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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

APR 2008, No. I, Sc. II

Communicating Is Science…Connecting Is an Art
It's Only a Stage If You Don't Engage…It's Simply Farce If You Won't PARSE!

Near the close of a stress and team building workshop for fifty members of a County Parks and Planning Division, an employee wondered aloud why so few of his colleagues had filed grievance procedures in light of a workplace atmosphere exhibiting tensions between a number of employees and some of the managers.  One manager responded quickly and assertively, filling the void.  He affirmed that Headquarters and the division management team (under the guidance of a fairly new director) have encouraged people to voice their concerns either directly to local top management or through a confidential HQ reporting procedure.  Regarding the latter, the manager carefully outlined the necessary steps.  And the effect of his clarification was immediate and palpable.  The employee slumped in his chair and group energy began draining from the room.

Without hesitating, I told the manager that he had provided a clear and logical response.  However, the issue presented seemed less logical and more psychological.  Whether an objective assessment or not, I heard the employee express concerns around employee-management trust and the potential for retribution.  The outspoken employee nodded his head vigorously and an unspoken amen chorus vibrated through the collective.  Before ending the session the Director proposed restarting Crew Meetings, whereby a representative group of managers and employees could begin to address some of the existing contentious issues.  Several employees and managers seemed motivated to explore this possibility.  We appeared to end on a cautiously hopeful note.

After the workshop, pondering the initial "message sent is not message received" interaction, I was struck by the obvious:  clear and concise communication may provide information (even useful data) but may still basically miss the heart of its target.  This is especially true if logical content does not take into account the social-psychological context as well as individual, interpersonal role and cultural differences.  Especially when there's conflict in the air, for genuine engagement, to have a "meeting of the minds," consider my acronym for connection:  "Learn to PARSE to bridge head and heart."  ("Parse," a common word among media-political journalists and commentators, involves carefully examining sentences and words for grammatical and structural relations and nuances of meaning.  Hopefully, my version of parsing, unlike for the media mafia, is not primarily an entrapment tool in the de-meaning game of "Gotcha.")  By illuminating, analyzing and interrelating the component letters, learning to P-A-R-S-E will provide skills and strategies for employing universal and contextual communication thereby heightening the potential for mutually respectful, discerning and meaningful connection.  So let's PARSE:

P = Psyche-logical and Paraphrase
a.  (Be) Psyche-logical. 
When it comes to genuine or intimate connection, why have I replaced the prefix "psycho" with the term "Psyche?"  The answer is a blend of myth and science.  First, in Greek and Roman mythology, Psyche was a beautiful nymph, loved by Eros, and the personification of "the human soul."  Yet psyche, especially in the field of psychiatry, relates to "the mind," specifically the mind "as an organic system reaching all parts of the body, and serving to adjust the total organism to the needs or demands of the environment" (Webster's Universal Unabridged Dictionary).  The psyche also reflects and influences individual motivation.  For me, psyche-logical reflects a yin-yang perspective.  This construction recognizes the need for thoughtful analysis but also the need to go beyond the logical, to not simply play (even if your intentions are benign) "mind games."  When trying to communicate genuinely, to motivate or move another, you must understand the environmental-communicational context while also connecting (with) head, heart and soul.

Why am I emphasizing placing communication in context?  As was illustrated in the opening workshop scenario, by not recognizing the historical context of mistrust between management and employees, these communicants become two ships passing in the dark and foggy night.  And when you don't acknowledge context, it's easy to succumb to attributional bias of a personal nature:  seeing the problem as one of employee attitude, passivity, laziness or resistance.  And a pattern of "attributional bias"…now that's bordering on the "psycho!"

b.  Paraphrase.  Too often, "Message sent is not message received."  There's a simple communicational safety net:  paraphrase.  Especially when dealing with an important or involved piece of communication, the wise message sender knows to ask the other party to paraphrase or repeat back the gist of the original message.  (Also, an effective communicator:  a) knows when to pause, b) doesn't overload a message with excess or extraneous facts or flourishes, and c) chunks a lengthy or complex message into digestible bites.)  Conversely, a savvy receiver takes the paraphrasing initiative and says, "Let me make sure I got this straight."

Paraphrasing is also a valuable tool in cooling hot or hyper reactive encounters.  Agreeing to two-party paraphrasing may short-circuit or at least slow down escalating, offensive-defensive, and "one up" interchanges.  (Sometimes it helps to make this a ground rule even before the opening bell.)  And for longstanding couples or colleagues, paraphrasing may prevent you from falling into the "mind reader" trap, that is, assuming you know the other person's thoughts even before words take flight.  (Of course, such dyads may need to be wary.  You can get caught in a common "double bind."  As a client of mine once said, "Why should I have to keep saying what I want?  After all this time he should know what I want."  And when her spouse guessed wrong, the wife's reply, naturally:  "Don't try to read my mind!")

A = Ask (Questions) and Acknowledge

a.  Ask (Questions). 
The old data gathering standards still apply:  "what," "when," "where" "who," "how" and, finally, "why."  However, prematurely confronting someone with, "Why did you do that?" or even "How could you possibly believe that?" is less a question and more a personal condemnation.  The message goes from critical to caustic when you combine a testy "why" or "how" with a blaming "You".  Now you're into "acc-you-sations" and, if a pattern, are becoming a "blameaholic."  (By way of contrast, compare the above quotes with the more neutral, "How did this happen?" or "Can you help me understand why this occurred?")  Actually, a clear exception to the "one down," toxic "You" syndrome involves taking an accommodating or humble position:  "Is there anything I can do for you?" or "I have a problem.  Might I pick your brains?")

In general, but especially in an ongoing relationship context, the honest and constructive question comes wrapped with underlying and unspoken messages:  "I don't have all the answers" and "I would like to hear (and perhaps learn from) your point of view."  Positive questioning signals a desire to "reach out and touch someone," to affirm, perhaps to connect, and surely not to trap, catch or crush them.

b.  Acknowledge.  Let me reinforce the difference between blaming "You" messages and assertive and tactful "I" messages that turns on the choice of two words.  Imagine an argument that's getting heated and one party blurts out, "You're wrong!"  What if the person had said, "I disagree" (or "I strongly disagree!")?  The former "You" message is dismissive.  The latter, by definition, at least recognizes the other party's position or viewpoint.  A finger-pointing "you" message (and here I'm not thinking of that "proverbial finger") may evoke defensiveness or stop a productive discussion in its tracks. 

And this brings us to a key communicational mantra:  "Acknowledgement does not equal agreement."  While not based on formal research, I suspect most people (at least the somewhat mature, non-authoritarian or non-egotistical variety) don't automatically expect that when stating an opinion or belief the other party will immediately or completely agree with them.  (Of course, one must factor in variables such as subject matter, perceived expertise, the nature of the role-relationship, etc.)  But we all want to feel that our message has been truly heard, that attention has been paid.  And people who can disagree while seeing the other's message as both half empty and half full, that is, who can underscore the existing differences yet not lose sight of common or somewhat related positions, possibilities or perspective, definitely earn connector bonus points.

R = Respect and Reflect

a.  Respect. 
Frankly, I'm a bit reticent about using this "R"-word.  These days, so many injured and entitled lament others not giving them their due.  For me, in most instances, respect is something earned over time.  Also, consider the words of the much-admired former first lady and international icon of peace and justice, Eleanor Roosevelt:  "No one can take away your self-respect without your active participation." 

However, a "respect" that relates less to "veneration" and more to "appreciation" should infuse any meaningful relationship and dialogue.  For example, a common use of the word comes from the competitive arena - one is counseled to respect your opponent; don't take him or her for granted.  Conversely, hold your own strengths, skills and status in realistic esteem or estimation, especially when engaging others lower in the pecking order.  Too often people in authority minimize their role power, greater knowledge (or insider information), educational background, verbal fluency and other advantages they have over a subordinate.  And adding insult to imbalance (while exposing lack of emotional intelligence), the manager still expects the employee to interact as if there's an equal playing field, to speak openly or to embrace change; the employee "should not" be cautious, skeptical or intimidated.  (Of course, the bully, to cover up his own insecurity or inadequacy, wants the other party to be cowed or dysfunctionally deferential.  Consider this Stress Doc axiom:  "Those who never want you to answer back always want you to back their answer.")

b.  Reflect. In one of my communication workshops, I like to make the distinction between "reaction" and "response."  A reaction tends be impulsive as well as defensive; it's often infused with aggressive energy or deep-seated pain, almost as if someone hit a psychic "hot button" or jabbed an emotional wound.  There's no time for thought; you're into "fight or flight" mode.  In contrast, the responsive individual knows to focus internally, not just count to ten.  I need some understanding of the thoughts and especially what emotions, including emotional memories, are being personally stirred…and why.  Self-awareness is the first line of a mature defense.  Hence the Stress Doc's mantra:  "Count to ten and check within."

In addition, when a response tactfully reflects back the other party's emotional state, you demonstrate empathy:  "Am I hearing some frustration with your company's hesitancy to address the reorganization rumors?"  Again, asking a question is often preferable over making assumptions ("You must be so upset about…") or expressing righteous pronouncements ("If I were in your shoes, I'd be so angry").  Of course, the latter may be heard as, "Why aren't you (more) upset?" or "You should be very angry?"  Asking a question is less self-centered and also values the other's perspective.  Finally, when discussing powerful emotional issues, try acknowledging your own flaws and foibles. By sharing your experience with pain and self-doubt, you may help others feel less alienated and alone.  Talk about the art of human connection!

S = Strategize and Summarize

a.  Strategize. 
With both parties feeling valued and respected, how do you get them on the same page, and not just in the abstract?  How can people, even in the heat of conflict, develop and implement a mutually beneficial yet realistic plan of action, one that pursues creative problem-solving possibilities while recognizing environmental constraints, emotional biases and limited resources?  Consider these "Six Keys for Achieving Consensus (AC)":

1) Avoid one right-way thinking or being egoal-driven.  Recognize that it's important to understand the other's perspective; rarely is there absolute truth or one set answer or possible outcome.  Such rigidity or arrogance often reveals a person who sets goals based less on the nature of the problem to be solved and more on an ego that needs to be pumped.  When consensus is the goal, collaboration wins over competition.

2) Accept fact of loss.  In a genuine negotiation, where power or status differential does not make the outcome a foregone conclusion, both parties may need to loosen their grip on favorite or familiar positions or traditional beliefs.  A sense of loss - including feelings of sadness, doubt, fear and anger - are not uncommon.  And loss comes in many shapes and sizes:  from a loss of face and loss of control to questions about one's identity (to be "at a loss") and the end of a dream.  Yet being vulnerable is hardly an axiomatic sign of weakness to be exploited but more the harbinger of psychological hardiness - a readiness for renewed fire and flexible resilience:

For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire!

3) Affirm values, modify expectations.  A genuine and respectful exchange does not ask any party to compromise core beliefs or moral standards.  These are often psychological anchors in the middle of a communication or decision-making storm.  However, consensus may require a questioning of basic assumptions, a willingness to challenge expectations and a capacity to let go of or at least rethink familiar operating procedures.

4) Clarify common ground.  Often the initiation of dialogue occurs when both sides find some issue of mutual concern, even if it's only a common enemy.  (However, long-term obsession with such an enemy or other external hazard may become a smokescreen.  Both parties can avoid confronting the salient conflicts or resentments that need to be on the negotiation table.)  Of course, to find a common starting point sometimes you must start small, or begin negotiating with a relatively safe and workable issue.  However, once tasting small success, parties may venture into tougher issues.

5) Create big picture.  One of the biggest challenges for a consensus process is the amount of time it can take to share real concerns, needs and motives.  Obviously, some trust must develop for this to occur.  And trust only evolves with "good, (some) bad and (a bit of) ugly" give and take over time.  Yet, often this is a wise investment.  Not only does a little patience help people get real, but also grappling with the diversity and individuality of honest and open expression - as opposed to groupthink - challenges people to resist the "b.s.", that is, to "be safe!"  In the long run, participants are motivated to risk and come up with more complex, creative and collaborative solutions that all can buy into.

6) Cultivate consensus culture.  For me, the best definition of consensus is that everyone gives up a little for the common goal and the communal good.  At the same time, everyone feels heard and, in addition, some meaningful concerns, needs and goals are addressed if not met.  Mutual sacrifice for a worthy cause, think of the American home front during WW II, often generates a passionate commitment to a greater purpose and a heightened feeling of camaraderie and morale even amongst diverse cultures and communities.

b.  Summarize.  What paraphrasing is to an information segment, summarizing is to a dialogic sequence.  Where paraphrasing checks if a specific message sent is message received, summarizing allows for reviewing both macro and micro understanding and agreements.  Are we on the same page regarding philosophy, policies and procedures as well as with plans and action steps?  Key operational summary questions often include, "Who will do what and by when?"

Summarizing also attends to extant disagreements and areas for further discussion.  And a good summary doesn't simply focus on outcomes, shortfalls and next steps.  A good summation explores the nature of the communication and problem-solving process, including the negotiation setting, strategies and structures that helped bridge understanding and connection or that proved to be communicational and consensus building barriers?

E = Energy and Empathy

a.  Energy. 
One sign of genuine connection, often unanticipated, is a palpable sense of two-way energy transmission.  When conflict is engaged and resolved in a mutually satisfying manner - whether in the boardroom or the bedroom - there's both a sense of relief and of rejuvenation.  And this effect is strongly influenced by the fact that conflict, itself, ignites sparks of electricity both within and without.  As John Dewey, pragmatic philosopher and the father of American public education, noted:

Conflict is the gadfly of thought.  It stirs us to observation and memory.  It
shocks of out of sheep-like passivity.  It instigates to invention and sets us at
noting and contriving.  Conflict is the sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.

And when two or more people are fighting fairly (as outlined above), expressing charged ideas, and provocatively yet respectfully playing off one another's free associations and genuine emotions you have the groundwork for not just heightened energy but for interpersonal and ideational synergy:  the participants are giving birth to a relationship, a team or even a community where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts!  In this system, the gears don't just mesh; through interaction parts breathe life into one another.  Parts transform into participants and parties with hearts that sing and minds that dance!

b.  Empathy.  You might say that the culmination of the ability to PARSE is empathy, "the capacity for participating in or a vicarious experience of another's feelings, volitions or ideas and sometimes another's (bodily) movements" (Webster's Third New International Dictionary).  Not only can you walk in the other's proverbial shoes but, with real empathy, you also feel their bunions.  Perhaps empathy, more than any other quality, captures the distinction between the science of communication and the art of connection.  With empathy there is a meeting of the minds.  One moves beyond self-interest and self-satisfaction and immerses oneself in the heartfelt "good, bad and ugly" world of the other. 

In closing, when a relationship is built on an emotionally intelligent and respectful foundation and is also infused with energy and empathy, you are not just embarking on "message sent equals message received" communication, nor are you only exploring consensus.  When you choose to PARSE, when you have the courage to PARSE, that is, to (Be) Psyche-logical and Paraphrase, Ask (Questions) and Acknowledge, Respect and Reflect, Strategize and Summarize, and (Bring) Energy and Empathy, you are striving for exchange based on mutuality, diversity and integration.  The stage is set for connection and evolution.  On this communication to connection journey, let the humility and wisdom of the groundbreaking medical pioneer, Jonas Salk, be "the wind beneath your wings":  "Evolution is about getting up one more time than we fall down; being courageous one more time than we are fearful; trusting just one more time than we are anxious."  Words not only to help us both stumble and soar but also to help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™,
is a psychotherapist and "Motivational Humorist" whose Interactive Keynotes and Kickoffs draw wide and "amazing" acclaim -- from Fortune 100s and Federal Agencies to around the world with Celebrity Cruise Lines.   An OD/Team Building Consultant, Mark is the author of Practice Safe Stress:  Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression and of The Four Faces of Anger: Transforming Anger, Rage, and Conflict Into Inspiring Attitude and Behavior.  Also, the Doc is AOL's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap ™ and Group Chat."  See his award winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com -- cited as a workplace resource by National Public Radio (NPR).  Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on List-a-Day.com.  For more info on the Doc's speaking and training programs, call or email the "Stress Doc":  301-946-0865 or stressdoc@aol.com .  And to view web video highlights of a Stress Doc Keynote, go to http://www.stressdoc.com/media_downloads.htm .

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2008

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