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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

SEP 2006, No. I, Sec. II

Main Essay:

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.

Confessions of a "Type A" Canoeist (or "Partnering for Dummies")

Who knew that a new worldview could come from two-hours in a canoe?  Well, perhaps not a worldview but certainly a paradigmatic shift regarding the meaning of partnership.  The psychological and interpersonal challenge:  understanding and being in sync with a partner's perspectives and propensities, i.e., her modus operandi.  And most important, grudgingly admitting my need to change beliefs and behaviors that seem so reasonable and natural.  (Not so easy for a somewhat driven, hard-paddling New Yorker.  Cue the "My Fair Lady" CD:  Can't you just visualize Henry Higgins singing, "Why Can't a Woman Canoe Like a Man?")  "Old Man River" definitely had a humbling (and hopefully maturing) lesson for this post-middle age male.   Let's begin the journey.

This summer, my girl friend and I went canoeing on the Cuyahoga River in Hiram, Ohio.  The sky was somewhat overcast, the temperature moderate, as was the river flow.  (Two miles per hour according to the brochure from the rental place.)  The conditions were seemingly perfect for a moderate beginner (me) and for my cohort, a moderate intermediate canoeist.  (Actually, A. has had more experience whitewater rafting.  And I have some recent experience with one-man kayaking.  Both pose other issues; but more about this later.) 

We had covered two-thirds of the seven-mile trip before seeing even a splash of white water.  Eventually, though, we did encounter some turbulence, nervously navigating a small cascade-like drop, after being trapped on a protruding small boulder.  And we did get stuck on an underground log in shallow water.  But overall, the trip was fairly uneventful navigationally, at least concerning physical health and especially as compared to our spring canoeing episode.   In that adventure, fairly early on, we were caught in some eddies and were uncontrollably speeding toward the riverbank.  Sheer luck or some intuitive sense had me duck before a large overhanging tree branch was about to decapitate my head.  At the time, I believed my girlfriend's wandering attention had contributed to the slice and dicey moment.  (Somehow I managed to contain my angst and we made it back in one piece.)

But eventually there was a sense of déjà vu as we would regularly bang into the riverbank, even when the passage was not particularly narrow.  From a back seat or stern perspective (the steering position), my diagnosis was that the scenery got her attention far more than our misguided direction.  And when getting too close to land, while I was either paddling more vigorously (thinking that there was a common challenge:  to prove we could avoid overhanging branches without having to slow down and reverse direction) or was back-paddling furiously, she was either continuing with her normal stroke, keeping her paddle still in the water in hopes of slowing us down or simply taking the paddle out of the water.  (The motive here still escapes me.  Upon reading this last passage, Miss A. requests equal time:  she was making it easier for me to fulfill my steering duties.  GRRR!)

Of course my ego took a blow mid-stream when A. explained our plight to her friends, a longstanding couple who had easily outdistanced us but who seemingly had slowed so we could catch up.  A.'s assessment:  "We were just out of rhythm."   (Biting my lip, I resisted the comeback:  "We have much better rhythm on stationary objects!"  Talk about keeping up with the Johnsons.  Ah, "Vanity (or is it profanity?) thy name is Gorkin.")

Well we again made it back to the dock and back home still on speaking terms, but I had a restless night's sleep.  I realized we had to talk out this experience.  And after a back and forth

"d & c" couch session (some heated "discussion and cuddling"; I like mixing pain and pleasure ;-), which was more in sync than our paddling, I also knew that there was an article to share.  Our canoeing misadventure was potentially a great metaphor for how couples or any kind of partnership (or team) can bog down into antagonistic actions, that is, behaviors that are not only annoying but that also literally contradict or cancel out each other's individual efforts.  And if this disruption and disconnection becomes a pattern, not only does frustration build but so too the foundation for a dysfunctional relationship:  expectations and goals are not articulated and underlying assumptions or agendas (in computer virus-like fashion) remain hidden while destructive anger gets acted out overtly or passively.  Perhaps most critical, outside of awareness, vital trust is being compromised if not broken.  One or both parties begin to withdraw, no longer meaningfully checking in with their partner or teammate.  Surely tensions if not resentments will smolder.  And too predictably, over another often-unrelated issue or seemingly trivial trigger comes an eruption of disproportionate sound and fury. 

Let's begin this analysis with "Three Obstacles to Effective Canoeing and Productive and Supportive Partnering":

1.  History.
  Clearly, each person in a canoe brings a history of canoeing as well as partnering in a wide array of activities.  And A. has had an active recent history.  After many years of unhappy marriage, limited open communication being just one of the problems, this past Spring-Summer she filed for and obtained a divorce.  However, in 30+ years of marriage she and her husband had canoed and whitewater rafted several times.  Their pattern was A. sitting up front, doing gentle paddling while gazing at the environs.  Her ex would steer from the rear, more intent on the exercise and on making progress than into the serenity of the experience.  It was agreed that if a course correction was needed, the person in the back was primarily responsible for steering the boat out of troubled waters.  A. was depending on her ex to do most of the hard work; and he was agreeable.  This division of labor met each other's individual needs; roles were specifically assigned and usually there was little need for communication or clarification in transit.  (This suited A. just fine as conversation often flared into an argument.)

According to my Webmaster, whose wife comes from a family of canoeing fanatics, the structure followed by A. and her ex conforms to the traditional rules of canoeing.  While this limited, "do your own thing" interaction between A. and her ex "worked" on the water, the tightly prescribed expectations and structure, in my mind, mostly enabled this dyad to "function" without having to actually relate.  Certainly, this division does not involve two-way, give and take sharing and interdependent partnering.  And in fact, if the couple had experienced real turbulence canoeing, I suspect their performance on the water would mirror the breakdown in communication and the heightened agitation and mutual aggression when under stress on land.  More shortly in the next section on "Expectations."

As for my experience canoeing and (romantic) partnering, fairly limited in the former and out of practice for the last number of years in the latter.  Perhaps it's telling that I've had more experience doing solo kayaking than two-person canoeing.  Will I be able to move beyond my single-minded comfort zone and coordinate with a work/play mate?

Transferable Principle:
  When having conflict issues at work, it's important to realize that a person's family, marital/relational as well as work history influences his or her present beliefs and behaviors.  Sometimes you can even summon up empathy for an antagonist when you understand that dysfunctional parenting or supervising as well as the coping patterns learned to please, mollify or survive a controlling or intimidating parent, supervisor or spouse may contribute to a noxious attitude or to passive or aggressive negativity.  (Obviously, dysfunction is not limited to authority relationships.  Peer group or collegial taunting or bullying can have dramatic and debilitating effects as well.)  At the same time, you may have to suspend assumptions and gut feelings that make you quick to perceive, based on your own historical experience, a new partner's or team member's initial action as a harbinger of disruptive and dysfunctional patterns.

2.  Expectations.
  In hindsight my expectations for canoeing were definitely at cross-purposes with A.'s and, to be truthful, more in line with her ex-husbands.  For me, canoeing was an opportunity to get aerobic exercise, when necessary to challenge myself (and ourselves) through engaging river-borne obstacles (avoiding or negotiating banks, hanging limbs, eddies, logs, protruding rocks, etc.) and to use the environs as sightlines and sources of feedback that would enable us to communicate timely directional corrections when veering off course.  And while I could enjoy the scenery in spurts, individual and team performance mode definitely trumped peaceful mind state.  Of course, I hadn't asked A. if she was interested in this kind of challenge.

With this framework, not surprisingly we had problems.  My vigorous paddling often negated A.'s slow and steady rhythm.  Alas, I was often the initial cause of our veering bankward.  Not recognizing this interaction (perhaps not wanting to become cognizant) I then expressed my frustration with A. for not responding with course corrective action.  That is, in my mind, A. wasn't changing her paddling direction quickly enough.  For me, her head was still in the scenery and she also expected the steering position to take primary responsibility for righting our ship.  Clearly, we were not on the same teamwork page.

At different points I became aware of some anger that I briefly acted out passive-aggressively, e.g., not paddling/steering in response to my perception of A.'s limited efforts to help change our course.  Not surprisingly, we were literally and psychologically caught up in a self-perpetuating vicious cycle.  (No wonder we were paddling in circles.)  An objective observer could have easily predicted that our attempts to communicate would prove mostly futile.  This breakdown was not our normal state of affairs.  We are usually pretty good at having an open and honest dialogue when things are bugging us, at least on land.  However, there was another significant obstacle.

Transferable Principle:
  Too often, our untested individual beliefs obscure the fact that the operational expectations of the dyad or among team members are significantly unaligned.  However, just telling people to get on the same page may be naive.  In fact, the first test of a partnership may be reaching genuine agreement on a common goal.  Not surprisingly, sometimes misunderstanding or conflict between the parties is necessary before people realize there's a need for: a) acknowledging differences, b) a learning curve, c) greater tolerance and d) a give and take, mutually acceptable settlement.  The best means of reaching a working consensus:  each party gives up something of value (without compromising individual safety or integrity) to strengthen the greater good and achieve the greater goal.

3.  Language and Reference Barriers.
  As I mentioned, A. is the more experienced canoe person and rafter.  Which means she has certain commands and procedures in her head.  When I sensed we were veering off course, let's say heading to the left riverbank, I would call out (based on my "common sense" assessment) our need to go backward and reverse direction.  Alas, common sense for one may be confusion for another.  With her paddle on the right side of the canoe, I would tell her to push her paddle in a forward motion so we would go "back," i.e., we should slow down with the back of the boat shifting left and the front moving rightward.  My urgings seemed to fall on deaf ears.  But it was the choice of words that were a big part of the problem.

In the rafting world, when you say "back" this refers to the direction you want to paddle, not the direction you wish the boat to go.  So she would pull back with her right paddle, that is, A. would continue to stroke in normal fashion.  This action reduced the effectiveness of my attempts at corrective steering and only hastened our collision with the left bank.  If someone had been videotaping this comedy of errors, we probably would have qualified for a "home videos" TV show.  But alas, in the middle of this "spinning your paddles" translation vortex, I was not able to see the humor.  Nor did A.  To mix water and fire metaphors, as we struggled on the river, I can now imagine her wondering if regard to men and canoes (hopefully only men and canoes) she'd gone from the cold and detached frying pan into the overheated and frustrating fire.  (Though the Cuyahoga River actually once caught on fire.  But A. asked me not to belabor this oft-cited fact.)

Fortunately, getting through the diagnostic part of this essay seems to be helping quiet my critical inner voice and allowing some objectivity to emerge.  And while not feeling exactly light-hearted, I do recall an enlightened quote by the psychiatrist, Ernst Kris:   "What was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at."  Being able to inject some humor into my writing is helping to defuse this Type A's sense of deflation and defeat.  And A. laughed heartily as I read my description of our misadventure.  (Perhaps she's also experiencing the Stress Doc inversion of Kris' quote:  "What was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master!")

Clearly A. and I have not mastered the world of canoeing; we still have much to learn about partnering, both on water and on land.  Actually, A. and I continue to process our experience, helping clarify both expectations and misunderstandings.  Evaluating and responding to objective and well-timed feedback is critical for all kinds of learning and skill building, as is practicing the desired skill.  Which is why in a recent discussion I hesitated when A. volunteered to take the steering position next time out.  I asked if she could hold off till we had at least one relatively smooth, simpatico and mutually satisfying canoeing venture with me in the back. (Trust me, in other rhythmic undertakings I'm certainly not averse to trying out different positions.)  I'm still too Type A not to want to have some sense of learning curve progress if not mastery.  And A., being sufficiently laid back while also aware of (and accepting of) my nature, agreed.

Transferable Principle:
  I recall the statistic that seventy-five percent of the words in the English language have more than one meaning.  Understandably, differing language and reference points may readily interfere with "message sent = message received."  And this static when combined with disjointed expectations often results in not just communication breakdown but culture clash.  The nature and complexity of the interpersonal context has relevance.  Assuming the information barriers are not so daunting, you may simply ask the other person to paraphrase his or her understanding of your message, e.g., "Please put into your own words what you heard me to say."  (Though when your canoe missile is soon to slam into a riverbank, a paraphrasing request may not be the first words exploding from your lips.)  However, if the communication/culture gap is significant, then learning a new language and engaging in successful dialogue will take time and trial and error.  One must be prepared to negotiate a two-way language and practice in earnest for a positive learning curve.

Strategic Philosophy and Pragmatic Adaptation

I believe both the canoe journey and this "post-traumatic" journaling will encourage my personal maturation and, hopefully, the growth of our relationship.  Eyes, motor skills and mind have been opened to the changes needed in my partnering assumptions and actions.  Without further babbling, here are "The Stress Doc's Key Steps and Strategies for Getting In Sync with a (Canoeing) Partner":

1.  Shifting Paradigms.
   First and foremost, I need to make a philosophical shift in my attitude toward canoeing with A.  Without forsaking my somewhat intense, goal-focused and aerobically-competitive, New Yorker nature, perhaps I can reconnect to my sixteen year "American in Cajun Paris" experience and evolve a more N'Awlins and Zen-like -- let's call it the "Big EZ(en)" -- approach that mixes canoeing and communing with nature.   (How about this vision:  paddling a Mardi Gras float down the river.  I know…I'll bring along a cache of beads!)  But seriously, can I find a better balance between "human doing" and "human being?"  Aha!  Of course…all I need to do is create a Type A learning challenge:  exploring the Zen-like, paradoxical conundrum of "mastering serenity"?   See, wasn't that easy?  Now to change mind into matter of fact behavior…

2.  Mirroring Pace and Echoing Place.
  I must be better aligned with A.'s rowing energy and pace.  I too need to slow down the paddling and increase my gazing.  Getting into a smooth and steady, repetitive and rhythmic motion will be stress relieving and meditation inducing.  Of course, there's that voice inside that says, "Why should I be the one who has to make the change."  But that's the voice of "me" not "we."  Actually, this reminds me of my ditty:  "Tea for Two:  The Narcissist's Version":

You for me and me for me
Oh how nurturing you will be
Forget to be or not to be
Just simply think of me, me, me!

Hopefully, A. too will ponder the partnering process.  But as a friend underscored recently, my job as a (team) mate is to:  a) take personal responsibility for my beliefs and behaviors, that is, to let go of the blaming and excuses and b) to connect constructively with A's comfort zone, not expect her to adjust to me.  However, if we both stay open, I also hear another voice:  the possibility of often subtle, sometimes more tangible, mutual adaptations over time.  Through genuinely shared experience or from the simple exposure to each other's different strengths along with empathy for our personal vulnerabilities, we can expand self-awareness and work our give and take communication muscles.  We can live the power of partnering.

3.  Communicating Before and After.
  And finally, before we get on a river, I definitely want us to review the expectations that we have for each other and ourselves.  I came up with the following interrelated questions:  "What do I need to do/what can I do to make your canoeing experience more comfortable and enjoyable?"  (As this post-trauma essay winds down, I await A.'s response with only a touch of apprehension.)  For myself, I will likely ask A., if and when we are getting off course, to shift momentarily from tranquil gazing and stroking to conscious paddling.  At the same time, having been enlightened about the art of synchronization and steering from the stern of the canoe, I must be prepared to play by the rules and roles.  Now, assuming manageable river conditions, I don't anticipate an ongoing game of bumper canoes with banks, boulders or fellow canoeists.

A.'s choice of course correction paddling may not be my first remedial preference.  But being a good partner means allowing for individual difference, both in substance and style (as long as you don't sacrifice safety).  Yet if we basically are on the same body of water and in the same canoe, i.e., first, addressing our mutually agreed upon and shared expectations and second, mostly pulling in the same direction, then I'm confident that our capacity for sympathetic and rhythmic relating will transpose to even a moderately turbulent river journey.  (And if not, I can go always back to kayaking.  Just kidding.)

Finally, we need to do post-canoe processing.  Sometimes there's no substitute for error and seeming failure to capture an individual's or both party's attention.  Of course, we want this critique to follow the Stress Doc's formula for TLC – tender loving criticism and tough loving care.  Our back and forth on the couch should be as sympathetic as our anticipated newfound rhythm on the river.  This discussion will facilitate ongoing understanding and help generate learning curves beyond paddling into the partnering process itself – evaluating assumptions, checking out role expectations, synchronizing language as well as pace and being on the basically same philosophical page.  (And I've promised A. our dialogic process will be much briefer than this essay!)  And with this understanding as a launching site, I anticipate us continuing to evolve (not without some choppy, white water/white knuckle moments) meaningful and enjoyable sea- and land-based partnering.

In closing, this essay has enumerated both "The Obstacles to Effective Canoeing and Productive and Supportive Partnering" and "Key Steps and Strategies for Getting In Sync with a (Canoeing) Partner."  The obstacles:  1) History, 2) Expectations and 3) Language and Reference Barriers.  The strategies:  1) Shifting Paradigms, 2) Mirroring Pace and Echoing Place and 3) Communicating Before and After.  My hope is that these insights and ideas may generalize to a variety of areas for human relating and provide some robust tools and techniques for interpersonal problem solving.  And my final desire, of course, is that my trials, tribulations and humbling reflections will help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!


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Practice Safe Stress tackles the "Toxic-Traumatic Trio" -- stress, burnout, and depression.  Learn practical and playful, inspiring and insightful strategies for transforming these toxins into life-affirming energy, creative focus, and goal-achievement.  Bringing a personal, professional, and organizational perspective, the book is alive with imaginative language and memorable "how to" ideas for:

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Seek the higher power of Stress Doc humor…May the Farce Be With You!

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Paperback:  Price:  $20 + $5.00 priority shipping in US; $7 for shipping in Mexico and Canada; other international destinations to be determined

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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

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