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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

JUL 03, Sec. I

Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!

Table of Contents

Offerings:     Training Kit & Book; AOL Chat
Shrink Rap:  Organizational Retreating and Risk-Taking
Main Essay:  The Definition and Evolution of Professional Wisdom
Sec. II
      The Pope and the Queen, Lewinsky and Kaczynski
Heads Up:     Society of Composers & Lyricists, Networking Today


1. Training/Marketing Kit: Want to strengthen your ability to lead or market a stress workshop or any kind of speaking/training program?  Consider the Stress Doc Training/Marketing Kit, which includes both "how to" manual and articles and the opportunity for phone coaching.  For more info:   Training/Marketing Kit http://stressdoc.com/kitbook.htm or email.

2.  Stress Doc Book:
From Stress Brakes and Shrink Rap to Safe Stress and Cool Moon Cats:
The Wit and Wisdom of the Stress Doc, Stress Doc Enterprises, 1995

A 90 page compilation of my former syndicated radio essays, pioneering songs in the field of psychologically humorous rap music - "Shrink Rap" Productions - a creative visualization poem and other humorous lyrics/poems. "Stress Brake" radio essays are short (300 words), fast-paced and witty, covering such topics as stress, burnout, anger and conflict resolution, time management, creativity, men's and women's issues, romantic relationships, codependency, etc. (They make excellent fillers for newsletters.)

Price: $20 (which covers priority postage and handling)

Make check payable to:  Mark Gorkin

Send check to:

Mark Gorkin
Stress Doc Enterprises
1616 18th Street, NW  #312
Washington, DC 20009-2542

3. Chat Group:
Stop by my AOL/Digital City Shrink Rap (TM) and Group Chat DC Support Chat, Tuesdays, 9:30-11pm EST DC Support Chat. It's a dynamic, lively, at times witty and always warm, thoughtful and supportive problem-solving group. We raise questions and share our ideas, hopes and experiences with each other.

Shrink Rap:

The Stress Doc enumerates key strategies built into his popular discussion and drawing exercise that can help management get a true read on organizational climate, coordination, and morale.  But you have to be willing to first see and hear some bad news in order to generate good problem-solving.

Organizational Retreating and Risk-Taking
Helping Management Maximize "Safe Stress" Workshop Benefits

Once again I was reminded why, despite rave reviews from participants, some companies might not want a follow-up to a Stress Doc program on managing stress and building team spirit through humor.  The latest performance arena involved seventy safety directors and project managers of a highly diversified, international corporation.  This company often provides contract staff to an array of companies in a variety of industries -- from security guards to scientists.

The company continues to grow despite the sluggish economy.  Its desirable reputation rests on both solid performance and uncommonly strong safety records.  The annual conference brings together these engineers and safety personnel, most of who are scattered about the country.  A major component of the conference is technical, for example, featuring experts from Homeland Security and OSHA.  However, the National Safety Director (NSD) also wanted a speaker who would support a recently evolving mission:  the marriage of safety and wellness.  This mission is based on the fact that when under excess stress people have more accidents.  Also, stress is correlated with destructive behavior that contributes to higher accident levels, for example, alcohol consumption.

An earlier wellness program had a medical researcher discuss the connection between lifestyle, eating, and exercise habits (or lack thereof), and heart disease.    (Based on this company demographic, there are still too many overweight middle-aged males in the safety field.)  Though informative, the program was too academic.

This year the goal was to have a stress program that would be highly interactive and fun.  The NSD found the Stress Doc ™ Website (www.stressdoc.com).  Once ascertaining I could launch on short notice, he previewed my twenty-minute training video of a Practice Safe Stress program for Lockheed Martin and Computer Sciences Corp managers.  We had a go.

Sources of Safety Stress

Working for a company that prides itself on safety can generate real stress:  you have to meet your safety numbers.  And reaching this goal can sometimes be out of your control, e.g., when employees file false medical claims.  The shorthand formula for distress:  high demand and high responsibility with low control, authority, and autonomy.

Also, this company sometimes acquires other companies who don't have the same safety ethic.  Now you're trying to change the business climate and culture, policies and practices of an organization…with many organizational personnel angry about the takeover.

Then add the familiar stressors of reorganization and growth pressures, along with the inevitable tensions produced by the disconnect in operations and resources between head quarters and the field.  Clearly, you have a group ripe for my primary workshop activity:  a highly interactive discussion and drawing exercise.

Safe Stress Exercise Design

The exercise begins by breaking up the large audience into groups of five or six.  Two segments follow:  (a) the groups spend ten minutes discussing "the sources of stress and conflict in your everyday workplace operations" and, then, (b) based on their talking points, they are challenged to come up with a group picture that turns these identified stressors into a cohesive stress symbol, storyboard, or even a Dilbert-like cartoon.  (Email stressdoc@aol.com for more details on this exercise.)

Going from the verbal to the visual frees up both a playful energy and an outrageous perspective (which I encourage).  Drawing out stress and frustration allows for exaggeration, momentarily transforming fear into fantasy and aggression into absurdity.  Whether it's the field people in Atlas-like fashion holding up the HQ building on their hunched backs and shoulders or planes being targeted by lightning bolts, the group drawing allows for honest expression of what's really on participants' minds and what's in their hearts.

If "do more with less" is the operational default mode, it's no surprise that when given the opportunity folks may reveal their "lean-and-MEAN" side.  Now for some this is problematic; the exercise is just another gripe session.  Instead of whining, these professionals should be thankful they have a job.  While this line of thinking is dumb, let's not get dumber:  clearly, the simplistic bashing of top management or making executives the scapegoat for all company issues and ills is rarely constructive.  However, I do believe there are productive ways of framing the purpose of the exercise, along with the participants' dramatic responses.  Remember, it is better to have this angst drawn out in a workshop than acted out in the workplace!

Key Dynamics of the Practice Safe Stress Discussion and Drawing Exercise

Here is a list of positive process and product factors that emerge upon asking, "What made the exercise useful as well as fun?"

1.  Presenting Common Themes.  I encourage groups to select for diversity, that is, I want field and HQ personnel in the same group, as well as a mix by seniority, race, gender, etc.  Obviously, this helps provide folks a bigger picture of the organization, along with some insight on how the other half lives and works.  A common refrain:  "Gee, I didn't realize others were struggling with these issues as well."  Or, "I'm not alone" and "It's not just me."  Similar themes emerging in the drawings suggest that multiple individuals and work systems are facing common demands and pressures, if not a common enemy.  A group who captures and conveys an issue is not just whining; they are likely speaking for others.  (And if management is being widely perceived as the enemy, someone at the top needs to take note.)

2.  Allowing for Ventilation.  In a "T 'n' T" (Time "n" Task)-driven work world, rarely are employees given the place and space to acknowledge formally, let alone discuss, these stress factors.  Alas, in many companies, intervention likely occurs only when conflict reaches crisis proportions.  Here's an opportunity for blowing off steam.  When venting is combined with group sharing, identification, and empathy people experience tangible stress relief.

3.  Evoking Laughter.  Another post-exercise question is: "Why was there so much laughter in the room?"  These are the issues that have many of us pulling our hair out."  (Of course, being folliclely-challenged, I remind most participants that they should be thankful for being able to have a bad hair day.)  Participants recognize that the pictures are "truthful."  And it's better to laugh than cry.  In fact I share some clarifying wisdom of Charlie Chaplin on this point.  The comedic film genius observed:  A paradoxical thing about making comedy is that it is precisely the tragic which arouses the funny.  We have to last due to our helplessness in the face of natural forces and in order not to go crazy.

In addition, there's a definite connection between expressing anger and lampooning deserving targets and robust laughter.  There's real pleasure sticking it to a pompous authority figure or someone with a monstrous ego.  (A boss sporting devilish horns and a long tail just doesn't seem quite so daunting.)  Especially around a common threat, group laughter, even if just for a moment, helps reduce stress and fear levels.  As psychiatrist and author, Ernst Kris observed:  "What was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at."  And as the Stress Doc inverted:  "What was once feared and is laughed at, is no longer a master!"

With playful exaggeration built into task focus and teamwork, frightening fantasies become more potentially manageable realities. With support, people realize they do have some control, even if initially it's only in their heads and hearts.

4.  Transforming a Group Into a Team.  When people focus on a relevant and mutually meaningful project and goal, this sets the stage for potential teamwork.  And when a group is encouraged to free associate on a feeling level, to brainstorm ideas so that there's not one right answer, then you have the beginnings of a potentially vital problem-solving collective.  By way of contrast, how often do so-called "team meetings" turn participants into an "amen chorus," merely rubber-stamping the dictates of a power-driven or micromanaging authority?  Both on a verbal and visual level, the Safe Stress exercise challenges members to bounce ideas and images off each other.  By people seriously playing together, cohesion builds and sparks of synergy further energize the participants and the team process.

5.  Releasing Energy and Creativity.  There are additional exercise dynamics contributing to the interactive intensity and creative output.  Two prominent forces being space and time:

(a) Space.  Before the "drawing and discussion" (d & d) exercise, groups of participants shared signs indicating when they are under considerable stress.  So there is precedence for some openness and risk-taking.  Also, the "d & d" space is filled with "conflict":  (1) participants are asked to list sources of workplace conflict, (2) the groups have been arranged in departmentally and demographically diverse, if not potentially conflicting, perspectives, (3) each member grapples with how much to reveal in the group, and (4) there is often performance anxiety and possible feelings of inadequacy when adults are asked to draw, especially in a group.  And the tension persists despite my assuring participants that I am a graduate of the Institute for the Graphically-Impaired.  However, opportunity abounds because of the contentious atmosphere:  group dynamics research indicates that optimal conflict often stimulates creative team problem-solving.

(b) Time.  Throughout the discussion and drawing segments, I remind the audience of the time factor.  Groups have a maximum of ten minutes for each segment.  I announce the remaining times at the five-, two-, and one-minute marks.  The time pressure sharpens focus, sharing, and energy while driving the group to complete the task.  And, of course, unspoken, background team competition heightens space and time effects.

Being parts verbal and visual, the exercise allows for a division of labor to emerge as the members engage with the various tasks.  These include conceiving diverse and exaggerated ideas and images, executing the visual design, as well as having a team spokesperson during the large group feedback segment.

In summary, when you allow groups to share freely genuine emotions and ideas, you're encouraging them to be playful, if not a bit outrageous, to draw on both sides of their brains, and to experience some motivating, time-driven good stress, then not surprisingly, an unusual product results.  When everyone's input is valuable and there's no right answer, you have participation, ownership, and synergy:  a creative whole that's greater than the sum of its parts!

6.  Sharing Reality and Building Trust.  Each group selects a spokesperson who explains the "stress and conflict" images and symbolism of the drawing.  The show and tell phase is critical:  each group brings company issues out of the closet and is critiquing its work environment, albeit with a broad brush.

The communal laughter reflects both common plight and the opportunity to skewer common antagonists.  While several targets of this lampooning include external sources -- like customers or suppliers -- invariably there are digs and laughs at the expense of top management.

And this is where leadership reveals its true colors:  does management mostly see this exercise as "boss bashing?  Or does management understand that when you demand high quality and high productivity from employees, and that time and resources are tight, then you better give people a chance to express their frustration.  In the short-run, this exercise is actually a safety valve, a bit of "R & R," helping the troops resist or recover from battle fatigue.  And if employees believe management has really gotten the collective message, and that management is not vindictive in the face of this open, creative show of frustration and force, then the troops will be more motivated upon returning to the font lines.  However, if management reacts defensively or drops the ball by ignoring or giving lip service to the d & d-identified issues, then mistrust of management, employee cynicism, and reduced company commitment may result.  Many employees have already been on company retreats that had all the superficial sizzle but no follow-up substance.

So this motivating and risk-taking adventure yields opportunities and dangers.  But maximizing the former and minimizing the latter is not so difficult.

7.  Generating Future Participatory Problem-Solving.  Hopefully, management realizes that the workshop has provided an invaluable gift:  the discussion and drawings reveal multi-faceted snapshots of how personnel really perceive themselves, management, and the organization, along with the quality of the relationship among all parties.  But workshop strategizing is not the be all and end all.

Depending on the available time, individual teams may select key problem stressors depicted in the drawings.  These "hot" issues can be prioritized in the small teams and/or by consensus ranking with the entire audience (depending on size).  Now, problem-solving can range from analytic discussion to evocative role play.

However, the next step is critical.  There must be a "save the retreat" matrix team -- a mix of organizational personnel, including a management representative -- who will engage in post-retreat deliberations.  (Consider using the workshop leader as an objective facilitator.)  This team's mission is to transform issues and images generated in the workshop into follow-up problem-solving tasks.  It's best to start generating objectives and action plans for issues that are not so intractable or complex.  You want the players to experience some initial success.  A positive start yields confidence-building experience for tackling later the bigger, tougher issues.

Reality must be a guide.  Operational climate and procedures do not change overnight.  If you are fortunate it's a two-step-forward-one-step-back process.  When this mutual problem-solving phase is truly respected, then HQ and the field are building bridges that strengthen coordination and productivity, as well as morale and loyalty. 

Closing Summary

Seven key dynamics of the Practice Safe Stress Discussion and Drawing Exercise have been outlined:

1.  Presenting Common Themes
2.  Allowing for Ventilation
3.  Evoking Laughter
4.  Transforming a Group Into a Team
5.  Releasing Energy and Creativity
6.  Sharing Reality and Building Trust
7.  Stimulating Future Participatory Problem-Solving

When a management-supported workshop can generate and harness these processes and practices, when management is willing and able to cultivate a risk-taking climate that helps participants "be real," (especially with management present), then opportunity can trump danger.  Barriers to in-house productivity and morale can be dismantled; collaborative and innovative bridges can be designed and implemented.  Surely, these are goals worth fighting for, as well as ideas and strategies to help individuals and organizations…Practice Safe Stress!

Main Essay:

After defining key concepts, the Stress Doc illustrates two wisdom-generating paths.  Like many facets of life, the ever winding road of wisdom is often double-edged.

The Definition and Evolution of Professional Wisdom
The Paths of Mentoring and Meandering

While exploring a theme during an association committee meeting, a big concept sprang to the foreground:  What is "professional wisdom" and how does one gain the same?  The Webster's Third World International Dictionary helps launch an investigation.  To summarize, as an adjective, "professional" involves an individual engaged in an occupation requiring a high level of training and proficiency.  The role is characterized by technical and/or ethical standards, such that this individual demonstrates a fine artistry or workmanship based on education, (the application of) sound knowledge, conscientiousness and experience.

And while not axiomatic, "wisdom" seemingly emerges from a professional foundation or reaches some maturity through a "hard-earned," growing pains process or journey that enriches both the head and heart.  Two definitions and a quote should suffice.  Wisdom is:
1) accumulated information or lore, or instinctive adaptation and
2) the intelligent application of learning, that is, the ability to discern inner qualities and essential relationships.

These definitions align with Roget's Thesaurus of Synonyms' conceptual take on wisdom as a blend of head and heart:
1. Mental Capacities -- command, grasp, sharpness, and shrewdness
2. Emotional/Psychological Capacities -- understanding, insight, judiciousness, discrimination, and prudence, foresight and farsightedness.  Clearly, these terms go beyond the cognitive; they reflect both emotional intelligence and intuition.

Perhaps Benjamin Franklin said it best:  "The mouth of a wise man is in his heart."

The Dualistic Nature of Wisdom

Let's return to the second definition of wisdom and examine another dual aspect, in addition to head and heart.  Two relevant dimensions of and processes shaping a wise personality and the discernment of  "inner qualities" and "essential relationships" are "integrity" and "character."  While not recalling the source, it has been posited that:
a) integrity -- reflects a strong inner compass, clear values, and an ethical system along with an integrated sense of self capable of being or standing alone; it is especially forged in solitude and
b) character -- is the expression of one's temperament and vitality, e.g., the degree of pessimism and optimism, helplessnessor hopefulness, along with a capacity for authentic and empathic relating, etc; it is especially shaped through interaction with others.

While this distinction may be somewhat simplistic or too "all or none," still I will illustrate the impact of discerning qualities and our dualities -- head and heart, integrity and character -- on the ebb and flow progression along the path of wisdom.  And notice my bias is that wisdom is a lifelong journey, certainly not a fixed destination or a personality quality revealed by a score or grade.  (I'm sure someone has already tried to establish a WQ -- "Wisdom Quotient."  I refuse to take such a test!)  Of course, wisdom is often situation specific, that is, one may be a sage in methods of work and foolish in matters love.

Now that we have defined our terms, let's identify two wisdom-generating processes -- "mentoring" and "meandering" -- with special emphasis on the latter.
1.  Mentoring.  Most of us can think of a knowledgeable and understanding, more senior supervisor or colleague (or teacher, coach, therapist, etc.) who took us under his or her wing.  This individual shared ideas and experience, helped us bathe wounds or got us back on our feet from daunting learning curve trials.  He or she also provided practical shortcuts based on greater time on the battle lines.  For many, this person becomes a role model significantly influencing both our professional substance and style, especially in those formative years.  One caveat:  totally embracing a mentor's way -- because one sees the mentor as God-like or because it's easier following a familiar or safe trail -- may hinder the development of one's own individuality and confidence to explore.
2.  Meandering.  In contrast to mentoring, one may evolve skills, experience and, ultimately, some wisdom, less by coaching and more by on the job training, especially when (mostly) flying solo.  A meandering learning curve, not surprisingly, is often of longer duration, with unexpected detours and learning paths and has greater frequency of errors.  Still there may be two distinctly positive outcomes:  a) the development of a more individual, fresh and authentic voice or uncommon modus operandi and b) a greater willingness to take risks and a begrudging acceptance of the need for and, even, value of failing.  Solitary meandering may well help build that aforementioned "integrity."

Mentoring or Meandering:  Case in Point

Here's an example that highlights dangers and opportunities in mentoring and meandering.  Within the first year of moving from New Orleans to Washington, DC, I started looking to hook up with more creative types.  In "The Big Easy" just strolling down the street you'd find your artsy oddballs and outcasts.  In DC I had to join an Artists Support Group.  In the short run, the group encouraged (in their limited wisdom) my pioneering work in the field of psychologically humorous rap-music -- "Shrink Rap" ™ Productions.  In the long run, the experience helped illuminate "Two Wisdom-Building Processes":

1.  The Dark Side of Mentoring.  A number of the support group artists had received MFA or BFA degrees.  But, in their own words, most believed their work had more originality and personal meaning before being guided by an academic professor.  The school stressed developing practical skills and earning a living.  Going under the wing of an expert seemed to limit individual launching and exploring.

In contrast, trying to explore creative proclivities in a social work doctoral program (a notion definitely off the academic wall) contributed to my burning out and dropping out.  The silver lining:  no longer confined to academia, I pursued a psychotherapy practice and began offering workshops in my new field of expertise -- stress and burnout.  And then, throwing caution to the wind, there were forays into radio and TV.  While generating plenty of trials and even more errors (fortunately N'Awlins has a high tolerance for deviancy), I began evolving a new voice as a speaker and writer and a new role/persona -- multimedia psychohumorist ™.  Decidedly non-academic, it was as if this voice -- a blend of the serious and humorous -- had been confined to some psychic closet and was finally coming out and starting to strut.  By pursuing an idiosyncratic and fairly solitary path, the road less taken, "made all the difference."  Now, being with these DC artists, I better appreciated my years sowing unconventional wisdom seeds.

2.  The Value of Difference and Diversity.  The other wisdom-generating insight and catalyst emerged from the art group's composition:  an array of creative types, from singers and writers to traditional painters and emerging computer graphic artists.  This variety of perspective and experience challenged me to grow in novel directions.  For example, ten years ago, I was still a technophobe.  As more of the traditional artists moved into computer graphics and brought in their work, I increasingly felt like a technological dinosaur.  Shamed into giving up my computer virgin status, I finally let go of my codependent relationship with a fifteen year old -- my Smith Corona electric typewriter.  (And now I give talks on, "From Technophobia to Cybermania.")

So, while lacking (maybe avoiding) a dominant mentor for helping develop and shape my own ways of head and heart, nonetheless, I allowed myself to be challenged and supported by this diverse collective.  Both "integrity" and "character" flexed new muscles.  This group experience enabled me to look back and better appreciate the progress made by steadfastly transforming academic lemon into multimedia lemonade.   And the group also encouraged envisioning and pursuing new routes -- predictable and otherwise -- on the ever evolving and changing path of wisdom.

Evolution and "The Secret of Wisdom"

Whether through mentoring and/or meandering, evolution and wisdom are as natural together as a bagel and cream cheese.  Two of my favorite complementary sayings come to mind.  Jonas Salk, the great scientific pioneer observed:  Evolution is about getting up one more time than we fall down, being courageous one more time than we are fearful...trusting one more time than being anxious.  And along with a sense of persistence, everyday struggle and appreciation for even small triumphs is the need for serenity:  "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can...and the wisdom to know where to hide the bodies."  No...Just kidding.  ;-)  "And the wisdom to know the difference."  And the older I get, the more profound "The Serenity Prayer" seems.  Yet, a fundamental question remains:  how the heck do you get the wisdom?  Okay, folks.  Here it is...The Secret of Wisdom.

Once there was a young woman who heard that an old wise woman had the secret of wisdom.  The young woman was determined to track the old woman down.  After traveling many months, the young woman found the old woman in a cave.  She entered and addressed the old woman:  "Old Wise Woman, I hear you have The Secret of Wisdom.  Would you share it with me?  The old woman looked at the youth and said, "Yes, you seem sincere.  The Secret of Wisdom is good judgment."  "Good judgment, of course," said the youth, thanked her mentor, and started to leave.  However, as she got to the entrance of the cave she paused, turned back and said, "Old Woman, I feel funny, but, if I may ask, how does one obtain good judgment?"  "That's a good question," said the sage.  "One obtains good judgment through experience."  "Experience, of course," said the young seeker, and proceeded to leave.  But once again she stopped in her tracks, and humbly walked back to her mentor.  "Old Woman," said the young woman, "I feel foolish, but I have to ask:  How does one obtain experience?"  The old woman paused, nodded her head and then proceeded:  "Now you have reached the right question.  How does one obtain experience?. . .Through bad judgment!"

Errors of judgment rarely mean incompetence; they more likely reveal inexperience or immaturity, perhaps even boldness.  Our so-called "failures" can be channeled as guiding streams (sometimes raging rivers) of opportunity and experience that ultimately enrich -- widen and deepen -- the risk-taking passage...If we can just immerse ourselves in the these unpredictably rejuvenating waters.

Words to help us all...Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a psychotherapist, an international/cruise speaker (Celebrity Cruise Lines) and syndicated writer, was recently interviewed on BBC radio.  The Doc is now a "Motivational Humorist" for The DC Improv Comedy Club as well as America Online's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap and Group Chat" on AOL/Digital City.  See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com (recently cited as a workplace resource in a National Public Radio feature on "Bad Bosses").  Mark is also an advisor to The Bright Side -- www.the-bright-side.org -- a multi-award-winning mental health resource.  Email for his monthly newsletter recently showcased on List-a-Day.com.  For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662.

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2003
Shrink Rap Productions