The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist
2006, No. I, Sec. I
Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!
Table of Contents
Shrink Rap: On Becoming More Perceptually Objective, Empathic and Accurate
Readers: New Dangers Lurking, Growing Your Garden, Rest In Piece
Testimonials: State Operated Comprehensive Rehabilitation Centers, Williams &
Connolly, Anacostia Waterfront Corp.
Heads Up: American Society for Training & Development--MD Chapter; Old Town
Alexandria Connections (OTAC); Luncheon Speaker on Practice Safe Stress, Natl.
Capital Area Paralegal Assn. (NCAPA, Baker Botts (Intl. Law firm HQd in
Houston), et al.
Main Essay: GLIDE-ing into Performance Excellence: Part I
Offerings: Phone Consultation/Coaching, Training/Marketing Kit and Books
Overview: Sec. I
1) Shrink Rap: Sitting in the same row with a seemingly unresponsive
parent on a recent airline flight reminds the Stress Doc how all of us,
including the so-called expert, are susceptible to quick and faulty judgments
about motives and intentions. The essay first examines the concept of "attributional
bias" and then posits "Three Steps for Achieving More 'Fair and Balanced'
Observations and Judgments."
Overview: Sec. II
1) Main Essay: Citing past and present experts in the field, the Stress
Doc lays the groundwork for challenging common misconceptions and misguided
paradigms on the subject of expert performance. In this two-part series the Doc
will then show you how to GLIDE into peak performance. Beginning with "G" the
art of SMART (short-term) "goal-setting" is posited. Then the concept of
long-term goal setting is illustrated by the truly uncommon vision, conviction
and determination of a past president.
Shrink Rap :
Sitting in the same row with a seemingly unresponsive parent on a recent airline
flight reminds the Stress Doc how all of us, including the so-called expert, are
susceptible to quick and faulty judgments about motives and intentions. The
essay first examines the concept of "attributional bias" and then posits "Three
Steps for Achieving More 'Fair and Balanced' Observations and Judgments."
On Becoming More
Perceptually Objective, Empathic and Accurate
Or Getting Your Head Out of the Clouds of Negative Assumptions and Premature
After an exhilarating five days in the Tetons and Yellowstone National Park, the
flight home quickly brought me down to earth. This trip also revealed how bias
can easily cloud our thinking and judgment. Let me illustrate. I was sitting
in a row with a young mother and her three-year old daughter, a real cutie. (We
played a variety of games from peek-a-boo to patty cake.) Her two other
children, no older than seven or eight, were sitting across the aisle. And
after awhile the kids, not surprisingly, were getting restless. The three-year
old even called out quietly to her mom to no avail. Where was mom? She was
sleeping in her seat, in my mind, oblivious to her children. I couldn't help
but wonder about another too young mother who was being unresponsive if not
At some point though, I noticed her black t-shirt with the following inscription
in yellow letters: "Iraqi Veteran: Fighting the War on Global Terrorism."
Curiosity began to replace judgment. I also began to hear that Twilight Zone
theme music. While waiting at the Denver airport, just two hours before, I had
had a phone conversation with a military wife and program planner from Fort
Hood, Texas. She wanted a "Stress and Humor" workshop to help stateside
families cope with the uncertainty and angst of having a spouse, parent and/or
child heading to or already stationed in war torn Iraq.
When the young mother finally awoke, I commented on her shirt and the
above-mentioned telephone conversation. Suddenly her eyes began to water. She
agreed there was a real need for such a stress program. Alas, this woman more
than proved the point. She explained that her husband, stepfather to her kids,
had been killed in Iraq the week before. I immediately verbalized, "No wonder
you need to sleep!" We then talked some about the importance of finding your
own way to grieve when ready. Right now the young widow just wanted to scream
but was afraid that if she started there would be no stopping. (And can anyone
truly hear another's screams in the depths of that dark and despairing black
hole?) She will be leaving her kids with their father and his parents for a
couple of weeks to get the needed emotional support from her family and friends.
The Basis of Judgment, Otherwise and Objective
But the focus of this essay is not the poignancy of loss or the power of grief
but about my capacity for too quick and negative assumptions about the sleeping
mother's motives and seeming parental inattention. Actually, I had made a
common perceptual mistake and misjudgment based on a social psychology framework
called "Attribution Theory." Attribution theory examines how a perceiver or
judger assesses another person's motives and behaviors. And a highlight of the
model is the capacity for perceptual error based on whether an observer
attributes a person's motives or actions to situational forces or personality
factors. Here's an illustration. Let's say a colleague at work (whom you don't
know well) has come in late two times in the last two weeks. It wouldn't be
surprising if you began to start wondering about their motives and competencies,
e.g., are they lazy, disorganized, disenchanted with work, or just plain old
passive-aggressive? However, if you were to come in late a couple of times, or
were asked to speculate about reasons for your hypothetical lateness, research
indicates you would likely quickly note, for example, the traffic conditions,
needing to get a child to daycare, illness in the family, etc.
Can you see the bias? When explaining our behavior we first focus on
situational or outside conditions affecting intentions and actions, thus
providing a rationale or protective cover for any outcomes or consequences. In
contrast, while observing others our initial predilection is to assess based on
personality or motivational traits not on environmental constraints. An
assessment focused on the individual alone, not seen in context, often makes it
harder to be empathic or forgiving, or even just truly curious. (For example,
"I wonder why she behaves that way?" is often more a disguised judgment than a
question of genuine concern.) And this tendency to broadly, quickly or
indiscriminately place personal disposition over situation when observing and
evaluating others is called "Attributional Error." And obviously, even the
expert is susceptible!
Clearly, my assumption-like questions about this sleeping mother and the degree
of parental responsiveness demonstrate attributional bias. If you had been
sitting in my seat, what would your initial thought and judgment process have
been? If you too were not perceptually objective, how might we reduce our one
dimensional, too quick to negative judgment tendencies? Consider these
"Three Steps for Achieving More 'Fair and Balanced' Observations and Judgments":
1. Challenge the Quick Judgment Tendency. We all are creatures of habit;
it's easy to fall into a prejudgment, especially if you've had a previous
experience seemingly similar to the event or action being observed and
evaluated, e.g., witnessed inattentive parenting. (Unless, of course, you can
empathize by placing yourself both in the woman's seat and in her larger
picture. More in a moment.) So the key is to put on your mental-judgmental
brake before going any further with the attributional process.
2. Shift From Assumptions and Judgments to Genuine Questions. Giving
thought even to a simple question as "What factors might be contributing to this
woman's need to sleep?" surely would have raised some possibilities that would
have tempered my negative assessment. In hindsight, I know I'd be exhausted
having to travel with three kids.
3. Avoid All or None Thinking and Attribution. Even if it's appropriate
to raise some questions or concerns about a person's motivational state or
attitude, don't stop there. Think hard or ask questions about the context in
which the person is operating. Are there background barriers or bridges
potentially impeding or facilitating normal or typical behavior and expected
options or outcomes? In general, what are the environmental constraints and
supports, social or cultural conditions or obligations, and mental status
variables affecting the person's mood, mindset or possible pathways?
Hopefully, this essay has dramatically demonstrated that when observing others'
actions or inactions rushing to judgment often leads to rash assessments. Don't
just get caught up in the figure. Take the time and effort to raise questions
about and carefully examine the situational background. Words to help us not
just be more observant but also more tolerant. And also a mindset to help one
Practice Safe Stress!
Subj: New dangers lurking...
NEW YORK -- A public school teacher was arrested today at John F. Kennedy
International Airport as he attempted to board a flight while in possession of a
ruler, a protractor, a set square, a slide rule and a calculator.
At a morning press conference, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said he
believes the man is a member of the notorious Al-gebra movement.
He did not identify the man, who has been charged by the FBI with carrying
weapons of math instruction. "Al-gebra is a problem for us," Gonzales said.
"They desire solutions by means and extremes, and sometimes go off on tangents
in search of absolute values''.
They use secret code names like 'x' and 'y' and refer to themselves as
'unknowns', but we have determined they belong to a common denominator of the
axis of medieval with coordinates in every country.
As the Greek philanderer Isosceles used to say, 'There are 3 sides to every
When asked to comment on the arrest, President Bush said, "If God had wanted us
to have better weapons of math instruction, He would have given us more fingers
White House aides told reporters they could not recall a more intelligent or
profound statement by the president.
Subj: Growing Your Garden
A beautiful woman loved growing tomatoes, but couldn't seem to get her tomatoes
to turn red. One day, while taking a stroll, she came upon a gentleman neighbor
who had the most beautiful garden full of huge red tomatoes. The woman asked
the gentlemen, "What do you do to get your tomatoes so red?"
The gentlemen responded, "Well, twice a day I stand in front of my tomato garden
and expose myself, and my tomatoes turn red from blushing so much."
The woman was so impressed, she decided to try doing the same thing to her
tomato garden to see if it would work. So twice a day for two weeks she exposed
herself to her garden hoping for the best.
One day the gentleman was passing by and asked the woman, "By the way, how did
you make out? Did your tomatoes turn red?"
"No", she replied, "but my cucumbers are enormous."
Subj: Rest In Piece
Joe passed away. His will provided $ 30,000 for an elaborate funeral.
As the last guests departed the affair, his wife, Helen, turned to her oldest
friend."Well, I'm sure Joe would be pleased," she said.
"I'm sure you're right," replied Jody, who lowered her voice and leaned in
close."How much did this really cost?"
"All of it," said Helen. "Thirty thousand."
"No!" Jody exclaimed. "I mean, it was very nice, but $ 30,000?"
Helen answered. "The funeral was $ 6,500. I donated $ 500 to the church. The
wake, food and drinks were another $ 500. The rest went for the Memorial
Jody computed quickly.
"$22,500 for a memorial stone? My God, how big is it?!"
"Two and a half carats."
The National Consortium of State Operated
Comprehensive Rehabilitation Centers
[Keynote for 150 attendees]
October 10, 2006
I want to thank you for delivering such a dynamic, informational and fun
presentation on "Practicing Safe Stress" at our recent National Training forum
for the NCSOCRC in Baltimore. Your interactive presentation was just what we
needed to close out our training forum. Our rehabilitation center staff from
the nine [state] comprehensive rehabilitation centers have difficult jobs and
experience considerable stress on a day to day basis. The information you
presented was an eye opener for many and made good sense. The interactive
exercises made this session fun and easy to understand the causes of stress, how
to recognize the symptoms, and what to do about it. This is one training
session presentation I feel we all benefited from and can easily transfer what
we learned to our day to day work setting.
It was great to meet you and I appreciate the time you put into researching who
we are and what we do before the conference. I feel that the knowledge you
gained about us prior to this training conference really helped energize the
interactions during the presentation. We were able to conclude our conference
in a high energy mode, with laughter, and satisfaction with what we had
learned. Great job! Thanks again.
David Holmes, Chair, NCSOCRC
Williams & Connolly
[International Law Firm]
Mark - I want to thank you for speaking at the paralegal department meeting on
Monday. Your presentation on stress management was well received and very
timely. I do appreciate how you engaged the audience and led them in team
building activities. The feedback so far has been positive. I'm sure we'll be
in touch again for future presentations.
Rhonda G. Carter
Director of Paralegals
Williams & Connolly, LLP
725 Twelfth Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20005
Anacostia Waterfront Corporation
Thanks very much for the session that you provided for our staff. The feedback
is that your session was lively, informative, and generally a lot of fun.
It has been a pleasure working with you in putting our retreat together. Your
talent and enthusiasm are much appreciated.
Director, Human Resources
1100 New Jersey Avenue, S.E., Suite 700
Washington, DC 20003
Oct. '06 Programs [testimonials upon request]
1. American Society for Training & Development--MD Chapter; Closing Keynote on
"Blending Individual Imagination & Team Synergy"
2. Old Town Alexandria Connections (OTAC); Luncheon Speaker on Practice Safe
3. Natl. Capital Area Paralegal Assn. (NCAPA); Opening Keynote on "Blending
Individual Imagination & Team Synergy"
4. Baker Botts (Intl. law firm HQd in Houston"; 1/2 day "Stress, Team Building &
5. Williams & Connolly (Intl law firm HQd in Wash, DC); Luncheon Speaker on
Practice Safe Stress
6. Jubille Assn. of MD (Residential Services for the Disabled); 1/2 day "Stress,
Team Building & Humor" Program
7. Women's Cmmission, Montgomery County, MD; 1/2 day "Stress, Team Building &
8. Food and Consumer Safety and Disability Determination Services, Montana State
Govt.; 1/2 day "Communication Skill Building" Program and 1/2 day "Stress, Team
Building & Humor" Program
9. Assn. of Accounting Administrators; 2 hour "Stress, Team Building & Humor"
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). Finally, Mark is an advisor
to The Bright Side -- www.the-bright-side.org -- a multi-award winning mental
health resource. Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on List-a-Day.com.
For more info on the Doc's speaking and training programs and products, email
firstname.lastname@example.org or call 301-946-0865.
(c) Mark Gorkin 2006
Shrink Rap Productions