The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist
Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
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
Shrink Rap: Executive Coaching: Key Tips and Tactics
Heads Up: SAP--Human Capital Forum & ASUGS; EAPA in New
Assn of Women Business Owners and SHRM Testimonial
1. Training/Marketing Kit:
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.
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.)
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:
Stress Doc Enterprises
18th Street, NW #312
Washington, DC 20009-2542
4. Chat Group:
Stop by my AOL/Digital City Shrink Rap (TM) and Group
DC Support Chat,
Tuesdays, 9:30-11pm EST
DC Support Cha
Stress: How to Practice Safe Stress for the Holidays
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!
[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,
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
(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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!
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.
Subj: HU'S ON FIRST
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?
George: I mean the fellow's name.
George: The guy in China.
George: The new leader of China.
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?
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.
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.
George: No, thanks.
Condi: You want Kofi?
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.
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.
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
Subj: Possibly the Best Chicken Joke Ever
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."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
or call 202-232-8662.
(c) Mark Gorkin 2003
Shrink Rap Productions