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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist (tm)

JAN 2001, No. 1, Sect. 2

Main Article


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.

Let’s 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 possibilities, etc.

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 participation.

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 Dilbert-like cartoon.

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 wasn’t 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 need help!’

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…exploding buildings."

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 instructions:

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 I’m creating "stress," my quick rejoinder: "Hey, this is a stress seminar…you don’t 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 haven’t picked up a crayon in years get a bit agitated about drawing. Proceed as follows: "Now we aren’t 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 everyone’s 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), ‘You’ll 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 can’t 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. You’ll 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. I’ll usually give in for a couple of minutes but I don’t 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 before proceeding:

a) Selecting a spokesperson, a group member who will explain the team’s creative design (including the group’s 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 longer programs.

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 group’s 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 phase.

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 and furious:

** "It was good to share real feelings; we don’t usually do this at work."

** "It’s 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 everyone’s 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 don’t seem to realize I really am as important as I think I am.’" After the audience laughter subsides, I continue: "It’s nice to know that humor can stick a pin in this person’s 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 perspective."

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 definition.

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…Wouldn’t it be terrible if we could bring this process into the workplace more often?" And a parenthetical aside I can’t resist: "I bet some folks could even use this exercise with their kids at home."

10.  Fielding Group Questions.  For a short (1-1 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 group.

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, you’ll 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 apply.

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 can’t 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 with management.

Well I think we’ve 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.

From: Momb7@aol.com

(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 being President.)

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 apart).

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 heaven!"

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 stressdoc@aol.com 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