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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™



NOV 2003

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

Table of Contents


Offerings:        Training Kit; CD & Book; AOL Chat
Holiday Tip:     Holiday Blues vs. Holiday Stress
Main Essay: 
    Humor and the Work Team
Readers:         
Creation, Hu's on First & Best Chicken Joke

Sec. II

Shrink Rap:     Executive Coaching:  Key Tips and Tactics
Heads Up:       SAP--Human Capital Forum & ASUGS; EAPA in New Orleans, Natl 
                       Assn of Women Business Owners and SHRM Testimonial


A. Offerings:

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, 20-minute highlights video, and articles, as well as the opportunity for phone coaching.  For more info:   Training/Marketing Kit http://stressdoc.com/kitbook.htm or email.
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2. "R & R" (Rap & Relaxation) CD:
(a) Relaxation-Visualization CD (10-minutes); with three Shrink Raps™ and two of the Stress Doc's classic articles:  "The Four Stags of Burnout" and "The Stress Doc's 'Top Ten' Stress Tips."  (Total time:  55-minutes.)

Price:  $15
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3.  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

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4. Chat Group:

Stop by my AOL/Digital City Shrink Rap (TM) and Group
Chat DC Support Chat, Tuesdays, 9:30-11pm EST DC Support Cha


Holiday Tip:

Holiday Blues vs. Holiday Stress:  How to Practice Safe Stress for the Holidays

It's coming.  Are you ready?  Have no fear, the "Stress Doc" is here with his wisdom for surviving the holidays.  You just need to be able to differentiate Holiday Blues from Holiday Stress.  Now Holiday Blues is the feeling of loss and sadness that you get over the holidays when, for whatever reason, you can't be with those people who are special and significant. And Holiday Stress is when you have to be with some of those people!


Main Essay:

[Eds. Note:  An abridged version of this article will appear shortly in the Argentine Human Resources publication, Conocimiento Y Direccion.]

The Stress Doc sheds light on higher purpose, motivational humor as a creative, stress-reducing tool for these highly charged times.  Case vignettes illustrate humor's potential for enhancing task and supportive capacities of a work team while helping the organization as a whole practice in-house stress-relieving "R & R" -- recreation and rejuvenation.

 

Humor and the Work Team:
Healing, Harmonizing, and Harnessing Morale, Cooperation, and Productivity

 

By Mark Gorkin, LICSW
The Stress Doc" ™


In our globalized, 24/7, relentlessly upgrading and unpredictably downsizing (or reorganizing and merging) bottom-line corporate world, it's no surprise that individuals, teams, divisions, and even entire companies can become "stress carriers" or high stress environments.  A critical challenge for the organization is helping personnel, and especially the foundational task and support system -- the work team -- maintain both productivity and morale in these "do more with less" times.  How can the HR professional and all levels of management help:  (a) fight the "burnout blues," (b) prevent a "lean-and-MEAN" attitude from becoming the department or company mantra, and (c) disarm an "us against them" environment that invariably breeds closed communication, hostile competition, or in-house territoriality?

Tough issues for sure…still, have no fear (well, maybe a little) the "Stress Doc" is here to champion an underutilized conflict-resolving and performance-enhancing intervention tool.  So what is this magical and methodical instrument for preventing your company's "esprit de corps" from turning into an "esprit de corpse?"  It's deceptively simple:  HUMOR!

Humor Clarified and Defined

However, this humor, what I call "motivational humor," is a lot more than just a good joke starting off a team or staff meeting.  It's not having a humor day, where management puts on clown noses or wigs.  Nor is it firing loud sounding toy guns to act out "playfully" disagreement or to distract momentarily during a tense problem-solving meeting.  While all these actions may temporarily lighten a work atmosphere, I'm interested in more imaginative and involving interventions that truly arise from live issues and conflicts, while they are occurring.  And this instrumental humor should have both short run and, potentially, ongoing impact.  Motivational humor is:
(1) healing -- releases frustration and opens up communication channels within and among work teams
(2) harmonizing -- busts those trust barriers between "superiors" and "subordinates"
(3) harnessing -- generates energy, creativity, and coordination or team synergy for inspiring ideas and innovations

To better understand this action concept, lets capture its semantic foundation.  According to The Random House Dictionary, "humor (is) the recognition and expression of the incongruities and peculiarities in a situation or conduct."  A capacity for humor, especially positive motivational humor, often reveals an ability to appreciate and play with life's absurdities; to poke good-natured (and sometimes a bit more pointed) fun at others and, especially, to laugh at our own flaws and foibles.  In fact, for the pioneer of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, humor is the highest psychological defense mechanism.  Such mature humor and the capacity for self-effacing laughter, reflects the encouragement of our efforts and a patient tolerance of our "so-called" failures.

Let's keep pushing the humor envelope:  research has even linked humor to innovative problem-solving.  One study revealed that people who had just watched a short comedy film of television "bloopers" were better able to find a creative solution to a puzzling problem than were people who had watched a film about math (zzzzz!) or people who had exercised.  Humor seems to stimulate the right side of our brain allowing us to think more broadly, to forge exaggerated and surprising possibilities, and to see complex and otherwise elusive relationships.

Four Functions of Humor

Humor also has four basic functions, which I've captured in an acronym.  Humor is good for what AILS you:

A = Arousal.  Hearty laughter provides dopamine-like stimulation when bored and endorphin-induced relaxation when tense.  This laughter has been likened to a big vibrator that gives your vital organs a brief but vibrant internal massage.

I = Incongruity.  As mentioned, humor allows us to go beyond rigid "black or white" and "all or none" thinking; it enables us to generate imaginative and even paradoxical possibilities (such as my self-described professional label of "Psychohumorist" ™).  Humor that plays with the inconsistent, unexpected, and contradictory helps us think and laugh "out of the box."

L = Liberation.  Humor often facilitates the discussion of a variety of subjects that may be taboo or off limits, for example, sex, religion, or politics.  Speaking the unspeakable is now possible.  And, just as important, people are more open to a serious message when it's gift-wrapped with humor.

S = Superiority.  Humor is a potent vehicle for bringing down to earth inflated egos and arrogant individuals.  (Think of Will Rogers or political cartoons.)  Humor and the ensuing laughter may also provide the productive release of frustration and anger.  However, I must raise a cautionary red flag:  depending on a person's motives, humor can have a decidedly hostile edge.  Too often an individual or group uses humor as a weapon of attack or to elevate one's own self-esteem or status at the expense of another party.

Perhaps the pioneering film genius, Charlie Chaplin, succinctly captured the broad purpose of humor:

     A paradoxical thing is that in making comedy, the tragic is precisely that which
     arouses the funny…we have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of
     natural forces and (in order) not to go crazy.


Four Case Examples

With these basic functions and words of wisdom in mind, let me illustrate the purposes and dramatic consequences of the healing, harmonizing, and harnessing power of motivational humor.  The following four morale-ity tales demonstrate how this mirthful and memorable intervention technique relaxes, reenergizes and rejuvenates team performance.  And, hopefully, you'll also discover how humor theory and practice come together and play.

A.  Reversing Departmental Resistance to Change (or "Thinking Out of the Coffin")

Here's a vignette showing how a federal agency department on the toxic passive-aggressive "resistant to change" path managed to rise from the ashes of an organizational pyre.  Actually, with some imaginative intervention, management and employees together moved way "out of the burnout battlefront box."

Years ago, in my role as an OD/team building consulant, a department manager was lamenting to me that her staff seemed to be fighting the computer automation of record keeping.  The tip of the iceberg was group resistance to a new administrative form.  When this form would run out, employees would return to the old standard.  Verbal exhortation and a stream of memos had not stemmed the countervailing tide.  And like a stormy tide, a tense undercurrent was gathering strength.

After a period of uneasy workplace assessment, in a brainstorming session with the manager, it was clear that employee input on form design, especially among those directly effected, had not been solicited.  Further discussion confirmed my suspicion that group resistance and worker slowdown had as much to do with management's top-heavy implementation as with employee trepidation.  Folks were chafing under a sense of loss and feeling like manipulated pawns, if not like children who should be seen (following orders) and not heard.

One day, an idea popped up when I realized staff's behavior was more than passive-aggressive defiance.  Employees were grappling with the loss of control in decision-making, a loss of familiar processing procedures and a looming, uncertain operational future.  Some loss of face, a feeling of being devalued, should also be thrown into this critical mix.  This charged ambience heightened the connection between loss and grief and readiness for comic relief.  My message to management:  "While you may have missed the boat on the front end, there's opportunity on the back side.  Why not plan a 'forms funeral'?"

While this was perhaps absurd, we went ahead anyway.  The frustrated employees wrote serious and playful eulogies to the old form (and the former data-processing system) while raising both negatives and positives (or, at least hopes for adaptations) regarding the new.

Strategic Points.  By putting the drama on stage, people could enact their frustration purposefully instead of acting it out passive-aggressively.  (While the superiority function of humor was on display through some deserved jibes, the energy and intent stayed within appropriate bounds of expression.)  Humor and drama became a problem-solving bridge for healing and harmonizing action (collective grief).  By allowing employees to openly raise their voices for performance-related input in an aggressive and playful fashion, management started "getting it."  Communal catharsis significantly assuaged past hurts and strengthened group morale.  Our imaginative theater of the absurd also helped this department bury unilateral decision-making (and that "esprit de corpse") while resurrecting trust, productivity levels, and team cooperation.

B.  Disrupting Escalating Group Tension When Consensus Is Critical

An adept practitioner of motivational humor doesn't just playfully nip the hand that feeds him or her; the interventional skill and art often begins at home, that is, being able to poke fun at his or her own flaws and foibles.  Of course, this humor maneuver may be double-barreled - it takes real ego-strength to be both self-effacing and self-affirming.  For example, as I've middle-aged, I occasionally take jibes about my hair loss, I firmly remind the moprakers "You should have more respect for my hair.  It was recently placed on the World Wildlife Federation's endangered species list!"  And for stress workshop attendees indulging in hirsute harangues there's this reminder:  "Most of you should be grateful that you can have a bad hair day!"

Little did I know that such a playful yet feisty attitude would one day metamorphose into a truly powerful response under the pressure of a highly charged task group setting - a racially divided jury.  Employing humor to resolve contemporary cultural conflict is dicey.  Nonetheless, by carefully exploring the higher power of self-effacing humor, you just may discover a small "pass in the multicultural impasse."  Let me illustrate.  Several years back, I was on jury duty in Washington, D.C.  An African-American male in his early 20s was accused of selling cocaine to an undercover African-American policeman.  Our jury consisted of nine African-Americans and three Caucasians.  Tension was building as we deliberated upon the case.  In particular, a number of the African-American jurors believed that the police had mishandled a piece of the evidence.  (To me, this piece of evidence did not appear critical in establishing the fact of the alleged sale.) 

Based on the increasingly pointed and heated discussion, it was clear that most of the African-Americans were leaning toward acquittal.  I and two other white jurors along with a middle-aged African-American male were leaning in the opposite direction.  After an informal poll and more frustratingly fruitless attempts to influence each other's position, a middle-aged African-American woman next to me cried out, "Well, it seems that the white folks and this one black guy are holding us up."  Suddenly, the black male juror jumped up and stared hard at his accuser, the implied accusation being that he's just going along with "whitey."  Then he challenged her in an agitated, increasingly loud voice:  "What are you trying to say?  Just what are you trying to say?"  The room crackled with tension.  The African-American forewoman seemed paralyzed. 

Now on my other side, a young African-American woman, with long, full braids (not all natural, I suspect) anxiously blurted out, "This is ridiculous.  All we're doing is pulling our hair out."  The electricity and anguish now jolts me into action.  I fairly shout, both at my neighbor and the others, "Hey, that's not fair.  You have a lot more hair than I do."  There's a startled pause...then the room erupts with sustained laughter.  The forewoman eventually said, "Guess we needed that.  Now let's get back to the facts of the case."  And we did, in a respectful and more tolerant manner.  While we ended as a hung jury (six to six, by the way) we didn't finish as a racially hung up one.

Strategic Points. Based on the arousal function of humor, escalating tension is ripe for humor intervention.  And when the tension is driven by cultural concerns, if used carefully, humor can play a powerful healing and harmonizing role by liberating us from stereotypes; its universality transcends diversity and, on occasion, even racial taboos.  A self-effacing humor intervention that absurdly pokes fun at one's own flaws and foibles may just sneak under that too sensitive "political correctness" radar and allow the warring parties a stress-relieving and tolerance-boosting laugh.  And the group can productively return to the task at hand…status quo ante bellum.

C.  Defusing Tension in a System-Wide Hazardous Situation

The third scenario comes from a State Department Manager stationed at the American Embassy in Kuwait in 1990 as war clouds were gathering in darkness and intensity.  Not surprisingly, war-zone tension began to invade in-house.  Being restricted to the compound was exacerbating stress levels; interpersonal sniping was on the rise and generating numbers of working wounded.  The Ambassador decided to intervene before the internal grumbling and overt grousing eroded psychological coping capacity and organizational morale.  He told his second-in-command to inform personnel that the next day was a holiday and that all embassy staff would be going to the beach.

His deputy, incredulous, protested:  "Sir, a war could break out any moment.  It's not safe to leave the compound!"  The Ambassador, nevertheless, reaffirmed his desire to have people ready to go to the beach the next morning.

Bright and early the next day the Ambassador descended the stairs in bathing trunks and robe while carrying a blowup rubber ducky.  Most personnel were not similarly attired.  "Ye of little faith," declared the Ambassador and proceeded to march everyone outside.  And lo and behold, during the night, somehow, this Ambassador had managed to have tons of sand trucked in and dumped in the compound.  And staff had a tension-relieving, fun-filled day at the beach.  The in-house stress siege was broken; the embassy personnel regrouped their individual and group resources and professionally weathered the war storm.

Strategic Points. Defying conventions or rules, whether in relation to an external enemy or, when critical, even regarding departmental procedures is a key weapon in the motivational humorist's bag of tricks.  When an authority figure is both brave and playfully absurd in the face of threat or bureaucratic rigidity, the role-modeling and morale-building effect is contagious.  (This scenario surely illustrates the incongruous function of humor.)  Add some visual props and others can come out of their battle shell and play.  And team rejuvenation, not just tension relief, may be your final reward.

D.  The Most Popular Stress Doc Intervention 

In my Practice Safe Stress:  Managing Stress and Conflict & Building Team Morale and Cooperation through Humor Program, the critical intervention is a "discussion and drawing" exercise.  This "D & D" works with teams or departments of twenty or at a conference keynote of two hundred or more.  The premise is simple:  working (and soon to be playing) in small groups, I first ask the members to "Identify sources of stress and conflict in your everyday workplace operations."  Try having diverse people (gender, race, rank, etc.) or different department personnel working together. Folks are assured that this isn't "true confessions."  People are to share only at a level that feels comfortable.

Then I lay down the real challenge:  after ten minutes of discussion, the team must generate a group picture or composite of the individual stress scenarios.  Now I tell the tale of a group that drew a burnt out CEO who had morphed into a menacing creature - a "troublesaurus" - along with fearful employees on the run.  (Large flip chart paper and a colorful variety of markers are provided.)  The drawing segment is also limited to ten-minutes.  In both segments, I give periodic time-limit reminders.  This invariably heightens arousal level and task focus.

The evolution of shared energy in the room is remarkable.  From tentative small group discussion to more open, relaxed sharing; from hovering at the edge of the paper (like a reluctant diver on a high board) to a group now frolicking in a pool of images and colors of their own making.  (I remind participants that stick figures are fine:  "I myself am a graduate from the Institute for the Graphically-Impaired.")  The decibel level of laughter is ever increasing as the images take exaggerated and symbolic shape and direction.  Believe me, I've seen it all:  sinking ships, stalking dinosaurs, exploding castles, consuming black holes, chained bodies, a devil of a boss (who no longer seems quite so scary with outlandish ears and tail), etc.  The exercise truly harnesses the group's aggressive energy transforming it into collaborative and creative output.  And all four functions of humor - arousal, incongruity, liberation, and superiority -- definitely come out to play.

With a small group we do a "show-guess-and-tell" whereby the teams proudly display their colorful composites.  The sharing and large group response becomes a supportive ("I/we are not alone") and playfully aggressive catharsis.

With groups over fifty or sixty people, the room is turned into an art gallery.  People meander about, eyeing and laughing (laughing "with" more than "at") upon encountering their colleagues' imaginative images.  A handful of drawings are selected or volunteered for generating the above group sharing and catharsis.

Strategic Points.  Akin to the previous illustrated forms funeral, this exercise creates a safe atmosphere for eliciting some of the real workplace feelings and frustrations.  At the same time, the experience is way more than a gripe session; it's an opportunity to experience empathy for other group members or for other work teams and departments.  People get the broader organizational picture, for example, all departments are feeling real pressure.  I also think the exercise sends another vital message:  management understands that in today's pressure-packed workplace you better let folks occasionally blow off steam.  The interventional key:  legitimate the process and harness the energy.

For many there's stress relief just from realizing you are not alone; for some there are the real beginnings of a healing process.  And if structured venting occurs in an atmosphere of laughing and having fun, of high group energy and creativity, with a sense of bonding as a team while producing a tangible product in a defined period of time…then everybody wins.  This playfully cathartic, trust-building experience, in fact, frequently lays the groundwork for further issue problem-solving, conflict resolution, and follow-up team building programs.

Closing Statement

Hopefully, I've made a powerful case for the purposeful and spontaneous use of humor in the workplace and with work teams.  Healing, harmonizing, and harnessing humor have an energizing, disarming, and positively motivating impact.  As psychiatrist Ernst Kris cogently observed:  "What was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at."  And perhaps equally important is the Stress Doc's inversion:  "What was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master."  So if you want to overcome divisiveness within and between teams or between employees and managers, to increase safe and open communication, and also encourage meaningful if not creative problem-solving while generating a communal and productive atmosphere…seek the higher power of motivational humor:  May the Farce Be with You!


Readers' Submissions:

Subj:  CREATION
From:  MDodick

First the Lord made man in the Garden of Eden.
Then he said to himself, "There's something he's needing."
After casting about for a suitable pearl,
He kept messing around and created a girl.

Two beautiful legs, so long and so slender,
Round, slim, and firm, and ever so tender.
Two lovely hips to increase his desire,
And rounded and firm to bring out the fire.
Two lovely breasts, so full and so proud,
Commanding his eyes, as he whispers aloud.
Two lovely arms, just aching to bless you,
And two loving hands, to soothe and caress you.
Soft, cascading hair hung down over her shoulder,
And two dreamy eyes, just to make him grow bolder.
'Twas made for a man, just to make his heart sing.

Then he added a mouth.

Ruined the whole damn thing.
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Subj:  HU'S ON FIRST
From: MomB7

Playwright Jim Sherman wrote this after hearing that Hu Jintao was named chief of the Communist Party in China.

HU'S ON FIRST
By James Sherman

(We take you now to the Oval Office.)

George: Condi! Nice to see you. What's happening?

Condi: Sir, I have the report here about the new leader of China.

George: Great. Lay it on me.

Condi: Hu is the new leader of China.

George: That's what I want to know.

Condi: That's what I'm telling you.

George: That's what I'm asking you. Who is the new leader of China?

Condi: Yes.

George: I mean the fellow's name.

Condi: Hu.

George: The guy in China.

Condi: Hu.

George: The new leader of China.

Condi: Hu.

George: The Chinaman!

Condi: Hu is leading China.

George: Now whaddya' asking me for?

Condi: I'm telling you Hu is leading China.

George: Well, I'm asking you. Who is leading China?

Condi: That's the man's name.

George: That's who's name?

Condi: Yes.

George: Will you or will you not tell me the name of the new leader of China?

Condi: Yes, sir.

George: Yassir? Yassir Arafat is in China? I thought he was in the Middle East.

Condi: That's correct.

George: Then who is in China?

Condi: Yes, sir.

George: Yassir is in China?

Condi: No, sir.

George: Then who is?

Condi: Yes, sir.

George: Yassir?

Condi: No, sir.

George: Look, Condi. I need to know the name of the new leader of China. Get me the Secretary General of the U.N. on the phone.

Condi: Kofi?

George: No, thanks.

Condi: You want Kofi?

George: No.

Condi: You don't want Kofi.

George: No. But now that you mention it, I could use a glass of milk. And then get me the U.N.

Condi: Yes, sir.

George: Not Yassir! The guy at the U.N.

Condi: Kofi?

George: Milk! Will you please make the call?

Condi: And call who?

George: Who is the guy at the U.N?

Condi: Hu is the guy in China.

George: Will you stay out of China?!

Condi: Yes, sir.

George: And stay out of the Middle East! Just get me the guy at the U.N.

Condi: Kofi.

George: All right! With cream and two sugars. Now get on the phone.

(Condi picks up the phone.)

Condi: Rice, here.

George: Rice? Good idea. And a couple of egg rolls, too. Maybe we should send some to the guy in China. And the Middle East. Can you get Chinese food in the Middle East?
------------------

Subj:  Possibly the Best Chicken Joke Ever
From: MDodick

A chicken and an egg are lying in bed.

The chicken is leaning against the headboard smoking a
cigarette, with a satisfied smile on its face.

The egg, looking a bit pissed off, grabs the sheets, rolls over,
and says,"Well, I guess we finally answered THAT question."

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, an international/Celebrity Cruise Lines speaker, training consultant, psychotherapist, syndicated writer, and upcoming author of Practice Safe Stress:  Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression.  Mark, recently interviewed by BBC Radio, has a multi-award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com -- cited as workplace resource in a National Public Radio feature.  As AOL's "Online Psychohumorist," ™Mark runs his weekly Shrink Rap and Group Chat.  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