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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

MAY 2008, No. 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:  Transforming Conflict:  Replacing Blaming "You"s with Tactfully Assertive "I"s
Testimonials:  Home Builders Institute

Readers:  Wal Mart Application

Offerings:  Books, CDs, Training/Marketing Kit:  Email stressdoc@aol.com or go to www.stressdoc.com for more info.

Main Essay:  The Psychology and Strategy of "Provocative" Leadership:  Generating the Five "A"s for Arousing Performance


1) Shrink Rap:  Transforming Conflict:  Replacing Blaming "You"s with Tactfully Assertive "I"s.  Some basic tools and tips for empathically and strategically defusing conflict and affirming your integrity.

2) Main Essay:  The Psychology and Strategy of "Provocative" Leadership:  Generating the Five "A"s for Arousing Performance.  With his Four "P"s of Passion Power Model as context, the Stress Doc focuses on the concept of being positively "Provocative."

Shrink Rap:

Transforming Conflict:  Replacing Blaming "You"s with

Tactfully Assertive "I"s

During a Practice Safe Stress and Team Building workshop for legal assistants and support staff of a major law firm, a paralegal, with an edge in his voice, recalled a frustrating encounter with one of the firm's partners.  Apparently, misinformation or a misunderstanding led to a project being mishandled and an important deadline being missed.  The paralegal, in response to perceived one-sided criticism, counterpunched:  "It's not my fault…you didn't give me the right instructions."

Now I can practically hear some in the reading audience saying, "You go guy!"  And while our heart may be momentarily appeased, I'm not sure the head has been most effectively engaged.  Actually, in conflict situations, the most effective communication invariably blends both head and heart.  For when the two aren't working together, it's easy to succumb to blaming "You" messages, for example, "You didn't give me the right instructions."

Even if the partner didn't provide the necessary information, our paralegal's blaming "you" blast basically is imitating the attorney's initial adversarial thrust.  And too often, when only fighting fire with fire, both parties get burned.  (And as the partner usually has the bigger flamethrower, it's rarely a fair fight.  It's pretty predictable who winds up with the lasting scars.)

Self-Defeating "You"s

There are other problems when arguing with finger-pointing "You"s.  (And, for the moment, I'm not referring to the proverbial finger.)  Let me count the misguided ways:
1.  Defensive Habit.  A pattern of blaming messages means you are into "acc-you-sations."  It's fair to ask:  "Are you a becoming a "Blameaholic?"  Not only are you attempting to put others on the defensive.  But there's another problematic dynamic.  While believing you are standing up for yourself, many will see such overreaction as evidence of being too thin-skinned; you aren't able to stand the firm's high demand, high standards (at least for some) or pressure climate.

2.  Power Transfusion.  By solely blaming another for a problem or for compromised performance you are forsaking your "Authority, Autonomy and Accountability" -- what I call the "Triple 'A' of Personal/Professional Responsibility."  In actuality, you are accepting that the other party has all the power to define your competency, your identity and the problem-solving dynamics of a situation.  (Of course, when dealing with contemporary conflicts, unresolved, still painful psychological issues with parental or other significant authority figures heighten feeling hurt and your emotional defensiveness or reactivity.)  Some people become defensive by too quickly seeing the provocative interaction as an issue of respect.  I think the words of the universally admired first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, have much relevance:  "No one can take away your self-respect without your active participation."

3.  Power Struggle.  Unless you are dealing with a person who is submissive or passive or, conversely, a truly mature professional (who will respond, not lash out when verbally attacked), your blaming reaction likely fuels a mutual cycle of invective and incrimination.  Now the drive becomes who is right, who will back down, or who's in control.  (I can't help recall the words of French novelist, Andre Gide, from his book, The Immoralist:  "One must allow others to be right…it consoles them for not being anything else!")

And even if you momentarily get a non-assertive person to back down, don't be surprised if that passivity eventually turns into a getting even "passive-aggressive" underhandedness:  "Oh I'm sorry, I guess it is the third time this week that I forgot to give you that report."

Assertive "I" Messages

So how do you replace blaming "You" messages with appropriately assertive "I" messages?  First, let me highlight the importance of making this shift through a "two word" example.  Say you are in a heated argument with a colleague, perhaps related to politics or whether the "e" in email often stands for "escaping" face-to-face communication.  You've been making several thoughtful arguments but the other party is dismissive or just gives you a blank, "whatever" stare.  Finally, in a state of frustration you blurt out, "You're wrong" or, with greater poise, declare, "I disagree."  Those two words make quite a difference.  The former basically tries to invalidate the other person, not just the argument.  By definition, "I disagree" acknowledges the other person's position, even if there is disagreement.

There are three dynamics infusing "I" messages with positive energy.  Empathically assertive "I"s:
a) convey respect; it's a more adult-to-adult as opposed to a one up vs. one down style of communicating and relating
b) openly state a position or a feeling, e.g., what I like or don't appreciate, what I'm concerned about, what I fear, what I expect, etc. and
c) take responsibility for one's actions or balance self-responsibility and situational factors or consequences

With this conceptual and communicational foundation, how might our aforementioned paralegal handle that adversarial partner?  Consider these "Tactfully Assertive Steps for Disarming a Critical Aggressor":
1.  Gut Check. 
To forestall a defensive (or offensive) reaction the proverbial wisdom has been to "count to ten."  For me that just delays the message.  When feeling attacked you need to resist blurting out and do some quick reading of head and heart.  What are your thoughts and, especially, what are you feeling?  And especially, if starting with a "You," such as, "You didn't give me…" hit pause and process before engaging the play button.  In other words, "Count to ten and check within!"

2.  Take Some Responsibility, Show Some Empathy and Preserve Integrity.  Acknowledging responsibility doesn't mean accepting all of the blame.  However, it does entail recognizing that a problem has arisen or an error has been made.  For example, one might say, "This was my understanding of the instructions.  Obviously, I wasn't on your page."  While in some circumstances it might be acceptable to note, "I guess we weren't on the same page," with a frustrated authority I'd take the first approach.  You don't have to say, "I guess I screwed up," but you may want to let the other party know you understand why he or she is upset, for example by overtly verbalizing some consequences of message sent not being message received.  While not a guarantee, sometimes by taking the self-responsibility initiative, it frees up the other person to acknowledge his part in the problem.  This is more likely to happen if you allow the other party to express some anger as you are acknowledging confusion or a mistake.

However, if the other person is not just expressing anger, but is being abusive, then you may have to say with conviction, "I'm sorry for whatever part I have played in this problem, but I will not accept such an attack."  If the party does not show some self-control, then inform your antagonist that you will call again in a defined period of time, when, hopefully, there can be a professional discussion.  (Sometimes you may need a third party as a conflict mediator.)  You also may have to report such an encounter to a firm authority, e,g, Paralegal Administrator, HR Director, etc.  If the problem persists and management won't address the firm bully, alas, you should be upgrading your resume.  Of course it's not fair…)

3.  Ask a Humble Question.  To soothe troubled egos, sometimes a "You" message when part of a question is just what the doctor ordered.  If both parties are evincing a professional and respectful manner, you may want to simply ask, "How can I make this right?" or "What will help you feel we are back on track?"  Not only are you showing some contrition, but also are willing to serve.  Finally, asking someone's opinion or asking for guidance says, "I don't have all the answers" and "I value your experience, expertise, perspective, etc."  And as Ernest Becker, 20th century sociologist and philosopher noted, the strongest human desire is the desire to feel important.

Hopefully, an extended examination of this law firm encounter has created a better appreciation of the dangers in using reactive "you" messages and the productive potential when blending empathy and assertion as part of a responsive and responsible "I" message.  Not only will these tools and techniques assist you in finding the pass in the communicational impasse, but such verbal and psychological fluency will also help you…Practice Safe Stress!


Home Builders Institute
[Stress and Team Building Program for HBI Staff]

Subject: Thank You
Date: 5/6/2008
From: breid@hbi.org


Thanks again for the presentation today.  The feedback we’ve received so far has been very positive.  Everyone seemed to like the interaction involved.

On another note, I sent your contact information to the HR list serve that I belong to, so hopefully you’ll get some contacts.


Brian D. Reid
Senior HR Generalist/HRIS
Home Builders Institute
1201 15th Street, NW
Sixth Floor/Human Resources
Washington, D.C. 20005
(t) 202.266.8938  | (f) 202.266.8948 | breid@hbi.org 


Subject: Wal Mart Application

From:  PCorell@HOPSTEINER.com

This is an actual job application that a 75 year old senior citizen submitted to Wal Mart in Arkansas.  They hired him because he was so funny.....

NAME: Kenneth Way (Grumpy Old Bastard)

SEX: Not lately, but I am looking for the right woman (or at least one who will cooperate)

DESIRED POSITION: Company's President or Vice President. But seriously, whatever's available . If I was in a position to be picky, I wouldn't be applying here in the first place.

DESIRED SALARY: $185,000 a year plus stock options and a Michael Ovitz style severance package. If that's not possible, make an offer and we can haggle.


LAST POSITION HELD: Target for middle management hostility.

PREVIOUS SALARY: A lot less than I'm worth.

MOST NOTABLE ACHIEVEMENT: My incredible collection of stolen pens and post-it notes.



PREFERRED HOURS: 1:30-3:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday.

DO YOU HAVE ANY SPECIAL SKILLS?: Yes, but they're better suited to a more intimate environment .

MAY WE CONTACT YOUR CURRENT EMPLOYER?: If I had one, would I be here?

LIFTING UP TO 50 lbs.?: Of what?

DO YOU HAVE A CAR?: I think the more appropriate question here would be, "Do you have a car that runs?"

be a winner of the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes, so they
tell me.

DO YOU SMOKE?: On the job - no! On my breaks - yes!

WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE DOING IN FIVE YEARS?: Living in the Bahamas with a fabulously wealthy dumb sexy blonde supermodel who thinks I'm the greatest thing since sliced bread. Actually, I'd like to be doing that now.



***Old People Rock! ***


Main Essay:

The Psychology and Strategy of "Provocative" Leadership:
Generating the Five "A"s for Arousing Performance

In my speaking and workshop programs, especially related to management and leadership skills, I've been field-testing a 2x2 conceptual matrix originally developed for a talk on, "How to Give Great Presentations?"  The linkage of the two topics -- effective public presentation and effective leadership -- seemed transparent, including being clear and confident while possessing an array of powerful communication skills that speak to the head and the heart.  During preparation for the "Great Presentations" program, I realized that I incorporate two broad dimensions on stage -- Informational Processing Mode Dimension and Motivational Mood Dimension.  And each dimension is comprised of seemingly opposite qualities:
a) Informational Mode:  "Cognitive" (analytical or head) and "Affective" (emotional or heart)
b) Motivational Mood:    "Gravitas" (seriousness) and "Comedia" (silly or sharply satirical).

Pairing these four terms yielded a matrix that helped illustrate an uncommon presentational fire and focus, what I call, "The Four 'P's of Passion Power" ™:
1. Cognitive --  Gravitas   =  Purposeful
2. Cognitive --  Comedia  =  Provocative
3. Affective  --  Gravitas   =  Passionate
4. Affective  --  Comedia  =  Playful

I have previously illustrated this model, "Four 'P' Principles for Leading with 'Passion Power' ™ -- Part II," SDNews: FEB08.  However, one of the "P" words seems to be especially capturing people's attention (or at least seems to be as compelling as the word "Passionate").  The term is "Provocative."  Let's explore why this edgy word should, well, be so "provocative?"

The Double-Edged Power of Being Provocative

What's the first thought that comes to mind when you read the word "provocative?"  Is it someone who is sensually enticing or, perhaps, someone who is intentionally irritating?  Reasonable responses, but let's look at the half full side of this semantic equation.  Did you know that "provocative" is derived from the French word provocare -- "to call forth"?  For example, to be effective, a leader or educator wants to stimulate and draw out, to confront and excite a variety of thoughts and emotions, motives and actions.  He or she wants to "arouse curiosity" if not generate "discussion or controversy" amongst the followers or audience members.  Such a leader believes in harnessing the "Five Provocative or Performance Arousing 'A's":
1) Attention -- awakening or focusing an audience, that is, quickly getting people to "stop, look and listen."
2) Anticipation -- having participants or group members both engaged in the present and starting to wonder, "What's next?" or "Where is this leader headed?"  For example, as a presenter, I want to be edgy if not cutting-edge while having the audience on the edge of their seats.  Of course, a leader or educator who is too "far out" or too arcane risks losing connection with followers and supporters.  Conversely, a presenter who is too predictable or simplistic risks becoming a soporophic.
3) Animation -- stirring people's juices and hopes or evoking tears of grief, joy and laughter.  Animation means challenging conventional beliefs, firing the spirit and imagination while motivating a sense of adventure.  To animate also means to stimulate a desire to pursue a common (team-or community-oriented) and uncommon (demanding, novel or original) task or mission.  Even a cartoon context applies:  learning to playfully and constructively channel "rage" into the "out-rage-ous."  And at another level still, the root word of "animation" also comes into play.  A provocative leader attempts to connect with a person's "anima," his or her more genuine Self and deepest, head and heart aspirations and not just with the surface "persona."
4) Activation -- both individually and in groups, providing participants with the training and tools for generating objectives and plans, taking action steps, and gathering feedback to:  a) quickly assess the nature and complexity, e.g., the percentage of bridges to barriers, of the problem solving environment, b) evaluate personal learning strengths, gaps and vulnerabilities as well as levels of problem solving discipline and determination, c) gauge availability of resources and support systems, d) identify or clarify individual and team goals, and e) collaboratively and creatively solve problems, reach objectives and pursue dreams.
5) Actualization -- when individuals and groups on a consistent basis are:  a) tapping into their authentic, deeper and holistic essence and energy, b) expressing their passionate and creative substance and style, while c) bringing spirited play and purposeful problem solving when exploring and engaging their social and material world, then a process of self-/team-actualization is underway.

Clearly, the provocative leader or motivator challenges people to expand their perceptions and deepen their insights, facilitates making surprising connections, and encourages "thinking and acting outside the box."  A positive provocateur is not afraid to generate tension and use controversy as a motivational tool, especially to excite thought and movement "beyond one's comfort zone."  For example, the provocative tool of choice for the esteemed mid-20th century pragmatic philosopher, John Dewey, was "conflict."  The founder of American public education declared:

Conflict is the gadfly of thought.  It stirs us to observation and memory.  It
shocks us 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.

In conclusion, the powerful leader or presenter employs a range of ideas and motivational tools, singularly and especially in combination - from the cutting edge and charismatic to the compassionate and conflict-driven - to generate those "Five 'A's of Arousing Performance":  Attention, Anticipation, Animation, Activation and Actualization.  As a leader, are you ready to join the "A"-team?  Are you ready to ignite your fire and inspire their focus…by finding a "Provocative" voice and, ultimately, generating your  "Passion Power?"

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

Shrink Rap™ Productions



Mark Gorkin
"The Stress Doc" (TM)

Motivational Humorist/Psychohumorist (TM)
Acclaimed Keynotes & Kickoffs

View a web video of a Stress Doc Keynote: Click here: Media Downloads or http://www.stressdoc.com/media_downloads.htm

Washington, DC