intentions, and actions) is the interpersonal-perceptual norm, checking in becomes essential for effective and efficient communication and collaboration.

One technique for affirming “MS = MR” involves paraphrasing or repeating the other's message in the person's words or in your own distillation. In essence, my interruption provided the VC the space-time opportunity to paraphrase. Especially if a sender has conveyed a significant amount of information or complex instructions, it's wise to say, "I know I just said a lot. Would you mind paraphrasing back (or putting in your own words) what you heard?" Again, the motive is not to catch the other but to have both parties on the same page, and ultimately to use common ground as a springboard for synergistic dialog.

7. Be Conscious of “Hot Buttons” and Exaggerated Sensitivity. A hot button is a psychic issue or complex of emotions that get triggered in reaction to another’s communication or behavior. And by definition, it doesn’t take much for an overly sensitive or immature ego/button to be pushed beyond its pain or shame limit and for the “injured” or “insulted” party to self-righteously push back. Clearly, one of my “hot buttons” relates to sensitivity to other’s pain or, at least, the perception of their pain. (To my chagrin, there’s also the possibility of projecting my own pain onto the other party). Hopefully the former contributed to my interjecting on behalf of the VC. But here’s another and possibly related smoking trigger: I’m talking with someone making a point or, more likely, trying to explain or justify his or her behavior. I then acknowledge their message, which occurs reflexively through a variety of facial cues, with or without verbal accompaniment. However, out of a desire to further rationalize their intentions (likely a mask for their own insecurity or, for example, feelings of guilt), this individual begins to reiterate or unnecessarily elaborate the same point. Now I’m getting edgy, in all senses of the word. I then may cut them off with a somewhat hastily reassuring “I get it” or, if necessary, I quickly and perhaps curtly paraphrase the gist of their message. I don’t know if this pattern merely reflects momentary frustration or a composite of Type A tendencies and impatience, attention deficit, and/or a belief that my esteem is being skewered: “Hey, don’t you think I’m smart enough to get it the first time.” (A still lingering judgmental mother’s voice may be operating here.) And, of course, the “hot button” pitfalls are only exacerbated on a visually “cue-less” phone call.

8. Listen to Feedback; Don’t Simply Launch. It’s hard to listen above your own psychic noise. The problem is that the subterranean static interferes with an ability to objectively assess whether the sender’s message was a reasonable or acceptable missive or intended as a dismissive aside or demeaning dart. Clearly, message heard may not have been message delivered. And even if the intent was self-centered or hostile, do we have to respond in kind?

But alas, it’s just about midnight; the counterstrike missile is on the launching pad and it’s too late to abort the countdown. Not surprisingly, hot buttons are directly wired to your primitive brain and a flashing and fiery tongue. Again, guilty as charged: my conscious concern for the VC’s receptor state and about Allen not connecting with the client was obscured by my excitable rhetoric which, as you may recall, was, “shooting yourself in the foot.” Stress Doc heal thyself. I need to take my own medicinal mantra. Don’t just count to ten…Count to ten and check within. That is, to replace a reaction with an integrated head and heart response, I must recognize existing pain, take responsibility for personal vulnerability and hyper-sensitivity, along with some immaturity, and begin mentally massaging my own “hot button”…even in the heat of battle. Hopefully, this will disarm the need or desire for a reactive strike; perhaps now all parties can build bridges not blow them up or slowly burn them.

9. Is an Existential Decision Really On the Line? In a seminal article, “The Four Faces of Anger,” written in the ‘90s (email for the article), I also noted the “Four Angry ‘I’s”: we tend to have an angry response (constructive) or angry reaction (destructive) when we perceive another’s communications or actions as being unjust, injurious (or insulting), or invasive, and we have the intention to do something about the above injustices, injuries, insults, and/or invasions. And this aggressive energy pours out when the issue stirs our “passion.”

Passion! What does it evoke? Intensity, heat, steaminess…the “s”-word: “soap opera?” No, of course it’s sex? Actually, we in Washington, DC know the “s”-word for passion…It is “Senator.” (Or it was until Bill Clinton ruined my joke.) Interestingly, if you have a good dictionary the “s”-word for “passion” is neither sex nor senator…it’s “suffering,” as in the Passion Play. This relates to the sufferings of Jesus or, more generically, to the sufferings of a martyr. (Imagine all this time I never knew my Jewish mother was such a passionate woman!)

Actually, the best free association I’ve heard to the word “passion” (from a workshop audience member) has been “Rosa Parks.” Which inspires speculation around the connection among “suffering,” “passion” and being a powerful leader or motivator? For me it’s an individual who recognizes personal and social wrongs, feels their own and others’ pain, (or, at least, has a low threshold for “constructive discontent”), and is capable of learning from and being motivated by past inequalities and injustices, without being a slave to self-righteous retribution. And of, course, this knowledgeable, determined, and principled individual is willing to take a courageous stand in the present – even if by sitting down – in the face of adversity or danger.

However, as depicted on my “Four Faces of Anger Model,” there’s a fine line between constructive “Passion” and damaging “Rage.” So when I broke in on Allen’s presentation was I responding to a higher calling or was my empathic pain more subjective than objective, was increasing frustration polluting Allen’s space and our team image? It may be hard to predict whether you will be seen as hero or villain or both. You may have to do a quick “hot button” survey, decide if you can trust your heart and gut, assess risk and reward, for example, are you willing to make a precarious high dive, and are you prepared to face the consequences. Still, depending on the circumstances, there is often a saving grace. Phone call antagonists have the potential to genuinely grapple with the conflict, if not face to face, then at least voice to voice.

10. Don’t Forget to Debrief. Certainly the wisest move I made during this contentious conference call was asking for a debriefing session upon the VC’s exit. I realized George and Allen needed to vent their anger and that as the initiator of the conflict it was my responsibility to carefully listen to their angst and arguments. Do I wish I had been more patient and measured in my reaction-response? Absolutely! Alas, I’m not a saint. However, I’m savvy enough to know and apply some “hands on” research: allowing people to question or challenge your actions, plans, or point of view, to say “you’re wrong” and “I’m right” (and to feel they have been genuinely heard; again, I fell short here), that is, to encourage their freedom to disagree and be contrary, before you “set them straight,” actually has a counterintuitive result: enabling others to exercise their difference in a conflict situation often helps the antagonist move closer to your original position. As I’ve been known to say:

If you can allow people who say, “Yes, but”
To rebut
Even if they may be a pain in the…
(But you know what I mean)
Then we may get them to say, “But, yes!”

And in similar fashion, my having a chance to go “back and forth” with my “teammates” allowed me to send a more humble and strategic follow-up email to George, which evoked the desired result – George’s text reply: You are still part of the team. Disagreement and conflict will only strengthen our final process and product.

Closing Summary

I suspect the conference call conflict and tough debrief gave each one of us plenty of food for thought, as well as fertile ground for cultivating some new insights and perspective, including some common understanding. As endings often replicate beginnings, I can’t think of a better way to close this essay than by returning to the Part I opening quote from John Dewey, a pragmatic philosopher and “Father of American Public Education”: 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.

To productively grapple with the dynamics of phone conference calling and to respect and authentically connect with even contentious parties, try engaging with these “Top Ten Communication Strategies”:
1. Take Time for Pre-Conference Call Planning
2. Be Aware of the Obvious Challenges of Phone Communication
3. Find “Small” and Meaningful Areas of Personal and Cultural Connection
4. Connect to Pain and Passion Using Client’s Words and Language
5. Deliver Meaningful Messages in Organized Chunks
6. Learn to Pause and Check In
7. Be Conscious of “Hot Buttons” and Exaggerated Sensitivity
8. Listen to Feedback; Don’t Simply Launch
9. Is an Existential Decision Really On the Line?
10. Don’t Forget to Debrief

These skills and strategies, tools and techniques will strengthen your communication presence, whatever the medium or message and will 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. A training and Critical Incident/Grief Intervention Consultant for the National EAP/Wellness Company, Business Health Services in Baltimore, MD, the Doc is also leading “Stress, Team Building and Humor” programs for various branches of the Armed Services. 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). For more info on the Doc's programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Surviving the Conference Call Battlefield: A Contentious Case Vignette – Part I

The Stress Doc captures the tension of a high stakes conference call with a high profile client and fellow team members. And the delicate yet thorny dynamics of a non-Skype phone environment along with some self-absorbed and excitable egos only exacerbate the interpersonal conflict and misunderstanding.

Surviving the Conference Call Battlefield: A Contentious Case Vignette – Part I

John Dewey, “The Father of American Public Education,” observed that, “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.” Wow, did I walk right into some conflict the other day…And I suspect this particular interpersonal arena is ripe for passive and aggressive clashes and competitive contests – the multiparty phone conference. Before articulating some of my hard-earned illumination (in Part II), let me paint the not so pretty picture. There were four parties to this conference call: A principal of a National Human Resources Consulting firm (George), two “subject matter” experts/consultants (Allen, an IT Design Consult and yours truly, the Stress-Communications-Team Building Consultant), and the client, a Vice Chancellor (VC) of a major Atlantic Coast University, who reports directly to the University President. The VC provided a needs overview: She has become head of a pivotal university division in the past six months. She is interested in installing a major IT systems upgrade and wants to hold a communications-team building retreat for her managers and front-line supervisors. She’s aware that on top of everyday demands and performance pressures, her people are feeling the effects of regime change. And a technical and operational paradigm shift significantly adds to the uncertainty and stress!

The VC did not have a lot of time so introductions were brief; there was little chance for small talk, though the VC and I connected around her being a program officer for several years at my alma mater, State University of New York at Stony Brook. (SUNY at SB is playing in the College World Series elimination. Go Seawolves!) George and the VC had previously met. In fact, George’s consulting firm has a successful project ongoing for the VC. (Allen and I had never engaged with one another or with the VC.) Allen, the IT point person for most of this proposed business contract pie was instructed by George to begin his presentation. Allen laid out a technical analysis of the potential problems when attempting such a major IT upgrade. He also reinforced how he could help avoid the pitfalls while also highlighting background info on previous successful projects. And while Allen may have strained his arm a bit patting himself on the back, as I’m writing this, his marketing method all seems so practical, knowledgeable, and logical.

A Communication Consultant’s Quandary

However, in real time, Allen’s approaching five minutes of non-stop talking and he’s not flagging for a second; also some of the language is pretty abstract in nature. Of course, the communication challenges are magnified as it’s a non-Skype call, and obviously we can’t read people’s facial expressions or body language... IT guy is not pausing, let alone checking in with the VC; he’s pounding her with an interminable laundry list, and my throbbing head senses trouble. In addition, somewhere lurking in my psyche was a quivering question mark quickly morphing into a theatrical stage hook: was my sometimes impatient Type A “New Yorka” mode getting the best of a complex judgment call? Is the Stress Doc about to become a villain or hero?

Earlier, George had noted that during these “contract development calls” the key is to “connect to the client’s pain.” I don’t know about the VC, but I’m not just squirming; I’m getting uncomfortably anxious, and beginning to wonder how the VC could not be feeling a bit overloaded, if not in palpable pain. Ah, the challenges of having acutely sensitive auditory and empathy channels.

Deciding not to contain myself any longer, I stammer, “Allen, you’re making a lot of essential and excellent points; I’m wondering where the VC is with all this information.” Well the silence on the phone was deafening. Oops, I immediately intuited crossing a conference call protocol boundary line.

After the pregnant pause, the VC gingerly went into the abyss, paraphrasing some of the key points that had been articulated; she acknowledged that Allen was addressing relevant issues. (While the VC’s tone was not one of obvious relief, she didn’t brush off my interjection by telling Allen to simply continue. As will be apparent shortly, the meaning of this interlude and the VC’s comments were subject to varied interpretation and fuel for further contention.) Allen now smartly wrapped up his presentation.

George proceeded to give me the green light, and I began by underscoring the danger and opportunity to bond as a team in the face of “change and performance pressure.” Again connecting to a previously stated concern, I provided an example of successfully breaking down military silos and fostering unprecedented team planning-coordination at a Ft. Hood Brigade Senior Officer/Senior NCO Retreat. Upon sharing a strategic point or story, I then walked my talk, checking in with the VC. I closed with some research on factors contributing to executive “Psychological Hardiness” during times of major reorganization. Finally, I asked the VC if the material presented was relevant to her concerns for the Team Retreat and received strong confirmation.

The Elephant in the Room and in the Forest

After George’s closing remarks and upon the VC leaving the conference room, I asked George and Allen if we could debrief. I immediately addressed the elephant on the phone line: “I guess we need to talk about my decision to break into Allen’s presentation.”

George quickly focused on my interruption as potential evidence for the VC that we are not on the same page as a team. He reiterated that both Allen and I had not asked about the “client’s pain.” Initially I was frustrated by George’s “broad brush” observation, though on one level he was right: I had not specifically asked about her concerns. Instead, with time limits in mind, I had used the VC’s words, such as “organizational and staff pressure” and “silo issues,” as springboards for my targeted presentation.

Not surprisingly, Allen’s feedback took a different tack/attack: First, he emphasized that the IT info provided was critical for such a large and complex project. Allen also labeled my comment unwarranted as the VC’s paraphrase indicated she was following his argument. (I believe such an absolute assumption is questionable without clarification from the VC.) Allen continued, affirming that he was trying to help the consulting firm win a multi-million dollar contract; not so subtly implicit in his message was that in contrast my part of this “buy” was small potatoes (my words not Allen’s). Allen’s ego was definitely bruised, as he kept reiterating the critical value of his expertise.

At some point, perhaps trying to show he was not just a “nerd” and that he also had a degree in psychology, Allen interjected during my presentation, linking IT and OD (Organizational Development). (Was he also playing “tit for tat”? Anyway…) Allen claimed that his IT “vision” would reduce stress levels for the VC’s people as it would improve lines of communication and coordination. (I resisted the quip about the “fine line between vision and hallucination!”) Acknowledging this likelihood, at the same time, I also asserted that during the team retreat her folks initially don’t want to be presented a fait accompli – upper management’s “game changing” solution. Employees at all levels want to be heard and to have input in this magnitude of change process. During times of major transition, people first want recognition for their TLC, that is, they want to know that someone is carefully trying to: a) understand and address their feelings of “Threat, Loss, and Challenge” and b) preserve their position and/or help enhance their role responsibilities and identity, competency and self-esteem in the new and evolving operational ecosystem. (Speaking of ecosystems, perhaps a barrier to Allen’s and my communication was our differing perspectives in addition to personality temperament. Breaking it down into a simple – probably a too simple analogy – Allen was looking at the long-term adaptive viability of the “forest” and I was concerned about the healthy and interdependent functioning of the “trees.” Clearly, an optimal strategy cultivates Yin-Yang integration of the two perspectives.)

When Message Sent Is Not Message Received

While reaffirming my respect and admiration for his IT Design knowledge, I reluctantly acknowledged having to accept that Allen might not hear my two interrelated concerns: that he was not checking in or sufficiently connecting with the VC and that by talking without pausing, by overloading his communication, he was undermining “message sent being message received.” (Perhaps I needed to talk his language, e.g., by noting a less than optimal “noise to signal” ratio.) Alas, at some earlier point, getting frustrated with not being heard, I unnecessarily upped the emotional-competitive ante by saying, “I just felt you were shooting yourself in the foot.” My bad! With his ego already bruised, Allen once again took my comments as a dig at his competence. (While his systems knowledge was clear, it’s not a stretch to say I was critiquing his “emotional intelligence,” interpersonal-client awareness, and marketing savvy. And believe me, I’m no marketing maven.)

Triangles, Egoals, and Growing Pains

During this debrief George and I also disagreed over some points of my presentation and team participation. But at the heart of the back and forth, in so many words, both men were questioning whether my ego needs, a need to impress, to outshine, or ally with the VC, contributed to my disruptive action. While “triangulation” or “two against one” is a frequent interpersonal ploy or trap in small group interaction, and allying with mom over dad and brother often makes for intriguing fiction writing, I didn’t think this was the basis for my action. I believed and affirmed that my intention was concern for the contract by connecting with the client. I also emphasized that it was not easy for me to break in. I knew I was taking a risk not playing according to “script.” But I felt my motivation was the greater good, not personal aggrandizement or “egoal” needs. I also mentioned that “George knows we have a 15 year history of disagreeing openly, but when all is said and done, I follow his lead.” (Allen’s and George’s working relationship is of a much shorter duration.)

George agreed with my self-assessment as a passionate and opinionated “team player.” (I don’t do group think very well.) George also reminded us that being a “unified team,” “pausing while presenting” and “connecting to pain” are all vital for winning the contract, and we began wrapping up. I may have surprised Allen by saying warmly in closing, “I look forward to two quirky guys meeting in August” (the time frame for the retreat assuming we win the contract).

Upon hanging up, I definitely was uneasy and made two decisions, one quickly, the other a bit more gradually: first, I would send George a follow up email, and later I would try to capture key tactical points from this intense half-hour learning laboratory. Here’s the email:

Hi George,

Sometimes I wish I wasn't so passionate, but that's me, I guess.

I really appreciate that we can verbalize our different perspectives and opinions; and know that I respect your knowledge/lead and will follow your lead.

But I will be more restrained when a colleague is talking. Though based on your feedback, I suggest a telephone conference rule: no non-stop talking for more than 2-3 minutes without pausing; and when you pause, if the client doesn't immediately comment, ask if the info shared was clear, or ask if they have any questions; have their project issues/goals been addressed, or are there any outstanding questions or concerns?

I would say this was another growing pains learning opportunity. If you have any additional thoughts, I'd like to hear them. Thanks.


To George’s credit his Smart Phone response was prompt, wise, and to the point: “You are still part of the team. Disagreement and conflict will only strengthen our final process and product.”

Building on George’s observation, Part II will provide tools and techniques for helping one and all bridge communication gaps and to…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. A training and Critical Incident/Grief Intervention Consultant for the National EAP/Wellness Company, Business Health Services in Baltimore, MD, the Doc is also leading “Stress, Team Building and Humor” programs for various branches of the Armed Services. 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). For more info on the Doc's programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email