The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist
MAY 2009, No. I, Sec. II
Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!
[Ed. Note: This essay recently appeared as the cover article for the May 2009,
PARAGRAM, the publication of the Oregon Paralegal Association. I decided
it earned another appearance in the Stress Doc Newsletter.]
Psychology, Reworking and Passionate Art behind Quick Performance Turnaround
No matter how many times I've gone through this tango, when it happens I feel
like my partner has abruptly walked away leaving me dazed on the dance floor
feeling exposed and rejected: "I tried so hard…wasn't I good enough?"
Actually, I'm referring to critical feedback from township employees after a
recent three-hour training program: some people felt there was "not enough
stress coping skills" provided; one evaluation write-in labeled the training "a
big gripe session"; and another person even said I was "boring." Me…boring!!!
And while there were several positive comments, I expect much stronger reviews.
From a more rational perspective, I can place some of the comments in a larger
context: several people didn't want to partake in this HR-mandated training,
mandated because of several workplace incidents between employees of different
cultural-ethnic groups. (Depending on your perspective the
interpersonal-cultural problems involved either insensitive and hostile humor or
political correctness run amok.) And HR acknowledged they hadn't really
explained to employees why the training was being held. So the evaluations may
reflect some displacement of frustration and confusion. However, both a bruised
ego and my performance-driven nature won't allow me to put aside the comments.
And yet, I must basically do just that. Less than an hour after scanning the
evaluations I'm repeating the program with another group of forty. (The HR
person sent out evaluation forms at the eleventh hour.) Feeling decidedly
deflated, I even wondered about the quality and intensity of my stage energy and
focus. Basically, I'm cycling between a depressed mood and anxiously waiting in
the wings, fists clenched, just wanting the bell to sound.
Finally, the HR Director does the introductions. (The second group had a brief
email heads up regarding the workshop purpose.) I then do my opening routine
and, as the presentation unfolds, come to realize that, without forethought or
full consciousness, I have made some small yet significant shifts in my
presentational substance and style. And the program turns out to be smash, at
least based on immediate post-workshop oral feedback from participants and the
HR Director. What happened? Why such a difference? Consider these Four
Keys for a Quick Performance Turnaround:
1. Take Time for the Pain. While initially fearing being psyched out, in
fact staying with the painful feedback, once in performance gear, actually fired
me up. I sensed a determination to make whatever corrections would be necessary
to connect with and wow the audience. It's a two-fold challenge: high
performers, to use a baseball metaphor, must have an ability to put a blown save
behind them. The next night they are back on the mound, expecting to throw their
best stuff. At the same time, these pros mine the one or two nuggets of useful
data revealed by an unsuccessful outing. As noted author, F. Scott Fitzgerald,
observed: "The test of a first rate intellect is the capacity to hold two
opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to
function. For example, one should see things as hopeless yet be determined to
make them otherwise."
2. Edit, Edit, Bullets, Bullets. I was wounded by the "boring" comment.
(You know the old saw: "Vanity thy name is Gorkin.") After briefly licking my
wounds, I came out with my mind racing. I intuited that a turnaround key was
shortening my lecture points to the essential informational bullets and moving
quickly into the interactive exercises. Less background material meant it was
easier for folks to sort the "hands on" tools from the theory. People were not
going to have time to feel bored. I also replaced a more conceptual model and
somewhat intimate group exercise with a quick, one-on-one, giving and receiving
criticism role play. Some of the previous dissatisfaction may have been
triggered by too much vulnerability. In fact, in the first program, during an
exercise report back segment, one group did not feel safe to share their
discussion points because of the presence of a particular manager. In summary,
a consequence of my pain and frustration was risking letting go of the familiar
presentational progression; I was ready to cut, run, mix it up and shoot from
3. Bring On the Passion. Cutting back the lecture and hitting the bullets
helped punch up and animate my delivery, especially as I was feeding off the
energy building through engagement with the audience. We were motivating each
other. However, my intensity was seemingly rubbing at least one gentleman the
wrong way. He suggested I take it easy, and then made a couple of other subtly
disparaging comments before finally saying, "Now don't get stressed."
Of course, he was being a provocateur, trying to boost himself at my expense.
Hey, bring it on. I know wise guys. In fact, one of my stated goals in life:
to be a "wise man and a wise guy!" Actually, this kind of test fires my brain.
My response: "If I was under stress it was 'good stress.'" (We had talked
earlier about good stress creating an optimal level of challenge and focus
thereby generating a sense of vitality and contributing to peak performance.) I
then reframed my behavior as being "passionate," and reflecting my strong belief
in the subject and of "walking the talk." Personalizing the interplay with an
audience member (without taking it personally) makes it easier for a presenter
to speak from the head and the heart.
I even injected a little provocative humor by asking the group, "What's the
first word that comes to mind when you hear "passion"? With a little
encouragement, someone called out "sex." Then my rejoinder: "We know what the
"s"-word for passion is in the DC area…Or what it used to be. It used to be
"Senator" but then Bill Clinton ruined my joke!" Definitely gets a mix of
laughs and groans, further relaxing the room.
Actually, the "s" word for passion is "suffering," as in the "Passion Play."
And I shared how in one workshop a participant free associated to the word
"passion" with "Rosa Parks." Obviously, a powerful buzzword on a program
related to cultural diversity and conflict. Speaking your audience's language
is an interpersonal bridge.
Finally, allowing myself to be challenged by an audience member and engaging in
some playful and passionate repartee, established another level of audience
connection. Many people enjoy a bit of razzing of a speaker or leader, bringing
him or her a little more down to earth or, at least, reducing some of the status
distinctions. (This is why many effective leaders, Abraham Lincoln, being an
obvious example, engage in self-deprecating humor.) But the most important
reason for engaging an antagonist or potential disrupter: the audience wants to
know that the authority can handle this challenge or competition effectively and
non-defensively. Ultimately, such interplay strengthens both the confidence in
the presenter and the trust and safety level in the room.
4. Make Time for Positive Problem-Solving. I typically close my programs
with a signature "Team Discussion/Team Drawing Exercise." The exercise divides
the large group into teams of four or five, and asks the teams to "Identify
Causes of Workplace Stress and Conflict." The teams have about ten minutes for
discussion and then ten minutes to transform the discussion points into a group
picture. The images are invariably "out-rage-ous," that is, the process
of drawing sinking ships and sharks in the water or stalking, fire breathing
dragons, helps people draw out their angry feelings, instead of acting them
out. (Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about the exercise.)
The exercise also involves both a "gallery walk" and a "show and tell," with
each group discussing their picture's issues and symbols with the entire
Due to time constraints, however, the first program ended with my encouraging
attendees to use the stress factors identified in the drawings to stimulate
problem-solving discussion during their regular team meetings. For the second
outing, I knew to leave time to do follow-up problem-solving during the
program. Especially in organizations or divisions where there is a good bit of
existing tension, when you just illustrate the stressors and sources of conflict
and don't follow with group brainstorming of positive strategies and
recommendations, there can be a sense that the exercise was too negative or that
the organization is left hanging. That is, the shortcomings of the organization
are being highlighted while the strengths are overlooked. And a common
refrain: "Great, we know the stressors…but what are we supposed to do about
And while some believe allowing attendees to identify and vent their frustration
with workplace stressors is "being negative" or encouraging a "gripe session,"
in fact, when management demonstrates a willingness to listen genuinely to
employees' concerns, a first step toward increasing trust has been taken:
management is not afraid of hearing some "bad news." And in the second program,
the HR Director announced she would be starting volunteer, employee-supervisor
focus groups to implement problem-solving ideas generated in the workshops.
Clearly, having an ally helps the turnaround cause!
In summary, four keys to recovering from substandard performance and generating
a quick turnaround have been identified: 1) Take Time for the Pain, 2) Edit,
Edit, Bullets, Bullets, 3) Bring On the Passion and 4) Make Time for Positive
Problem-Solving. Absorbing the negative evaluations helped generate a rapid
learning curve and a transitional space that facilitated closing the gap between
aspiration and current position. And perhaps the most important consequence of
these keys was the induction of a powerful role shift -- from presenter to
orchestra leader. Now I was consistently helping other people bring out their
Subject: Economic Stimulus Package....
Apparently the American Medical Association has weighed in on the new economic
The Allergists voted to scratch it, but the Dermatologists advised not to make
any rash moves.
The Gastroenterologists had sort of a gut feeling about it, but the Neurologists
thought the Administration had a lot of nerve.
The Obstetricians felt they were all laboring under a misconception.
Ophthalmologists considered the idea shortsighted.
Pathologists yelled, "Over my dead body!" while the Pediatricians said, 'Oh,
The Psychiatrists thought the whole idea was madness, while the Radiologists
could see right through it.
Surgeons decided to wash their hands of the whole thing. The Internists thought
it was a bitter pill to swallow, and the Plastic Surgeons said, "This puts a
whole new face on the matter."
The Podiatrists thought it was a step forward, but the Urologists were pissed
off at the whole idea.
The Anesthesiologists thought the whole idea was a gas, and the Cardiologists
didn't have the heart to say no.
In the end, the Proctologists won out, leaving the entire decision up to the
assholes in Washington.
Subj: Encouraging Notes from the Career Transition Battlefront (Editor's
title; a correspondence with a friend and colleague)
Hi, Mark! Thanks much! Actually, now that the weather has gotten nice (and
even when it's not), I've started walking the neighborhood one or twice a day. I
feel that it's important to get out and get the endorphins flowing. I also know
that exposure to light is important.
And, yes, I have a photo note card project that I enjoy working on, although
most of my "creative" energy still goes into reading job descriptions and trying
to find the right fit.
Since my severance payment is dwindling, I am also going to see if I can find
temp work a couple of days a week as a writer. That is my best skill and what I
enjoy doing most.
Actually, my recent experiences in the job hunt have not been total
negatives. They are helping me to refine what I want. So many donor relations
jobs have a large special events component and I've decided that I really don't
want that, even though I can do it. Instead, I'm going to start marketing myself
as a stewardship writer, i.e., writer of endowed reports to donors,
acknowledgement letters, etc. I also would like to get experience with grant and
proposal writing as well as writing for the Web and have been trying to create
some volunteer opportunities in this area for myself at schools I worked at or
attended here in NYC, but that hasn't happened for me yet.
So, I truly believe that everything we do moves up forward a little bit more.
When you encounter the hurdles, you have to find a way over (or around) them,
and that causes you to change your strategy and, I believe, get closer to your
true self. When I settled on the stewardship writer idea, it was as though a
path opened up before me. I don't know yet whether that will be a successful
path, but it gave me a direction in which to aim my energies that I know is
right for me. Now to find a match!
Thank you for your ideas and I hope that your presentation to the 40+ club
Asian Pacific American Council (FAPAC)
Annual National Leadership Training Conference -- 2009
[1.5 hour "A Leader's Greatest Gift -- TLCs: Inspiring Trust, Laughter and
Creative Collaboration" for 100+ attendees]
May 18, 2009
Greetings from Seoul, Korea. Yes, I really enjoyed your TLC workshop. I would
like to participate in any available and/or future workshops. Do you have any
site/locations and POC for Seoul, Korea?
I am working at the US Embassy in Seoul and I know others can benefit from the
Thank you and look forward to hearing from you.
Legal Attache Office – FBI,
US Embassy, Seoul, Korea
NOAA/National Weather Service
[1.5 hour "Creatively Managing Stress and Conflict through Interactive Humor"
Program for 120 Diversity Managers, Counselors and Team Reps]
U.S. Dept of Commerce
National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE
1325 East-West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910-3283
May 8, 2009
On behalf of the National Weather Service's Equal Opportunity and Diversity
Management, I want to thank you once again for your participation at the
National Weather Service's Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management Training
Summit in Atlanta. GA on April 28, 2009. The Summit was a success. The
presentation you provided was well-received. It lifted their spirits and gave
them an opportunity to laugh and learn how to release any tension they may have
been feeling. Your training style is very engaging. On behalf of the National
Weather Service's Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management, thank you.
Charly Wells, Director
NWS Office of Equal Opportunity
& Diversity Management
Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social
Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and "Motivational Humorist"
known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In
addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant
for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits and is AOL's
"Online Psychohumorist" ™. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA)
Community College and currently he is leading "Stress, Team Building and Humor"
programs for the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions, Ft. Hood, Texas. A
former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress
Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of
Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" --
www.stressdoc.com -- called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio
(NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive
his free e-newsletter, email email@example.com or call 301-946-0865.
And to view web video highlights of a Stress Doc Keynote, go to
(c) Mark Gorkin 2009
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