The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist (tm)
JAN 2001, No. 1, Sect. 2
Continuing his series on running a Practice Safe Stress Program, the Stress
Doc details ten strategic steps comprising his highly popular Discussion-Drawing
Exercise. The small group exercise facilitates real sharing of sources of
stress and conflict yet resists becoming just another gripe session. The
playful drawing and lampooning of group frustrations leads to catharsis,
camaraderie and creative synthesis.
"How To" Manual for Leading a Practice Safe Stress
Program: Part II
The Discussion-Drawing Exercise
The cornerstone of the Practice Safe Stress Workshop, whether leading an hour
or a daylong program, is the Discussion-Drawing Exercise. This highly
interactive, multi-sensorial exercise has ten strategic segments:
1. Planning Beforehand with Workshop Coordinator
2. Directing Small Group Formation and Logistics
3. Providing Broad Instruction and Illustration
4. Providing Specific Operational Instructions
5. Monitoring Groups and Distributing Supplies
6. Announcing Final Drawing Instructions and Coaching
7. Transitioning to the Feedback and Feedforward Phase
8. Choosing Show and Tell or Gallery Walk Formats
9. Leading a Group Assessment of the Exercise
10.Fielding Group Questions.
Lets examine the segments sequentially:
1. Planning Beforehand with Workshop Coordinator. The operational seeds
for the Discussion-Drawing Exercise are sown before meeting your program
audience. As detailed in Part I (Stress Doc Newsletter, NOV 2000, No. 1, Sect.
2), getting buy-in from the workshop coordinator or program planning committee
for this interactive exercise is critical. Discussing the room layout is also
vital. (See 2. below.) And the final piece of the pre-workshop preparation
puzzle is ordering necessary supplies. Supplies for the exercise include a large
sheet of flip chart paper for each group and a set of magic markers. My
preference is having at least five colors/set: red, yellow, blue, black and
green. These colors allow for a wide array of symbolic and emotional expression
red for anger or passion, black for gloom and doom, black hole or power, red
and black for the devil in hell, green for money, tenderness, envy or youthful
These supplies must be negotiated sufficiently in advance. Sometimes
organizations are a bit incredulous when I request 50 sets of markers and three
sets of large flip chart paper. But be firm. This exercise is the heart of your
Practice Safe Stress Program!
2. Directing Small Group Formation and Logistics. As noted in Part l of
this series, this group exercise immediately follows my "Shrink Rap"
and final bantering around audience reaction to the rap. My seriously silly
rapping models the optimal sensibility for participation in the ensuing
interaction exercise. The audience is directed to assemble in groups of
four-five people. With a small audience and an odd number of people, for
example, eleven, two groups of four and one group of three is preferable to
groups of five and six. Smaller sized groups allow for more individual
involvement. Greater numbers of groups encourages more playful competition
amongst the groups.
With a large group and tight auditorium or meeting room space, groups of five
and six members may be necessary. Group size is limited to six for optimal
Ideally, the program room will have tables that can accommodate four or eight
people two separate groups). Or, when the audience size is manageable, a large
boardroom table allows teams to cluster along different sections the ends,
corners and/or middle of the long rectangular surface.
Room-inating on Reservations
However, be prepared to function in a less than ideal exercise space. For
example, a recent program for the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD,
was held in a mid-sized auditorium setting. The participants from
secretaries to scientists packed the house. The saving variable for this
exercise was that folks sat in chairs that could move about. Still, for a
moment, I felt a need to call on my "Inner Houdini." Actually,
breaking out of the box is more motivation than magic. As programming planning
chair, Dr. Ralph Nitkin, penned in his testimonial: "I must confess that I
was skeptical about whether the interactive exercises would be appropriate for
such a large and diverse group (about 150), but you pulled it off. You got their
trust and I was surprised how enthusiastically they got down on the floor to
bare their souls in the drawing exercise." (I give extra credit to drawing
groups "get down." ;-)
Once your leadership skills and expertise have been established and people
are into the exercise, the groups will figure out how to execute within the
workspace parameters. In this case, the hardest feat was selling this exercise
to the NIH workshop planning committee. There was quite a bit of pre-workshop
resistance. During a break after the Discussion-Drawing Exercise, a committee
member approached me and said, "You must be feeling pretty smug."
Smiling knowingly, I replied, "As a matter of fact, I am." ;-)
3. Providing Broad Instruction and Illustration. Once the groups are
clustered, next comes the sequence of instructions:
a) Purposeful Instruction. First, the audience is reminded of the
opening 3 "B" Stress Barometer Exercise: "How do you know when
you are under more stress than usual?" Now comes the logical exercise
extension: "What are the sources of workday stress and conflict in your
everyday operations?" I allow for work stress that spills over into family
or home life and for the reverse the home to work stress tide.
b) Graphic Illustration. Groups will have about ten minutes for the
discussion phase. This is the "easy" part. Then each team will take
the individual stress perspectives and turn them into a group picture that tells
a story, comes up with a unified stress symbol or theme
that creates its own
Staring into a sea of anxious or mystified faces, I provide a clarifying
example: "Years back I did some work for an engineering company. The
profits were down and the CEO was burnt out. I was about to say that the CEO was
running the company into the ground, but that was giving him too much credit. In
reality, he was seriously burnt out and was hardly running the company at all.
Most days he wasnt even showing up to work. What was he doing? He was off
flying his airplane. Pretty bizarre.
Finally, the CEO did one sane thing he hired a new Vice President. The
new V.P., a former colleague, called and fairly begged: Mark, come quick, we
So we started a series of stress and team building programs. One of the
groups during this exercise drew a picture of this big menacing creature. They
called this hulking monster, A Troublesaurus. This dinosaur is stalking
the plant. Little people are scattering in fear. Except one person, bigger than
the rest, has his back to the monster, totally oblivious, with his head in the
clouds and is watching planes fly by."
I now exclaim, "Is this a great image, or what?" Suddenly, you see
smiling faces illuminated by the awakening light bulbs. I then continue:
"With your group image, allow yourself to be a bit outrageous. For example,
when I do programs with the US Navy, I frequently see sinking ships or sharks
circling the water. Or with the Army Corps of Engineers
4. Providing Specific Operational Instructions. Now remind the group of
the broad exercise purpose "to identify and illustrate sources of
workplace stress and conflict" and then itemize the operational
a. Select a recorder. Choose a person who jots down group members
workplace sources of stress and conflict.
b. Emphasize time constraints and process. The group will have up to
ten minutes for discussion. (Remember, this guide is for a 60-90 minute program,
so time considerations are paramount. Also, keeping groups conscious of time
sharpens their intensity, focus and goal-driven behavior. When someone complains
that Im creating "stress," my quick rejoinder: "Hey, this is a
you dont get off stress free!" ;-)
I add further levity to the time issue thusly: "Because of the time
limits, even if you sense one of your team members is in serious need of some
group psychotherapy, try to resist. Each person needs a chance to share his or
her stress perspective." Stress-relieving laughter immediately ensures.
c. Provide a safety net. Remind your audience that, "This
exercise is not True Confessions. Share at the level in which you feel
personally comfortable." Not surprisingly, this caveat is important if
managers and employees are both participating. This pronouncement usually
elicits some sighs of relief and, ironically, frees people to be more open in
the discussion segment than anticipated.
d. Confronting drawing anxiety. Some folks are still somewhat
perplexed about converting group discussion ideas into a group image. And, of
course, even more folks, especially highly structured and analytical, linear
thinking, left-brained ESTJs (a Myers-Briggs type) who havent picked up a
crayon in years get a bit agitated about drawing. Proceed as follows: "Now
we arent going to get uptight about the drawing part of the exercise. I
myself am a graduate from The Institute for the Graphically Impaired. Stick
figures are fine." Again, laughter is the salve for audience stress.
e. Balance discussion and drawing. I strongly encourage groups not to
short change the discussion phase out of anxiety or eagerness for drawing:
"The more stress-conflict ideas you generate the more interesting and
richer your final design product will be."
5. Monitoring Groups and Distributing Supplies. The first five minutes of
the discussion segment has me playing an observer-facilitator role ready to
answer questions or to redirect a group that may be shifting prematurely from
discussion to sketching. At the halfway point, I remind groups they have about
five more minutes for discussion. Also, be on the lookout for groups that are
starting to do pencil sketches. Around this time I may inquire whether any
groups are ready to identify and illustrate to draw. With enough affirmatively
nodding heads, I start distributing the markers and flipchart paper.
Not all groups are prepared to simultaneously begin the drawing phase. Those
groups that are still brainstorming are encouraged to finish their discussion in
a timely manner. Before both markers and paper are disbursed, final instructions
are delivered. (For large numbers of groups, prearranged assistants help in the
distribution, which also begins sooner than a program with fewer total groups.)
6. Announcing Final Drawing Instructions and Coaching. Getting
everyones attention, final instructions are pronounced: "Just remember
what your fourth grade art teacher probably said. She probably said, 'Have you
thought about music?"
Once the nervous laughter dies down, I continue. "No, she probably
predicted (with a judgmental tone), Youll be back here next year!'"
Now the stage is set for the real instructions: "She probably said, Use
the whole page, make big images, use lots of color and everyone on the team has
to help in the drawing."
The groups are again encouraged to produce an image that integrates the
different individual perspectives (as in "The Troublesaurus" example.)
I explicitly discourage each person just doing his or her own thing in a corner
of the paper. A holistic group image is the goal one, of course, that is
seriously playful, exaggerated or outrageous. Ten minutes is allotted. Be ready
to help a group that cant quite conjure up an image. The use of images over
unnecessary words is also emphasized.
Periodically, I remind the groups of the shrinking time limits 5 more
minutes, three minutes, last flourishing touches, etc. Youll find most groups
are intensely into the drawing phase. An "Inner Child at Play" sign
would definitely capture the ambiance. Of course, some groups will try to
negotiate for more time. Ill usually give in for a couple of minutes but I
dont want groups that have finished their designs sitting idly by and getting
restless. So I keep a pretty tight rein on the time frame and the need for that
"pens down" moment.
7. Transitioning to the Feedback and Feedforward Phase. Now all are ready
for "Fashion Show" part of the program. The groups have two tasks
a) Selecting a spokesperson, a group member who will explain the teams
creative design (including the groups stress and conflict issues) and
b) Based on the problematic issues raised in the drawing, raise one or two
questions in which the audience as a whole can generate some problem-solving
discussion, e.g., "How do you deal with the stress in a work environment
due to shortages of resources and personnel?" The groups have about three
minutes for the two tasks.
8. Choosing Show and Tell or Gallery Walk Formats. Here are
the two basic program formats:
a) Show and tell. When the audience numbers less than 75 or so, the
spokespersons, with drawing in hand, head to the front of the room (or whatever
is the best "stage" area). Each spokesperson has a minute or so to
explain the design. More time is possible in workshops with fewer groups or with
With small numbers of exercise groups, I often encourage the audience to free
associate to one or two of the designs before the spokesperson provides an
explanation. Interspersed, I banter with the spokesperson or the audience. For
example, a stick figure with frizzy hair elicits, "Bad hair day, huh?"
After each presentation, the spokesperson points out his cohorts; each group
receives audience applause. After the applause, the spokesperson relays the
groups question. When possible, the question is posted on a standing easel.
Also, when possible group drawings are taped to the surrounding walls.
b) Gallery walk. With an audience larger than 100, turning the auditorium or
large conference room into an art gallery proves quite effective. This
transformation also dramatically raises the interactive energy in the room. On
or two members of the team initially stay home with their group drawing while
other members meander about the room viewing the other group drawings. The
"stay at homes" can briefly field questions of the gallery hoppers.
Weaving in and out of the galleria, I select about a half dozen drawings
having some dramatic flare. The spokesperson from the selected groups will
interpret their designs to the entire audience (now back in their seats) once
the gallery walk portion is over. (I usually allow 5-10 minutes for the mass
mingling.) With the large audience, too, each group is encouraged to generate a
problem-solving question. These questions may not be posted, but some will be
handled in an "Ask the Stress Doc" post-fashion/art show discussion
9. Leading a Group Assessment of the Exercise. Once the show and tell
part of the program is completed and before moving to the group problem-solving
questions, I pose two related questions myself to the audience: "Did you
enjoy the exercise? What made it useful?" Invariably, responses emerge fast
** "It was good to share real feelings; we dont usually do this at
** "Its nice to know you are not alone." Often similar images or
themes appear in the group drawings; problematic issues cut across departments.
At this point I like to quip: "Remember, social psychologists have updated
the old saw, Misery loves company.' Actually, 'Misery loves miserable
company.' So you all are in good shape."
** "We worked as a team." I ask if any one person had the right
answer for the team. The immediate reply, "No." Then I follow with,
"Was everyones input valuable?" "Yes!" Ask folks if this
contrasts with group meetings where people feel that they are just the
"amen chorus." Knowing smiles light up the room.
** "It was fun." My immediate comeback, "Why was it fun? You
folks were grappling with serious issues. Why was there so much laughter in the
room?" The replies include: "It was truthful," "Better to
laugh than cry," "Being able to express feelings through
drawing," "The exaggerated images," etc.
I expand upon the source of laughter: "One of the functions of humor is
to reduce status differences, to poke fun at pompous or power-crazed individuals
(especially authority figures) or pressure-packed situations (with MASH
humor)." By way of illustration: "You know that inflated egotist who
goes around claiming overtly or more smugly: You dont seem to realize I
really am as important as I think I am." After the audience laughter
subsides, I continue: "Its nice to know that humor can stick a pin in
this persons inflated ego-balloon and bring him or her down to size and to
earth. Mr. or Ms. Authority Figure no longer seems so infallible or superior. At
least for a moment, we can step back, generate a fresh and more self-affirming
Finally, ask about evidence of creativity. Again, a resounding
"Definitely!," followed by further elaboration: "Creativity often
consists of challenging different people and ideas, working with different
resource elements and coming up with a whole that is greater than the sum of its
parts." Clearly the groups processes and pictures illustrate the
Now a closing summary: "When you allow folks to discuss meaningful
emotional issues, allow for true brainstorming, all input is considered valuable
and keep people focused (the groups' acknowledge that the time limit reminders
increased their focus and sense of performance urgency i.e., generated that
good stress') the result is a real sense of sharing and team work, high
energy and productivity along with fun and creativity
Wouldnt it be
terrible if we could bring this process into the workplace more often?" And
a parenthetical aside I cant resist: "I bet some folks could even use
this exercise with their kids at home."
10. Fielding Group Questions. For a short (1-1 ½ hour)
speaking or workshop program, this exercise really opens up the audience for
subsequent large group discussion, albeit brief. Sufficient frustration has been
released; empathy and positive support has been cultivated. Now problem-solving
is less likely to regress into a gripe session or a primal scream/encounter
If group questions have been listed on the flipchart, discussion items are
already front and center. If not listed, the groups volunteer questions. A
couple are tackled or as many as time allows. At this point, youll likely be
able to discern the "hot button" issues that need to be center stage
during the discussion phase. For large groups, basically, the same guidelines
When programs are 2-3 hours or longer the critical value of the
group-generated questions truly comes into play. These questions are the source
material for subsequent engagement, whether through role-play, small
problem-solving teams or another round of large group discussion.
Whether there are a larger or smaller number of groups, a management person
or representative is encouraged to collect the drawings and the problem solving
questions and share them with the highest levels of management. (Of course I cant
resist a wise guy quip: "How about hanging the pictures in the executive
bathroom?" Seriously, I recall one CEO commenting how the drawings gave him
a more realistic feel for the workplace climate than all the verbal and written
reports that came across his desk.) When confidentiality and security needs are
an issue, the group may want to process how and which drawings are to be shared
Well I think weve reached a good transition phase. Next segment is the
dynamic close. Until then, of course
Practice Safe Stress!
"Higher Power of Humor" Section
Here's to the Next Pres.
(Ed. Note.: Since half the voters are dissatisfied with the result of the
election, I've decided a little poke at George W is a fair exchange for his
George W. Bush, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso have all died. Due to
glitches in the celestial Time-Space continuum, all three arrive at the Pearly
Gates more or less simultaneously (even though their deaths take place decades
The first to present himself to Saint Peter is Einstein. Saint Peter
questions the Good Doctor, "You look like Einstein, but you have NO idea
the lengths certain people will go to, to sneak in Heaven under false pretenses.
Can you prove who you really are?" Einstein ponders for a few seconds and
says, "Could I have a blackboard and some chalk?" Saint Peter complies
with a snap of his fingers. Einstein proceeds to describe with arcane
mathematics and symbols - his Special Theory of Relativity. Saint Peter is
suitably impressed. "You really *are* Einstein! Welcome to
The next to arrive is Picasso. Once again Saint Peter asks for his
credentials. Picasso doesn't hesitate: "Mind if I use that blackboard and
chalk?" Saint Peter says "Go ahead." Picasso erases
Einstein's scribbles and proceeds to sketch out a truly stunning mural. Bulls,
satyrs, nude women: he captures their essences with but a few strokes of the
chalk. Saint Peter claps, "Surely you are the great artist you claim to be.
Come on in!"
The last to arrive is George W. Bush. Saint Peter scratches his head.
"Einstein and Picasso both managed to prove their identity. How can you
prove yours?" George W looks bewildered: "Who are Einstein and
Picasso?" Saint Peter sighs, "Come on in, George."
Seek the Higher Power of Humor:
May the Farce Be with You!
Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc," is the Internet's and
America Online's "Online Psychohumorist". An experienced
psychotherapist, "The Doc" is a nationally recognized speaker, and
training and OD consultant specializing in Stress, Anger Management,
Reorganizational Change, Team Building and HUMOR! An expert advisor for
www.AdviceZone.com and iVillage/allHealth, his writings are syndicated by
iSyndicate.com and appear in a wide variety of online and offline forums and
publications, including AOL/Online Psych and Business Know How, Mental Health
Net, 4Therapy.com, WorkforceOnline, HRHub.com, SelfhelpMagazine.com, Financial
Services Journal Online, OpportunityWorld and Counseling Today. Recently, he has
been quoted and/or featured in such publications as Biography Magazine,
Cosmopolitan Magazine, Bloomberg Report/News, Forbes Magazine, FoxNews.com,
Dallas Morning News and The Washington Flyer. The Doc also leads his national
"Shrink Rap and Group Chat" for AOL/Digital City and WebMD.com. Check
out his USA Today Online "Hotsite" Website -- www.stressdoc.com
. For info on his workshops or for his free newsletter, email firstname.lastname@example.org
or call 202-232-8662. Feb 2001, look for Practice Safe Stress with the
Stress Doc, published by AdviceZone.com.
(c) Mark Gorkin 2000
Shrink Rap Productions