The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist
AUG 2008, No. I
Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!
Table of Contents
Shrink Rap: Does Your Organization Need a Jolt of CPR -- Creativity, Passion &
Readers: Intl Administrative Assistants request for Natural SPEED Rap
Testimonials: Mission High School, National Science Foundation, Federal Asian
Pacific American Council (FAPAC)
Offerings: Books, CDs, Training/Marketing Kit: Email
firstname.lastname@example.org or go to
www.stressdoc.com for more info.
Main Essay: Four Faces of Anger: Model and Method (Attached)
1) Shrink Rap: Does Your Organization Need a Jolt of CPR -- Creativity,
Passion & Risk-Taking? A recent workshop with brigade officers of the 1st
Cavalry, Ft. Hood, TX reveals a new team building/creative problem solving model
with broad organizational application.
2) Main Essay: Four Faces of Anger: Model and Method. The
Institute of Chartered Financial Analysts of India University, Tripura)
requested permission to include my "Four Faces of anger" model in their upcoming
book, Managing Anger.
The original model was designed in the '90s, but the illustrative method is of
recent vintage. Discover (or rediscover) the
"Four Faces of Anger"
and the art and science of "Transforming Conflict: Replacing Blaming “You”s
with Tactfully Assertive “I”s." [In edited format, the method section of the
article originally appeared in
Know: The Magazine for Paralegals, June-July 2008. Due to length,
the article is an attachment.]
Does Your Team, Department or Organization Need a Jolt of CPR?
Facilitating Imagination, Open Communication and
Mission Success through Creativity, Passion and Risk-Taking
Sitting around the dinner table recently, after my morning workshop and after
the officers’ afternoon closed-door strategic planning session, the Commander of
the 15th Sustainment Brigade, 1st Cavalry, Ft. Hood, TX,
observed that the interactive am program turned what he had anticipated being a
contentious negotiation into a very positive, honest give and take and creative
problem-solving session. All parties had openly participated, no small feat in
a group diversely constituted by race, gender, time in grade and commissioned
officer vs. non-commissioned officer status. As soon as Commander Phelps paused
I fairly shouted, “Put that it in writing!” (And he did; testimonial follows
Why was I so immediate and adamant? Over the years, my various speaking and
workshop programs almost always garner high praise for being energetic and
engaging, inspiring and fun, for both providing some take home skills and
creating a sense of team camaraderie. For example, here’s a recent note from an
individual who attended my “Blending Motivation, Creativity and High Performance
workshop at the June 2008
Federal Asian Pacific American Council (FAPAC) Annual National Leadership
June 30, 2008
Thank you so much for the information and I thoroughly enjoyed the "Motivation
and Creativity Workshop" portion of the FAPAC conference. I especially liked
that it was very interactive and informative and I left feeling as though I had
truly learned something. After sitting in various workshops where the presenter
just spoke endlessly, I would leave feeling as though it was a waste of my
time. But again I thank you and shall put your name in our speakers’ resource
pool at Defense Supply Center Richmond.
Grace and Peace,
Laurie G. Darrisaw
Equal Employment Counselor
Defense Supply Center Richmond
Nonetheless, I frequently encounter “motivational” “pop psychology” or “soft
skills” skeptics who challenge me: “Do I have tangible evidence, i.e., hard
data, that my programs really make an impact on the organization?” (For the
moment I won’t fall back on how two of my one-day stress and conflict management
programs helped a “hazardous work environment” division of a large federal
government agency stop hemorrhaging thousands and thousands of dollars in
grievance procedures. One Head Project Manager believed the figure would have
been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars if not for my intervention. Of
course, some minimize this success as being a unique situation, not
reproducible, etc., etc.) However, this time, the Commander hit me over the
head with the obvious. There was an immediate and very tangible connection
between what had transpired in the morning and the productive aftermath. I had
not envisioned a role of jump-starting the real meat and potatoes meeting. My
focus was on helping people genuinely grapple with transition, transforming
stress and conflict into energy for supportive sharing and collaborative and
creative problem solving. And, in the process, to strive to help everyone feel
more part of a coordinated, “we’re all in this together” team.
as you know, my two-hour “Stress, Change and Team-Building” program for forty
officers and spouses of the15th
Support Brigade, 1st Cavalry, Ft. Hood, TX was a homerun, and
not just in the metaphoric sense. Let me quote Commander Phelps directly:
From: Phelps, Lawrence COL MIL USA FORSCOM <email@example.com>
Sent: Mon, 28 Jul 2008
Subject: Thanks Mark!
What a great program you engineered at our Command Offsite! It could not have
been better if we had orchestrated it! Your session on managing change and
stress was the perfect lead-in to the work we had to accomplish throughout the
conference. It set the conditions for the free, uninhibited work (regardless of
rank) that we needed. Our “drawing” exercise was absolutely enlightening. I
cannot tell you how valuable it was to me as the “CEO” to see these products and
see how the differing sections and commands worked together. The spouses loved
the briefing and the interaction just as much as the uniformed members did.
Here’s the BLUF: Your session was the critical building block on which we built
the rest of the conference.
My sincere thanks. Job well done.
COL Larry Phelps
Commander, 15th SB
SUPPORT THE ACTION!
me reaffirm and expand upon Commander Phelp’s note, especially these two key
Your session on
managing change and stress was the perfect lead-in to the work we had to
accomplish throughout the conference. It set the conditions for the free,
uninhibited work (regardless of rank*) that we needed.
(*Other diversity factors
were race, gender, age, time in grade, various operational departments and
specialties in addition to commissioned and non-commissioned status.)
Key Problem Solving
Now let’s delineate some key outcomes of the afternoon session, based on talks
with Col. Phelps and several of the officers:
open and genuine communication among a diverse participant group
reduction of solo- or silo-driven thinking and defensive territoriality
successful win/win problem solving and genuine consensus experience
negotiation without previous contentiousness, self-defeating power struggles and
lingering resentments and
stronger sense of team building and strategic planning for the greater good and
(and I can’t think of a process being more strategic than planning for
Key Problem Solving Success Drivers
From my perspective, several factors produced the dynamic, inspiring,
jump-starting morning session:
1. Illustrating Change and Conflict.
Opening up with a thought-provoking presentation on change and conflict, and
then identifying personal signs of transitional stress
2. Problem Solving Reenactment.
Problem-solving creatively a “real life/war zone” change-conflict scenario
3. Dynamics of Loss and Change, Conflict and Creativity.
Providing conceptual understanding of the dynamics of loss and change and the
applied connection among change, conflict and creative problem solving
4. Dynamics of Power Struggles.
Engaging in a high energy, purposeful yet playful power struggle exercise that
allows for some “outrageous” expression and interplay. (Remember, the
middle word in “outrageous is “rage.” Helping people channel their rage
constructively is a key to working through power struggles, regaining positive
control and letting go of negative control, breaking out of the box and even
5. Acclaimed Team Discussion/Team Drawing Exercise.
Involving diverse groups in a high energy/high imagination team discussion and
team drawing exercise that focuses on sources of stress/conflict and barriers to
being CPR – “Creative, Passionate and Risk-Taking. Open sharing of and
reciprocal playing with ideas and images result in synergistic “products”
that help one and all:
a) not feel so alone, b) see “the bigger picture” and c) allow people to draw
out instead of act out their aggression and frustration, d) feel a vital part of
a supportive, productive and creative problem-solving team. In addition, e)
time limits compelled groups to forsake perfection and risk jumping into the
problem-solving pool and e) research indicates that when diverse team engage in
open communication and genuine collaboration more imaginative problem solving
results. And when participants see that f) top management can accept the
reality of shared frustration and are open to hearing some “negative input”
there is an increase of organizational trust.
In other words, there is both diagnostic and strategic potential in this team
building exercise. Again, to quote Col. Phelps:
“Our “drawing” exercise was absolutely enlightening. I cannot tell you how
valuable it was to me as the “CEO” to see these products and see how the
differing sections and commands worked together.”
Recap and Program Implications
Based on the San Antonio retreat, I'm exploring an intriguing collaborative
concept for a half day to full day retreat applicable for almost any
organization. It's a two step-process:
1) start with a dynamic and interactive, inspiring and FUN two-three hour Stress
Doc workshop in the morning followed directly by
2) an in-house (department, division, management team, etc.) team
problem-solving led by an in-house leader (with or without facilitation or
participant observation assistance from the Stress Doc) in the afternoon or late
morning. (Of course, additional follow-up workshop sessions -- days, weeks or
months down the road -- can be designed.)
The initial high energy and highly participatory session will definitely
jump-start people's creative and cooperative juices while reducing solo or
silo-driven defensiveness. As captured by the following testimonial, the
morning group interaction -- the safe and fun emotive-expressive sharing and
problem solving – really freed people of different rank to productively risk and
creatively brainstorm in the afternoon.
Would appreciate greatly your thoughts on the above collaborative
workshop/facilitation process. Please email
firstname.lastname@example.org or call 301-875-2567
with any questions or comments. To good adventures and collaborations.
Sample Program Blurb
Does Your Team,
Department or Organization Need a Jolt of CPR?
Facilitating Imagination, Open Communication and
Mission Success through Creativity, Passion and Risk-Taking
24/7, "always on" world often cycles between "do more with less" downsizing and
ever faster upgrading...and the pressure keeps mounting. How do you counter a
tendency to hold on to the familiar; how do you help people productively and
creatively grapple with the future? How do you foster resilience over
resistance while disarming self-defeating power struggles? Ready for an
individual and organizational mindset that encourages productive risk-taking and
imaginatively envisions diverse and united perspectives and possibilities? Do
you need a framework and foundation for jump-starting future problem solving and
strategic planning? Tough questions, still, have no fear the Mark Gorkin, MSW,
LICSW, the "Stress Doc" ™ is here. An acclaimed speaker and OD/Team Building
consultant, the Doc delivers a unique blend of dynamic and inspiring
presentation along with thought-provoking and passionate, purposeful and playful
group interaction to help you bring "Fire, Focus and FUN" to today's
leadership challenges. During these turbulent times, let the Stress Doc help
you break down barriers and build bridges toward a more motivated, coordinated,
creative and higher performing workplace.
A. Creatively Managing Transitional Tension
1. Understand the "danger and opportunity" of change and conflict
2. Explore creative systems intervention through group brainstorm
3. Discover the "Six 'F's for Managing Loss and Change"
B. Defusing Power Struggles and Building Trust
1. Discover self-affirmation and tactful negotiation in the face of challenge
2. Replace "blaming" messages with cooperative and face-saving communication
3. Build trust through the power of asking courageous questions
C. Developing Resilience
1. Learn to constructively confront a critical aggressor through the "Fumbled
the Data" Exercise
2. Affirm our common humanity through "Embarrassing Moment" Exercise
3. Discover four keys to "Creative Risk-Taking: Confronting Your Intimate FOE"
Group Visioning and Creativity
1. Identifying Barriers to More Creative Risk-Taking Environments Exercise
2. Discover a Four "P" Passion Power Tool Set for maximizing energy and impact
3. Recognize stress barriers and generate CPR -- being Creative, Passionate &
Seek the Higher Power of Stress Doc Humor: May the Force & the Farce Be with
Don't miss your appointment
with the Stress Doc!
Sent: Mon, 11 Aug 2008 9:02 am
Subject: Re: Newsletter
I like the Natural Speed Rap poem you sent.
Our local IAAP (International Association of Administrative Professionals)
Chapter - Grand River (Canada), publishes an e-newsletter for Chapter members.
I know your articles are copyrighted.
This is a request for your permission to reprint your article, of course, with
the paragraph noting the source.
[Of course, permission was granted. But for those of you who missed it...]
24/7 SPEED Rap:
By Mark Gorkin, "The Stress Doc"
What is the answer to modern duress?
Should you try Prozac?
Is it time to confess
To ebay shopping -- which may be a warning
When you're clicking madly at three in the morning?
But relax, have no fear...
The Stress Doc is here to lay worries to rest
Now listen and learn to Practice Safe Stress!
As you sprint to the wire with blood pressure higher
Timeless mind-body tips to heed
For slowing down, getting feet on the ground
And building Natural SPEED.
"S" is for "Sleep"
Now don't be cheap
Seven hours, at least
To be a beauty with mental acuity
Not that snooze-button bashing beast.
"P" stands for "Priority"
You can't do it all everyday.
Urgent means now but important can wait.
Do you know how...to "N & N"?:
Just say "No and Negotiate!"
"E" is for the "Empathy"
Found in a caring shoulder.
But all give without take is a big mistake
For now you shoulder a boulder.
The second "E" is for "Exercise"
Start pumping iron or those thighs.
You may not need SSRIs.
Try thirty minutes of non-stop spin
For your mood uplifting endorphin.
And, finally, "D" is for a healthy "Diet"
Alas, many would rather die than try it.
To manage foods you crave
Grieve, "let go" and then be brave
Sending diet fads to an early grave.
So eat those fruits and veggies
Try fish oils and soy protein.
For too much fats and sugar
Excess alocohol and caffeine
Is a rollercoaster formula
For an artery-clogged machine.
It's time to end this Shrink Rap
With final tips for you --
"A firm 'No' a day keeps the ulcers away, and the hostilities too."
So to lessen daily woes, "Do know your limits, don't limit your 'No's!"
Ponder this Stress Doc wit and wisdom
Try to live it day after day:
Burnout is not a sign of failure
You simply gave yourself away.
Remember, sometimes less is more
And more is really less.
Balance work and play, faith and love
And, of course...Practice Safe Stress!
(of recent programs):
Mission High School, Mission, TX
[Half-day "Stress, Communications and Team Building" program for 200
Aug 21, 2008
On behalf of Mission High School, I would like to thank you for the morning
in-service you presented. Our teachers were informed and had a great time. The
knowledge and expertise you offered in handling stress and stressful situations
to our faculty will be useful throughout the school year.
Dean of Instruction
Mission High School, Mission, TX
Three-day Team Building Retreat with
Earth Sciences Division/National
(To Build Communication and Coordination Bridges Between and Among 30 Scientific
and Administrative Staff)
Subject: Mark Gorkin Rehoboth Retreat Agenda
Thanks Again. Many of us feel the EAR Divisional Retreat resulted in some
useful consensus items for action that should help office operations, facilitate
teamwork and reduce unnecessary stress.
Federal Asian Pacific American Council (FAPAC)
Annual National Leadership
["Blending Motivation, Creativity and High Performance" Program for 80
June 30, 2008
I am completing my trip report for the conference. In it I speak about your
session and my request to speak with the Dean and Commandant and present an
information paper. I will ask that we include you as a presenter in our next
in-house training with the possibility of adding you to the core course for all
military Equal Opportunity Advisors.
I will keep you posted on my progress. I will be out of the office next week to
conduct training in ID.
Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute
Patrick Air Force Base, FL 32925
The Four Faces
of Anger: Model and Method
By Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, the Stress Doc ™
What's the first thought that comes to mind when you hear the word ANGER?
Frustration? Yelling? Loss of Control? Violence? Maybe fear, silence or
avoidance? All reasonable responses...Or are they? A bit one-sided, for my
taste, that is, the "anger glass" appears "half empty." How about a "half full"
perspective: confrontation, energy, power and tenacity? Or honesty and being
The Four Angry "I"s
In addition to subjective experience, our language has a unidimensional tilt
when defining anger. According to the The Random House Dictionary of the
English Language: The Unabridged Edition, anger is "a strong feeling of
displeasure and belligerence aroused by real or supposed wrong." However, a
clinical description is broader than a lay one. Anger is a state of heightened
activation or arousal of the autonomic nervous system (for example, increased
heart rate, rapid breathing, flushed face, chest pains, sweaty palms, etc.) that
is fueled by our cognitive – conscious and unknowing – interpretations. You
experience those "Four Angry 'I's," that is, you have a palpable sense of:
A rule of conduct, a cherished belief or instrumental goal is being threatened
or abused; you see yourself (also others with whom you are psychologically
dependent or connected) as a victim of an injustice, unfairness or disloyalty.
You feel disrespected, discarded or ignored; there's a sense of insult and
humiliation along with injury – often psychological, at times also physical.
You perceive your freedom, autonomy, boundary and personal space as constricted,
disrupted or violated; your identity and bodily and/or psychological integrity
are being threatened or attacked.
There is an energy and determination to do something about the above injustices,
injuries and invasions; you are ready – reflexively and/or purposefully – to
challenge the status quo.
So anger is a potential range of feelings, from irritation and determination to
outrage and fury. Its breadth, depth, intensity and interactive potential is
often forged by how one looks at the world through his or her "Four Angry 'I's."
As I once wrote:
Anger! That double-edged power source. It's the high octane emotion for blazing
performance and for igniting a legitimate grievance. Yet, when it's bottled up
we smolder away; when we erupt it may engulf us. And, when we are the target of
a volatile flamethrower, there will be scars. (Gorkin, 1986)
It's time to flesh out and attempt to capture (more likely coax) this wide
ranging, ever-changing creature. Let's examine the apparent contradictions
within "anger" and try to make sense of its protean nature and multi-function.
To do this, let me sketch my "Four Faces of Anger" Model. To break out of a
unidimensional box, try thinking about the interpersonal expression of anger
along these two dimensions:
Is your anger expression "purposeful" or "spontaneous"? Is your anger expression
"constructive" or "destructive"?
Let me briefly and loosely define my terms:
– when anger expression is intentional, with a significant degree of
consideration or calculation; there is also a significant degree of self-control
– when anger expression is immediate with little premeditation or planning;
there is little-moderate self-control
– when anger expression affirms and acknowledges one's integrity and boundary
without objectively intending to threaten or violate another's integrity or
– when anger expression defensively projects and rigidly fortifies one's
vulnerable identity and boundary by intending to threaten or violate another's
integrity and appropriate boundary (whether the intention is conscious or not)
Returning to our model, the 2x2 matrix yields four possibilities:
1) Purposeful and Constructive Anger Expression
2) Purposeful and Destructive Anger Expression
3) Spontaneous and Constructive Anger Expression
4) Spontaneous and Destructive Anger Expression
Four Faces of Anger Matrix with Box1-Box2-Box3-Box4 labels.
The Four Faces of Anger Game
To understand the multifaceted nature of anger expression, let's play "The Four
Faces of Anger Game."
A. Let's start with Box 1.
What word comes to mind when you read Purposeful and Constructive Anger
Expression? If a word or phrase doesn't immediately come to mind, does an image
or, even, an example of what you might say when expressing this kind of anger?
My choice is "Assertion." Are you surprised? So many people associate anger with
yelling and being out of control, that they don't associate assertion and
anger...it's too rational. But expressing anger can happen with a firm,
basically controlled tone of voice and volume, direct eye contact, a confident
posture that's neither aggressively forward nor robotically restrained.
To illustrate the four faces, we'll follow the interaction between a mother and
her eighteen-year-old daughter, after the daughter, having used the family car,
came home late and did not call. Notice how the anger expression changes as we
focus on each interactive "face."
The mother addressing her eighteen-year-old daughter, the following morning:
"I'm angry. I let you have the car Friday night with the understanding you'd be
home by 1:00am. (Author's note: There's been inflation in permissiveness since
the time of Cinderella.) Or, if you were going to be late, we agreed you'd call
beforehand. When I didn't hear from you, I was very worried. What happened? I
want to talk with you about the car borrowing policy, and the consequences if
this happens again." With assertive confrontations, the communicator takes
responsibility for her emotions and clarifies her expectations and limits. While
sometimes requiring premeditation, "I" messages are not necessarily
intellectualized or overly rational. In fact, while typing these two examples,
too bad you couldn't see the motion of my fingers as they firmly rapped, more
than touched, the keyboard. "I" messages are infused with nonverbal cues and
B. For Box 2,
what comes to mind when you read Purposeful and Destructive Anger Expression?
Again, try for a word, image or expressive statement.
My preference is "Hostility." Now hostility can take many guises, from
condescending comments and being highly judgmental, to "scarcasm" and put down
humor, to planning to get even when you feel slighted or injured. And
passive-aggressive lateness or forgetfulness certainly falls under this
In our "taking the car and getting home late vignette," how do you feel about a
mother reacting to her daughter in this manner?: "I can't believe how
irresponsible you were last night. You didn't call. You made me sick with worry.
You expect me to trust you with the car? We'll see when you get the car again,"
said with a sneer and a haughty tone. Quite a difference from the assertive
response. Plenty of those blaming and judgmental, globally hostile, potentially
guilt-inducing "acc-you-sations." Know any such "blameaholics?"
C. For Box 3,
what word comes to mind when reading Spontaneous and Constructive Anger
Expression? Many people find this combination a most challenging association.
That's not so surprising when anger is often linked with being belligerent or
dangerously out of control.
Let me reveal my choice by providing some recent historical context. I suspect
you can remember watching or listening to the highly charged Clarence
Thomas-Anita Hill hearings? Do you recall having any strong feelings? Did any
cherished principles seem under attack? Perhaps it stirred some "passionate"
beliefs? That's my association: "Passion."
Now "passion" is a very intriguing word. In fact, let's digress for a moment.
What's the first thought when you read "passion"?: "Intense emotion." "Desire."
"Love." Hey, let's go for the "s"-word. (In my current hometown, Washington, DC,
we know what the "s"-word for passion is..."Senator." And you thought I was
going to say "sex." How could you?) Actually, the "s"-word for passion in most
dictionaries is neither sex nor Senator, nor even "silk," as ventured by one
imaginative workshop participant. The long awaited, if not long-suffering,
"s"-word for passion is... just that – "suffering." As in the "passion play":
the sufferings of Jesus or, more generically, the sufferings of a martyr.
(Imagine, all this time I never knew my Jewish mother was such a passionate
woman. Just kidding, mom. ;-)
Let's go back to the mother-daughter late night (actually early morning)
interaction, this time from a passionate perspective. Now, however, the mother,
not being able to sleep, meets the daughter at the door, and spontaneously
confronts her: "What the heck happened? I was expecting a call. I'm angry. I'm
up because I was terribly worried and couldn't sleep." After the daughter
attempts a brief explanation (and the mother is assured of her safety) the
mother, aware of her own difficulty listening, as well as her increasingly loud
voice and shaky tone, continues: "I can tell I'm too upset to talk about this
now. I'm glad you're home. I'm going to bed, and we'll discuss this incident,
including rules for using the car, later in the morning."
Passion is sparked by pure emotion and pain. However, there's a spontaneous
response, not a reaction. This person still has a sense of self-integrity and
the other's boundary. Passion with proportion is possible. A key point is that
confrontations don't have to be wrapped up in one setting. Choosing a temporary
retreat for regrouping and refocusing can prove most constructive. This approach
is critical, especially if you have: a) reservations about turning the
confrontation into a "win-lose" or a "right-wrong" battle, b) hope not to damage
the relationship, and c) want both parties to learn and/or gain from the
D. Finally, with Box 4,
what's your association to Spontaneous and Destructive Anger Expression? This is
perhaps the easiest, as it seems to conform to most people's concept of anger.
There are many good answers: "Violence." "Screaming." "Hitting." My choice is
"Rage." What's your mental picture of a rage state? Perhaps it is someone who is
increasingly loud, displaying a string of profanities or threats, belligerent
body posture, menacing gestures...blindly out of control. And this individual
often feels victimized, betrayed and self-righteous about their rage. Of course,
don't overlook the condition of "smoldering rage," with a low threshold for
Another important clarification involves distinguishing being "outraged" from
being "inraged." (I've coined "inraged" to sharpen the contrast with "outraged"
and to differentiate "inraged" from the more generic "enraged.") When terrorists
blow up a US government building or plant a bomb on an airplane, one is easily
outraged by such unjust, injurious and invasive actions. There is a seemingly
clear, external (criminal) target to which all legal action and sanction should
be and, hopefully, will be directed.
When we are outraged, our emotional reaction is understandable, if not fully
rational; our anger expression, however, if not careful or conscious, can cross
the "constructive" vs. "destructive" boundary line. In fact, returning to our
matrix model, you might visualize "outraged" as being near, if not on, the
border of "passion" and "rage."
In contrast, "inraged," or the Box 4, matrix term "rage," is invariably a
destructive state. The inraged individual's exaggerated emotional reaction is
fueled as much, if not more, by still unresolved hurts and humiliations than by
actual, immediate stimulus-and-response provocation. These never healed wounds
can generate biased perceptions or highly exaggerated interpretations regarding
the infliction of injustices, insults, injuries and invasions. I refer to these
folks as having (or depending on their volatility) being psychic "hot buttons."
They are just waiting, many times wanting, to be set off. A wounded victim is
entitled to righteous revenge. And the trigger for a hot reactor may be trivial,
simply an accidental or unintentional glance, word or touch.
Let's revisit the mother-daughter encounter, for our final, fiery illustration.
The mother, furious at her daughter's late return, explodes: "You inconsiderate
witch. I should slap you silly," while raising her hand, as well as her voice,
in a menacing manner. "I'm here, scared to death, not knowing what the hell's
happened to you. Whether you busted up the car, have been raped? How the hell
should I know. Do you call? No, you couldn't give a G-d damn. I'll fix your ass
later. Get out of my sight."
Whether the first violation of her mother's expectations or (more likely) not,
the mother's reaction is clearly personalized and exaggerated, threatening and
abusive. Her lashing anger especially stings when loaded with cutting profanity.
A tendency for imagining the worst – "catastrophizing" – acutely heightens mom's
anxiety. Not only can't the mother hear her daughter out, she can't tolerate the
sight of her. Actually, she can't stand her own emotions. The mother may well
need to project her own subconscious past associations to helplessness, panic
and being out of control. Sadly, she, herself, has likely been a target of a
volatile parent, spouse or authority figure.
Four Faces of Anger Matrix with Assertion-Hostility-Passion-Rage in proper
Debunking the notion of anger and its expression as being a unidimensional
concept is a fundamental goal of the anger association game. By combining the
"Purposeful"-"Spontaneous" and "Constructive"-"Destructive" dimensions we are
able to generate distinct anger expression profiles: Assertion, Hostility,
Passion and Rage. Hopefully, the four matrix faces and interactive scenarios
provide common sense images and verbal handles for grasping and differentiating
the broad and nuanced emotional-behavioral responses of anger. Clearly, this is
vital for challenging the one-sided, negative image of anger. Perhaps most
important, the "Four Faces of Anger" Model can be a tool for your own, as well
as your family and friends’, clients and colleagues’ understanding and
acceptance of the naturalness and power of aggression and anger expression. And
with enhanced awareness, hopefully, we all will experience and communicate anger
in a more responsible and productive manner. In fact, let me specifically
illustrate both the dangers of blaming messages and the opportunities when
employing constructive listening and feedback skills.
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
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.)
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
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
There are three dynamics
infusing “I” messages with positive energy. Empathically assertive “I”s:
convey respect; it’s a more
adult-to-adult as opposed to a one up vs. one down style of communicating and
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
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
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. These tools and techniques will assist you in finding the pass in the
communicational impasse. In addition, such but such verbal and psychological
fluency will enable you to choose a constructive anger “face” and help you…Practice
Gorkin, Mark, "Anger or Aggression: Confronting the Passionate Edge," Legal
Assistant Today, Winter 1986
Mark Gorkin 2008
Shrink Rap™ Productions
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