Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Risk and Reward of Emotional Agility: How to Know When to Let Go

I recently came across the term “emotional agility” in a workshop promotion. Of course “Emotional Intelligence” is an industry buzzword and “emotional resilience” frequently appears in my stress and wellness readings, but this phrase seemed new. Agility makes me think of those fresh-faced female Olympic gymnasts – (nimble, supple, alert, swift, responsive, daring, etc.) – along with bygone days of bodysurfing at Jones Beach and scrambling up red rock in Sedona, AZ. And while the body of late is a bit more creaky and clumsy, I still can conjure a heart that sings and a mind that dances, (and sometimes too a body that gyrates, see below) even when the invitation is sudden and unexpected. Of course, it helps to have a vulnerable yet courageous, genuine and risk-taking partner, especially when minds and moods start swinging. Perhaps most important, though, such head- and heart-felt agility may quickly open you to powerful sharing and emotional intimacy, especially in the face of psychological binds and barriers. Consider this brief and intense yet poignant – “death and life” – encounter.

Exuberance was still in the air as government employees and managers filed out of a half-day “Building Stress Resiliency” class. Throughout the program, the interactive energy and open, thoughtful peer engagement had been on display. Now I was feeling a bit high after a closing, full blast rendition of “The Stress Doc’s Shrink Rap” ™. Bouncing around in Blues Brothers hat and black sunglasses, while arrhythmically shaking my black tambourine had initially generated a number of startled looks and gaping mouths. But upon “wrapping up,” almost all would agree that even the most analytical, legal, and technical minds (actually, the predominant mindsets in the room) had been delightfully (and thoughtfully) aroused and tickled. And the sharp lyrics reverberated across several generations. (Email for the lyrics.) Naturally, I got the biggest laugh when I followed the hearty clapping with, “I’ve been doing this long enough. I know when an audience is applauding out of relief!”

Pairing witty yet wise lyrics with unabashedly awkward yet enthusiastic gyrations reminds me of a distinction between wit (saying funny things) and humor (saying things in a funny way) and demonstrates some kind of bihemispheric brain flexibility. And another sign of cognitive-affective agility, one I’ve been practicing for a good while with varying degrees of success, is rapidly shifting emotional gears – having a playful message spring from a serious conceptual underpinning or slyly inserting some double-edged humor in a pointed statement. But let me return to our workshop setting and an imminent challenge: demonstrating emotional agility without humor as a clutch or crutch.

Turning On an Emotional Dime

As is customary after a program I was about ready to decompress when, out of the “feel good” haze, a gentleman perhaps in his early fifties, of slight, yet lean and compact build, standing erect, with a neat and close cropped haircut, the last attendee in the room, approached with a troubling question. During the workshop, I had mentioned working with the military. With a serious and somber look and tone, this father shared that his son, six months ago, had committed suicide, a year after coming back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He also acknowledged that his son had been diagnosed as manic-depressive.

A palpable sigh and nodding head was my immediate reaction and attempt at some humble “Despite my experience, I’m not sure I can fully fathom the depth of your pain” connection. I eventually acknowledged that suicide has become a big concern for the military, especially the Army.

Before I could ask how he was doing, he shared that he was struggling with an issue. Before his son’s death and for a while afterward, he had been attending the Army’s Wounded Warrior rehabilitation and resocialization program. An administrator in the WW program observed how this government examiner and his family had courageously grappled with the loss of their son. The Administrator recently asked the father if he’d be willing to counsel other soldiers (and, I assume, other families).

The father’s conflict mirrored my own; however, his eyes also radiated some alarm. Initially, he focused on the fear of saying the wrong thing when counseling someone in the grip of pain and torment. He didn’t want to be responsible for…the rest of the sentence was left unspoken. (Surely this fear was colored by his son’s actions.)

The Logical, the Psychological, and the Experimental

There was a logical side of my brain that wanted to share, “This is a common fear, and usually unfounded. If you are ever uncertain about your feelings or unsure about what to say, just trust your heart and gut, for example: ‘I can’t imagine or I don’t know what to say. Or, I don’t know if this is the same situation, and I’m not trying to give advice, more just sharing my perspective, but when such and such happened to me (or us) this is what I experienced, or this is how I felt, this is what I wanted to do, this is what I finally did, etc.’” Sometimes emotional agility is as much knowing what not to say (or when not to say it) as it is using a clever retort or felicitous phrase.

Like the WW Administrator, my gut told me this man had a lot of hard-earned empathy and wisdom that truly could be of value to others. I was also associating to how my girlfriend fairly quickly joined and then, eventually, became a group leader at her local chapter of “The Compassionate Friends” when her 19 year old daughter died suddenly in a car accident. This parent and siblings support group enabled her to hold on, even if just barely, to her shredded life and fragile sanity.

However, the psychological part of me knew this dad needed more time and help, which was confirmed when he dug a little deeper. Now he acknowledged not knowing if he was ready to dredge up once more all the painful feelings of the last year-and-a-half. (Also, in a later discussion with my girlfriend, she shared that “The Compassionate Friends” wanted peer leaders to wait at least two years before assuming a group facilitator role. Of course, the military may well be in “crisis” mode regarding its need for people to help staff and support the Wounded Warriors project.)

Thinking on my feet, my intent was not to help this gentleman make a final decision about the counseling role. Instead, I suggested he speak to a WW professional, one who would truly listen to the concerns he had shared with me. I reiterated, “This person’s goal must not be to ultimately convince you to become a volunteer. Let them know you need an ear, someone who will help you continue to grapple with your loss while enabling you to sort out the emotional pros and cons of such a poignant decision.”

I truly believe by sharing and reliving his story, his personal and family pain, in a safe setting with a knowledgeable and concerned guide, this father’s “grief ghosts” will be less haunting, his emotional highs and lows less disorienting, and his son’s spirit will more comfortably reside within.

Finally, I had one more idea: if after a period of personal coaching and reflection gnawing questions lingered, he could try the counseling as a pilot project – perhaps for a month. Then, in consultation with a WW professional, both parties could assess his comfort and confidence levels.

He acknowledged not having considered a trial run. Now, his heartfelt words of thanks, but especially his softened eyes and body posture, said this father had a newfound sense of possibility if not direction.
Closing Summary
When intense emotional issues are many-layered if not convoluted, and time is limited and information gathering is constrained, ironically, it’s often critical to move deliberately yet carefully. A helper, coach, or guide may need to hold off providing a direct answer, no matter how worthy or determined the petitioner. Sometimes emotional agility means exercising restraint, as in resisting the urge to provide quick advice or questionable reassurance. Even in the face of a compelling request, it might be wise to forego “bending over backwards” or making a dramatic, overly self-assured “liberation leap” – whether of faith or ideas – into a realm of illusive promises. (And, of course, beware the savior role motivated by a need to erase your own personal-psychological tension or unhappiness in the guise of rescuing another.)

There are circumstances when the best a concerned party or coach can do is to outline a time- and goal-focused passageway that holds out some possibility for greater tolerance of angst or acute uncertainty. However, with some flicker of hope in that proverbial dark, subterranean cave, the aggrieved will often begin to crawl upward and outward; with each step, now a growing luminosity further energizes personal commitment to challenge discouraging voices and pursue mind-expanding resources. Finally, a true seeker just may perceive light if not dawning enlightenment traversing a twisting and turning head-, heart-, and soul-searching labyrinth. To quote the inspiring words of the pioneering medical scientist, Jonas Salk: Evolution is about getting up one more time than you fall down; being courageous one more time than being fearful; trusting just one more time than being anxious.

Of course, that “one more time” may seem quite daunting. A humble more than heroic intervention may only invite the questioner to explore a rocky yet potentially rewarding “road less traveled.” The climb is invariably steep, slippery, and unsteady, yet vital for developing such emotional muscles as endurance, strength, frustration tolerance, mind-body-spirit balance, resilience, and agility. Continuing the battle on this “trial and error” (and sometimes, alas, “trial and terror”) path helps evolve a sense of competence, confidence and, perhaps, hard-earned wisdom. Now, with healing time, there may be the gradual embrace of life’s great tragedies as well as our own small but meaningful triumphs. For precious moments we may quiet those mind-roiling fears, flaws, and “Intimate FOE”s – Fear of Exposure; perhaps there’s even a possibility of gently cradling and blowing new life into one of our heart-rending “failures.” As I once penned:

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

Personal Reflection

Why did I write this essay? Some voice in my head, some echo in my heart wanted this encounter to live beyond its five minute lifespan. This courageous man challenged me to move beyond my own self-absorption; and he helped bring out parts of me – both head and heart – that I most value. I am grateful that this gentleman perceived me as a person he could entrust with his wounded heart. Writing enables me to bring to life this extra-ordinary encounter, to depict and share the delicacy and complexity of the moment – two men grappling with meaning, memory, and that fine line between giving of and to one’s self. Hopefully, this essay also conveys a notion of agility that animates the words of the acclaimed 20th novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with the sentiments of numerous other artists and scientists: The test of a first-rate intelligence is the capacity to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. For example, one should see things as hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise…especially by reaching out from a precarious limb to another individual both knowledgeable and also willing to humbly accept his own limits and vulnerability.

Words to inspire emotional agility 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 and webinar 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

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mastering the Message, the Medium, and the Meeting: Designing Effective, Efficient, and Emotionally Intelligent Phone/Web Conferences

Satirical Essay to Appear in Paradigm Magazine’s “Lighten Up” Section. A shorter version of the below will be coming out shortly. Enjoy!

Seven Keys to Mastering the Message, the Medium, and the Meeting: Designing Effective, Efficient, and Emotionally Intelligent Phone/Web Conferences

One of the ironies of our ever-changing and expanding “TNT” – Time-Numbers-Technology – driven and distracted world: when it comes to electronic meetings, phone conferences, webinars, and webcasts, the need for traditional so-called “soft people skills” is more critical than ever. To build an “effective, efficient, and emotionally intelligent” audio and/or video bridge to virtual meeting participants requires both “high tech and high touch skills. Hey, if you’re like my girlfriend, I know you are a wizard with your SmartPhone and IPad (cause you’re always touting a new app, bragging on another Apple class or personal consultation, or talking about your latest time-saving discovery, etc.). Hey, my standard reply, “I’m impressed…but I have an IMind!

And apparently, many who are becoming so dependent on their gadgets appear in jeopardy of losing theirs, especially when it comes to interpersonal communication. Our attention spans and “impatience thresholds” are shrinking while that “need-to-know-right-now-the-fate-of-‘it’s-all-about-me’-world-is-on-the-line” (ntkrntfo“iaam”wiotl) attitude skyrockets out of the virtual ether, while simple common sense problem-solving appears on the verge of extinction. (For example, an otherwise bright, young out-of-town businesswoman on the DC Metro Red Line was trying so hard to figure out with her SmartPhone which train station to exit, the thought of calling the commercial establishment of her destination for directions escaped her. She was startled by my suggestion.)

The Assumptions-Anonymity-Aggression Axis

We also tend to forget that when involved in sensory-deprived communication media such as a phone or even video conference, some noteworthy effects emerge. Loss of sensory data, even on a high quality video conference, deprives us of nonverbal nuances, subtle facial gestures, and the “eyes as windows to the soul” effect as well as, of course, the energy in the room. Not only do participants jump quickly to questionable conclusions; it is easier to slip into “all or none” or “black or white” perspective if not posturing. When combined with stress and time pressures or personal "hot buttons," deficits in sensory data often mean premature inferences and rigidified assumptions come into play, especially when making judgments about other people’s motives or actions. For example, while from a different medium and a different motivation, think political campaign TV ads. Let’s call it the Karl Rove, political pit-bull effect. (Hmmm…I wonder if the PETA folks are going to accuse me of defamation of character.)

Also, sensory deficit and a sense of anonymity reduce a capacity for empathy; it makes it harder to walk in another’s shoes (and especially to feel their bunions). It also hardens the assumptive arteries, slows down blood flow to the brain, and makes it easier to aggress against an invisible, virtual, hardly flesh and blood target. (In fact, the Skypeian Age means the expression “f-2-f” no longer works as shorthand for live, face-to-face, being in the same room dialogue. Now we need an “fl-2-fl” acronym – flesh-to-flesh – for capturing the interactive potential to literally “reach out and crush…I mean touch someone.”

The electronic age allows for all kind of aggressive interaction; when hiding behind a keyboard or IPad screen or “Not so Smart” phone, it’s easy to take on a Dirty Harry, “Make My Day” avatar. (And this is not just a male issue; there are plenty of Rambettes prowling the Internet.) Remember, your primitive brain is hardwired not only to a flashing and fiery tongue but also to those dart- and flame-throwing thumbs and fingers. I think we need a new mantra: Anonymity is the father of aggression!

Boneheads and Bonapartes

Alas, I warned about the effects of Internet anonymity and acting out aggression through electronic counterstriking with the ‘90s essay, “Is It an Email or E-missile?” The essay was inspired by a DC think tank consultant who wasn’t thinking. Engaged in a long distance electronic debate that was becoming increasingly personal, our hero mistakenly hits the “Send All” button. Now a scathingly “hot” email becomes a “heat seeking” missile, but not for the intended target-antagonist across the country. This screaming missile-missive explodes in about a thousand inboxes around the globe. Big surprise: the next day, the director of the think tank has him in my office for “Anger Management” sessions.

There’s an inverse relationship between anonymity and aggression (perceiver aggression goes up ↑) and anonymity and empathy (perceiver empathy goes down ↓). Hmm…maybe some use of the “mute” button not just for distraction but for detachment – to short-circuit morphing into a mutant monster – is not such a bad idea.

And when it comes to running a meeting, especially the phone conference variety, personality transformations are not uncommon. An IT Officer of a bank shared how when the CEO holds electronic phone conferences he becomes a pushy, “little Napoleon.” When running a live, fl-2-fl, in-the-same-room meeting he’s still a no-nonsense, “let’s get it done” leader; however, the bodies and eyes in the room evoke a degree of executive concern for how the living, breathing, emotionally sentient social group is appraising him. Some form of social approval-social control helps tamp down Mr. B.s excess testosterone and lurking, aggressive shadow side.

The Strategic Seven

Clearly, it takes a level of emotional insight-communicational intelligence to navigate these technologically turbulent channels. To build that “High Tech and High Touch Phone & Web Conferencing Bridge,” you can’t do better than The Superior, Scintillating, and Strategic Seven – Rule Your Virtual Universe. (However, there is a caveat. These strategies may be hazardous to the ironically-impaired.):

1. Plan the Nike Way. Don’t waste time with a preconference or webinar dry run, just because someone in IT is a “Nervous Nerdie.” You go with the flow. (Of course, the tech support person’s tears may be flowing.) In addition, when preparing for a conference, don’t get bogged down with planned or structured agendas; in fact, why have an agenda of any kind. And forget about time limits for presenters. Bring your spontaneity; you believe in “Chaos Theory”; and you once had an improv class. This is the age of hyper-speed and hypertext. Just do it…Don’t overthink or direct it!”

2. Darwin Not Robert’s Rules. Without a structured agenda, the fastest, loudest, brashest, and BOLDEST talkers or typers insure the survival of the fittest ideas and plans. Of course, there’s a clear way to transform Darwinian discourse into meaningful dialog...but open, “Helmet’s off,” “No rank in the room” discussion is just a fantasy; besides, it takes way too much energy and effort. So just put everyone on “mute” for the meeting; then leave two minutes for questions at the end. (People will likely rush off for a coffee or bathroom break; you shouldn’t have any need to fill those closing minutes.)

Perhaps, some people will multi-task during your presentation. At least people won’t be bored; there won’t be all that distracting input, insight, and interaction, or that petty nitpicking of your ideas, nor any challenge to your egoal-driven, on-track (or is it one-track?) strategic mind and plan. While some claim, “Repetition and competition may be the law of nature but variation and cooperation appear to be the rule of life!”…bah humbug. You’re a “natural law” leader. (For example, see Adam Gopnik’s, Angels and Ages: Darwin, Lincoln and a Short Book about Modern Life.)

3. Take Command. Of course, sometimes there’s not time for any of this feel good, democratic participation. Hey, if you’re the program leader or presenter, once you get on a roll, maintain that role. You’ve earned your stripes and that “Monarchical Monologue.” You have a compelling vision; others must see its unassailable wisdom. (And don’t let some smart mouth tell you that sometimes there’s a fine line between vision and hallucination!)

4. Stay on Point after Point. And just because you sense people are not totally following your message, don’t distract yourself or cloud the dispatch by checking in with the audience. Continue to reiterate your ideas or, better yet, tell another mentally meandering, yet so obviously illuminating story…and another. Specifically defined end points are for obsessive control freaks; life’s a journey.

Remember, you’re not running a focus group. When you want others’ opinions, you’ll ask. Ask any marketing maven: many times you must keep repeating a message before it sinks in. And if someone accuses you of being an egotist or an elitist, simply declare, “Au contraire.” You are a kindred spirit of the Energizer Bunny…You just keep talking…and talking…and talking!

5. It’s Not Power Point for Nothing. If people object to your spontaneous and repetitious storytelling, show them. Bombard your audience with power point slides, and follow the text to the letter. If you want to throw in some gratuitous graphics, go ahead. But never lose sight of the power of a tightly scripted idea. You can distill complex issues into non-deviating bullets and sound bites. The best pols (politicians) do it all the time, speaking of power and the survival of the fittest.

6. If You Must, Take a Poll. If participants view electronic meetings as “Big Brother in the Virtual Ether” and are reluctant to disclose, then subtly worded poll Qs just may have a polygraphic effect. At minimum, for poll questions not to be a time waster, cram several issues into each poll question. Complex questions with multiple parts to the question, the more abstract the better, make you seem erudite. They may generate some confusion but people will hang onto your every word, especially if there’s an evaluative quiz at the end; just as if you were a distinguished academic professor. Which leads us to…

7. Develop an Academic Presentational Style. Commanding presentation demands a serious, authoritative, all-knowing, and lofty if not a tad haughty oratorical presence. Consistent tone or monotone – as in monologue – suggests gravitas and not a “hobgoblin of little minds.” Polish and precision trumps personal sharing and earthly passion every time, despite that Frenchman, La Rouchefoucald’s, warning: Passions are the only orators which always persuade. They are like an act of nature, the rules of which are infallible; and the simplest man who has some passion persuades better than the most eloquent who has none. Come on…what can some 17th century man of letters tell us about a TNT world where the medium is the message???

Closing Summary

Many people are not sold on these new electronic learning, sharing, and decision-making arenas. And even fewer seem to have mastered a capacity for imparting information and generating interactive discussion and decision-making. Yet, of course, companies and organizations are flocking to all variety of virtual venues. It’s a perfect storm for an early adaptor wanting to impart his or her own mind-print on “Effective, Efficient and Emotionally Intelligent Electronic Conferencing.” So try the “Stress Doc’s Seven Superior and Scintillating Strategies.” You too can rise above if not master the message, the medium, and the meeting (and even the masses) and rule your virtual world!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and webinar 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