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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

SEP 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

Section I

Shrink Rap:
      Bridging East-West Cultural Differences and Interpersonal Defenses
          Guys' Rules [Women that have read these have LOL]
   The Brookings Institution, MD Div. of Rehab Services
Heads Up: 
       Natl. Ctr. for Children & Families, Aleph Bet Jewish Day School, MD
                          Health & Human Services, Montana Div. of Public Health & Human

Section II

Main Essay:
     Confessions of a Type A Canoeist or Partnering for Dummies
        Phone Consultation/Coaching, Training/Marketing Kit and Books

Overview:  Sec. I

1) Shrink RapBridging East-West Cultural Differences and Interpersonal Defenses.  The essay focuses on (a) transcending regional-cultural differences, (b) rapidly yet genuinely connecting with a skeptical if not cynical audience and (c) highlighting the power of positive and provocative communication to affirm the individual but especially to underscore the critical value of productive and supportive teamwork.  Mixing personal history, humility and humor as well as some "TLC" consider the Stress Doc's "Key Steps for Quickly Engaging Skeptical if Not Cynical Hearts and Minds."

Overview:  Sec. II

1) Main EssayConfessions of a Type A Canoeist or Partnering for Dummies.  After a "going around in circles" canoeing misadventure, the Stress Doc intuits the potential for analogous ineffective if not dysfunctional dynamics amongst a wide variety of communication/problem-solving contexts and role relationships.  By examining how differential history, expectations, and language and reference barriers may contribute to "message sent = message received" static, key partnering strategies emerge -- shifting paradigms, mirroring pace and echoing place and communicating before and after.

Shrink Rap:

When a Washington, DC stress and team building consultant is brought in to help Montana state government employees confront interpersonal conflict and team performance issues, first regional and psychological perspectives must be acknowledged and shared.  The next steps become affirming uncommon individuality, motivating people to work through personality differences and within an atmosphere of genuine communication creatively challenging the loosely connected conglomerate to metamorphose into a solid team pursuing a common goal.  And can you do this within five minutes of meeting your audience?  Mixing personal history, humility and humor as well as some "TLC" consider the Stress Doc's "Key Steps for Quickly Engaging Skeptical if Not Cynical Hearts and Minds."

Bridging East-West Cultural Differences and Interpersonal Defenses:
Engaging Minds Over Mountains through History, Humility and Humor

A recent workshop once again reminded me that to engage hearts and inspire minds often requires acknowledging cultural difference and placing a negative and pessimistic assessment of an interpersonal scenario into a positive and workable framework.  The potential for culture clash was clear.  A state government Human Services Section Chief in Helena, Montana had found my website.  She wanted a program that would help her people better manage personal stress issues and that would also reduce interpersonal conflict undermining team morale and productivity.  In addition, she wanted to have fun!  And just before I was to come out she shared that her interest was far from academic or to simply straighten out her folks.  The previous weekend she had checked herself into a hospital with stress-related gastro-intestinal symptoms.

This manager had taken over the section two years ago and had made some significant and necessary operational changes.  In her mind some people were still resisting getting with the new program and the revised programmatic expectations.  And especially troubling, one excellent young employee had bailed ship because of the team tension.  The Chief highlighted four individuals as "stress carriers."  (You know the definition of a stress carrier:  someone who doesn't get ulcers just gives them!)  Two of the four were verbally and emotionally fighting each other.  The Chief felt the other two were stonewalling her.  And there were only nine people in her section.  (Not surprisingly, skeptical voices questioned the need for a program.) 

The Section Chief and her boss were waiting at the Helena airport.  (The boss being there definitely made a statement about the serious nature of the situation.)  And shortly after disembarking, it was evident that I had gone through both time and culture zones:  in addition to there only being one main arrival/departure gate, the terminal's interior design and steeple-like ceiling were dominated by a lattice of large golden rust-colored wooden log-beams, reminiscent of Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn.  And the walls were strewn with sculpted or stuffed bear, elk, goats, etc.  Yes, Dorothy, we were no longer in Kansas or the District of Columbia.

From the airport we went straight to lunch.  The managers emphasized that this section has had performance problems for at least a decade and higher ups are starting to get, to quote the movie classic, Network, "Mad as hell and won't take it anymore!"  I began having this sense of Daniel walking into a dysfunctional den, the human animal variety.  (Recalling the airport terminal, would the head of another Washington, DC consultant/eastern dude be added to the Wild West trophy wall?)  Actually, I wondered how the staff would take to a so-called expert supposedly contracted to clean up those "bad" guys and gals.  (Have no fear…my motto:  "Have Stress?  Will Travel:  A Smart Mouth for Hire!")  Perhaps most dicey, were folks imagining I envisioned myself as some "hot shot" outsider brought in to motivate individuals who were often stereotyped as being kind of "yahoo?"  (Definitely not a good label in a Google-dominated world.)

Helena On My Mind

I had time to kill before the next day's early morning program and decided to take a scenic and historic bus tour of downtown Helena and it's environs.  With Mount Helena as a backdrop, chugging up and rolling down steeped foothills, while passing old abandoned mines on the town's outskirts, along with the driver's stories of late 19th century vigilante/hanging justice (plus a visit to the Montana Historical Museum after my tour ride) I definitely came away with a sense of the hard scrabble, rough and tumble Old West.

The downtown cab ride from the hotel also proved quite instructive.  When the elderly, grizzled looking and sounding cabby heard I was from the East Coast, he promptly declared it way too crowded back there.  He even thought Helena, population 40,000, was getting cramped for space.  And then, when some driver forgot to signal and cut him off, my cabby's immediate retort:  "He's probably from DC."  Of course, I reflexively protested.  However, it was clear that regional prejudice could cut both ways -- from East to West and back again.

That night I was definitely tossing and turning and not just due to the two-hour time difference.  Suddenly, at 4am, sitting up in the bed, I understood there was a subconscious reason to my restlessness.  I had been ruminating on the possibility of regional-cultural misperceptions, if not prejudices, becoming barriers to mutual understanding and connecting between staff and me.  Specifically, I was concerned about my introduction and how to employ an opening that would be powerfully and empathically engaging.  And now an epiphany to the rescue:  I associated to sixteen years living and working in New Orleans and Louisiana, my "American in Cajun Paris" years.  My cultural consciousness and personal sensibility had definitely been broadened and deepened.  I also better appreciated the importance of several extended visits to small town Livingston, Montana in the late '90s, writing and hobnobbing in both a local boardinghouse and coffeehouse, hiking in the nearby Absaroka Mountains and also traversing Yellowstone National Park.  Not to mention my years of working with federal, state and county government agencies, including some pretty dysfunctional departments and divisions.  You know what…I was ready for this geographical-multicultural challenge.

So what was my opening gambit?   Consider these "Key Steps for Quickly Engaging Skeptical if Not Cynical Hearts and Minds":

1.  Breaking Out of the Stereotype with Humility and Humor. 
The Section Chief gave me a standard brief introduction.  Then her boss spoke briefly about the importance of the workshop in light of the operational and teamwork challenges facing the section along with the demands for high performance despite insufficient resources.  I, however, quickly took a more personal opening path.  I shared being originally from NYC and, predictably, someone in the audience immediately poked gentle fun of my New Yorka accent.  This motivated an explanation of my geographical destiny.  First there was a major southern detour -- living in New Orleans during the '70s and '80s, including burning out and dropping out of a doctoral studies program.  And when there were no more mountains to climb in the bayou, I had this urge to move to DC.  Why the Mid-Atlantic return?   I'm convinced if New York City and New Orleans had a baby it would look like Washington, DC.  Though I haven't decided if it's a lovechild!

Clearly I was not just an easterner, nor an expert devoid of some humility and edgy humor.  I also mentioned how my tour of Helena and visiting the state museum had helped me make some important connections.

2.  Finding Some Commonality.  I shared an observation by a N'Awlins friend, also a fellow Brooklynite:  the "Big Easy" was a haven for oddballs and outcasts and for people who had a need to do their own thing and who weren't afraid to take that road less traveled.  I then briefly recounted my experience in Livingston, MT and how I saw similarities between people of the land and mountains and folks from the bayou.  And it wasn't just a love of hunting and fishing (or eating); it was a common spirited individuality, an appreciation for everyday absurdity and a "laissez les bonnes temps roulez" sensibility.  I sensed that folks in both regions needed a lot of physical and psychological space.  (In fact, one woman spoke of how she and her husband recently bought ten acres of land.  When someone asked her husband what he was planning to raise, he had a pithy reply:  "Peace and quiet!)

I also mentioned my plan to do some hiking in the Bob Marshall National Wilderness Area.  When folks warned me about going deep into the backcountry with its concentration of grizzlies (and not just the cab drivers), I self-effacingly assured them I was no Jeremiah Johnson.  It was clear to one and all that both cultures and regions -- one below sea level, the other with peaks touching that "Big Sky" -- pull at my heart and speak to my soul.

3.  Appealing to the Ego.  Not surprisingly, the above narration had a halo effect.  But there was another reason that folks were warming to me:  I was holding them and their lifestyle and culture in genuine esteem.  As noted by the late 20th c. sociologist-philosopher, Ernest Becker, "the most important human desire is the desire to feel important!"  Their world has given much to me; perhaps I could give something back.

4.  Using the Culture Clash.  And ironically giving back would involve challenging and helping the group to reconcile, in Zen-like fashion, those seemingly contradictory, Western and Eastern, small town and big city, mountain and bayou, communalistic and individualistic perspectives and proclivities.  Actually, I didn't pose this socio-cultural challenge quite so broadly or esoterically.  I distilled my paradoxical goal to its organizational and bureaucratic essence.

5.  Reframing a Negative as a Positive Challenge.  Transitioning from identification and ego stroke to the Stress Doc's TLC -- "tender-loving criticism" and "tough-loving care" -- required a bit of psychological judo.  Wisely, I had laid the conceptual groundwork by not using judgmental categories, such as "problem employees," "difficult people," "inadequate performance" or "dysfunctional relating."  In fact, by extolling the virtues of being distinct individuals - freewheeling and feisty spirits - the opposite had occurred.  Now, with this ambiance of good will, I suddenly posed the tough issue as a group challenge:   "How do you get uncommon, "do your thing" people to work productively and supportively as a team?"  I reiterated that this was the key concern of management.  And my intention:  to see if we could transform some negative stress and conflict energy into cooperative and creative collaboration, while definitely mixing learning and laughter!

6.  Getting Real and Recognizing Differences.  Finally, I shared some consulting experiences with government agencies that had been burdened by individual and team performance issues.  I consciously illustrated how political in fighting had basically left one federal division leaderless and directionless with troubling consequences for morale, safety and productivity.  (This Montana government section had once operated in a somewhat similar leadership vacuum.)  With some hard work and honest dialogue, people started pulling together as a team.  However, with another government department riddled with interpersonal tensions - a number of people had not been speaking to one other, almost literally, for two years; the department head was "working" around it -- not everyone was willing or able to get on the same page.  Eventually, one person left while another was encouraged to transfer out. 

These vignettes were not intended to scare people, but were meant to underscore that while learning and laughing were goals our interactive half-day together would not be all fun and games.  The underlying message:  while the group should not stifle individual expression and talent, neither should a disgruntled individual nor disruptive individuals be allowed to trump or undermine team productivity and group cohesion.

Concluding Summary

Let me close this narrative by noting that during this initial engagement I experienced intense and attentive eye contact when scanning the audience.  I saw bodies leaning forward along with heads nodding in recognition or agreement.  This feedback meant my premeditated and heartfelt opening had created a transitional space that allowed me to project more than just an outside expert persona.  People sensed I had some understanding not just of their professional world, but of their personal one as well.  A humble and humorous style along with a mutually affirming perspective paved the way for overcoming regional-cultural assumptions and superficial differences.  Positively reframing self-centeredness and personality conflict as idiosyncratic spirit and feistiness helped create a vital challenge:  the necessity for transforming the egotism of "me" into the altruism of "we."  And when you season a sobering message with some Stress Doc "TLC" the stage is being set for an exciting yet also a bit scary, engaging hearts and inspiring minds adventure.  The provocative challenge helped awaken individual and group consciousness:  one and all must productively channel conflict energy and, despite individual differences, pull together as a coordinated crew if a team building boat is to survive a difficult passage.  With introductions and openings completed, we were about to launch.  And now people were ready to jump into the program, not jump ship.  And I would be given a chance at the helm.

This essay is not the time or place for a full review of the day or for illustrating the various interactive tools and techniques used to transform negativity into positive motivation and collaboration.  Suffice to say we had a very productive workshop.  The Section Chief reported a good team meeting the following week, as well as some cooperative problem solving, even among the most entrenched antagonists.  And word of our success spread rapidly through the halls of state government.  After approaching Human Resources for a speaker, a different division head emailed about my team-building programs.  And upon hearing that I would be coming out to Helena next month, the original Section Chief has asked for Round II on communication skills.

As illustrated throughout, this essay has focused on (a) transcending regional-cultural differences, (b) rapidly yet genuinely connecting with a skeptical if not cynical audience and (c) highlighting the power of positive and provocative communication to affirm the individual but especially to underscore the critical value of productive and supportive teamwork.  To recap, the "out of the box" strategic moves involved:
1. Breaking Out of the Stereotype with Humility and Humor
2. Finding Some Commonality
3. Appealing to the Ego
4. Using the Culture Clash
5. Reframing a Negative as a Positive Challenge
6. Getting Real and Recognizing Differences

Remember, a personal and paradoxical, purposeful and passionate introduction and opening engagement strategy that highlights mutual communication, individuality, commonality and collaboration just may transform negative energy into an opportunity for camaraderie and productivity while helping one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Reader's Submissions

Subj:  The Guys' Rules
From:   sue123@twmi.rr.com

At last a guy has taken the time to write this all down

Finally, the guys' side of the story.  ( I must admit, it's pretty good.)  We always hear "the rules" from the female side.

Now here are the rules from the male side.  These are our rules!  Please note.. these are all numbered "1" ON PURPOSE!

1. Men are NOT mind readers.

1. Learn to work the toilet seat.  You're a big girl. If it's up, put it down.  We need it up, you need it down.  You don't hear us complaining about you leaving it down.

1. Sunday sports. It's like the full moon or the changing of the tides. Let it be.

1. Shopping is NOT a sport.  And no, we are never going to think of it that way.

1. Crying is blackmail.

1. Ask for what you want.  Let us be clear on this one:
Subtle hints do not work!
Strong hints do not work!
Obvious hints do not work!
Just say it!

1. Yes and No are perfectly acceptable answers to almost every question.

1. Come to us with a problem only if you want help solving it. That's what we do.
Sympathy is what your girlfriends are for.

1. A headache that lasts for 17 months is a Problem.  See a doctor.

1. Anything we said 6 months ago is inadmissible in an argument.  In fact, all comments become null and void after 7 Days.

1. If you won't dress like the Victoria's Secret girls, don't Expect us to act like soap opera guys.

1. If you think you're fat, You probably are.  Don't ask us.

1. If something we said can be interpreted two ways and one of the ways makes you sad or angry, we meant the other one

1. You can either ask us to do something Or tell us how you want it done.  Not both. 
If you already know best how to do it, just do it yourself.

1. Whenever possible, Please say whatever you have to say during commercials.

1. Christopher Columbus did NOT need directions and neither do we.

1. ALL men see in only 16 colors, like Windows default settings.  Peach, for example, is a fruit, not A color. Pumpkin is also a fruit. We have no idea what mauve is.

1. If it itches, it will be scratched.  We do that.

1. If we ask what is wrong and you say "nothing," We will act like nothing's wrong.  We know you are lying, but it is just not worth the hassle.

1. If you ask a question you don't want an answer to, Expect an answer you don't want to hear.

1. When we have to go somewhere, absolutely anything you wear is fine.Really.

1. Don't ask us what we're thinking about unless you are prepared to discuss such topics as SEX, CARS,  the shotgun formation, or  BASKETBALL.

1. You have enough clothes.

1. You have too many shoes

1. I am in shape.  Round IS a shape!

1. Thank you for reading this.
Yes, I know, I have to sleep on the couch tonight;

But did you know men really don't mind that? It's like camping.


The Brookings Institution
1775 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC  20036-2388

August 25, 2006

Dear Mark,

On behalf of The Brookings Institution ITS department, I would like to thank you for an incredible workshop.  The drawing exercise was a huge success, both fun and productive.  Your humorous approach to managing stress and conflict truly resonated with the staff.  The session had a striking balance of sound advice and humorous wit.

Thank you for your time and enthusiasm.

Jane Fishkin
CIO & VP of Technology
Information Technology Services

Heads Up:

Recent Programs [testimonials upon request]

1. Natl. Ctr. for Children & Families; Stress & Team Building (2 hours)
2. Aleph Bet Jewish Day School, Annapolis, MD; Stress & Team Building (2 hours)
3. Maryland Health & Human Services/Child Welfare Services; Stress/Conflict & Team Building (3 hours)
4. Montana Div. of Public Health & Human Services; Stress/Conflict & Team Building (3 hours), Helena, MT

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 stressdoc@aol.com or call 301-946-0865.

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2006
Shrink Rap Productions