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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

SEP 2009, No. I, Sec. II

Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!

 


Main Essay:

3-D Group Combat-Intervention at the Burning Out and Burning Up Battlefronts:
Using Discussion-Drawing-Diversity to Disarm Conflict and Build Camaraderie-Community:  Part II

Gallery Walk and Fashion Show (and Tell)


If the size of the audience, time frame and room logistics permit, I initiate a "Gallery Walk" before "Show and Tell."  People are encouraged to meander around the room or auditorium and view their colleagues' drawings, either on tables or taped to the walls.  However, there is one caveat:  "do not discuss your team's drawings, yet."  I want people to eyeball the pictures, to take in the varied yet often familiar perspectives.  Also, walking around the room provides a physical break.  And with everyone milling about, making comments, and laughing together while viewing the pictures, a sense of community begins to emerge.

After about 5-10 minutes of walk- and talk-about, we are ready for the "fashion show" part of the program, where each group has a chance to explain its "creative design" to the larger audience.  I ask the groups to "select a spokesperson and a holder.  And don't everybody volunteer to be the holder."   ;-)

This segment of the exercise encourages each group, through their spokesperson, to share briefly (usually no longer than a couple of minutes) their team's verbal and visual story.  Sometimes, though, a group may initially decide to play "Show and Guess," asking the audience to speculate on the imagery or meaning of their drawing.  Other times, a group may turn their "Show" time into performance art, acting out or singing the message.  Again, the time factor is often the biggest constraint on how much digression, expression or "acting out" is possible.

The real value of "Show and Tell" is that it allows people with an intimate perspective to highlight issues using an insider's knowledge and language.  And the knowing laughter and vigorously nodding heads clearly demonstrate how much the audience appreciates or resonates with the visuals and stories.  (For audiences in the hundreds, I ask for volunteer teams for "Show and Tell."  Even when I try to limit the numbers, groups keep stepping up.  When feasible, people are happy to extend the program.)

Clearly, stories are a basic tool for cognitive understanding and empathic connection.  According to Daniel Pink, in his book, A Whole New Brain, most of our thinking and our knowledge are organized as stories.  Storytelling is the ability to place facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact.  A story blends high concept and high touch.  And as the popularity of comic books attests, stories wedded to visual images can be very engaging and compelling.

Post-Exercise Analysis -- Questions and Reflections


Once all groups have completed the fashion show/story time, and I have applauded the audience for their wonderful energy, effort and designs, I then ask two questions:  "Did you enjoy the exercise?  And was the exercise useful?  Quickly establishing the broad level of enjoyment, we have people call out and delineate its utility.  This post-exercise Q & A and discussion contributes to my identifying factors that helped make the exercise a success.  And Part II of this article will elaborate "Ten Dynamics Underlying the Purpose, Power and Sense of Play of the 3-D Stress Busting and Team Building Exercise."

1.  Sharing Universal Themes.
Everyone can readily participate and share their own stress smoke signals or sources of pressure in a 24/7, anytime/anywhere, uncertain and lean-and-MEAN world.  Invariably, people comment on the universal or common themes depicted in the drawings.  This occurs no matter how diverse the larger audience (e.g., geographical and cultural differences among attendees at a national conference) or when the exercise teams are demographically dissimilar or comprised of members from different organizational departments.

2.  Acknowledgement Overcomes Anxiety, Shame or Isolation.
  People discover they are not alone when it comes to pressures; they can begin to let down an "I've got to always be strong" Rambo or Rambette persona.  Participants find real support when being open with folks who have been or still are walking in the same tight-fitting shoes, and can empathize with the bunions.  Remember, psychology research suggests a variation on the old saw:  "Misery doesn't just like company…it likes miserable company!"  Or as I like to say, "Common calluses make uncommon comrades." 

3.  Nonverbal Expression and Releasing Aggression.
  While many adults are anxious when it comes to drawing, once reassured that stick figures are fine (recall my being a graduate of the Institute for the Graphically Impaired) they usually forge ahead.  And by doing so, folks rediscover how emotions, especially frustration and anger, can be playfully drawn out with colored markers and large flipchart paper.  Nothing like putting a tail and horns on a devil of a boss to put things in a less frightening perspective and to evoke a stress relieving laugh.

4.  Laughing at Others' and Our Own Flaws and Foibles.
  Just a little exaggeration can tickle some knowing laughs, especially from folks feeling on the edge.  And, of course, laughing itself is a real stress reliever.  As Dr. David Fry, humor expert observed, "Laughing with gusto is like turning your body into a big vibrator giving vital organs a brief but hardy internal massage."  This "inner jogging" releases mind calming and mood uplifting chemicals like Endorphins and Dopamine.

Some admit they laugh so not to cry.  And no other than the pioneering comedic and film genius, Charlie Chaplin would agree.  As Chaplin observed, "A paradoxical thing about making comedy is that it is precisely the tragic which arouses the funny.  We have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of natural forces and in order not to go crazy."

Others say they laugh at their lack of drawing skills, but these folks usually admit they had fun. Finally, I pose another possible source of laughter:  "You know the person that says, 'You don't seem to realize, I really am as important as I think I am.'  You want to stick in a pin and deflate that big ego balloon.  And the drawing exercise gives you the opportunity poke at people and situations that deserve some lampooning."  Yet all agree that the exercise is not mean-spirited.  There was too much good energy and a sense of fun for that.  Perhaps, Sigmund Freud, himself captured the value of placing things or poking people in a lighter, even somewhat absurd, perspective.  For the "Father of Psychoanalysis," philosophical humor, the highest defense mechanism, boldly declares:  "Look here!  This is all this seemingly dangerous world amounts to.  Child's play - the very thing to jest about."

5.  Envisioning "The Big Picture" and a Diverse Perspective.
  As mentioned earlier, I try to create diverse teams, for example, having people from different departments in the same organization working together.  The reason is obvious:  "Ever hear someone in your organization say something like, 'I thought it was only our department being disrupted by the recent operational change'?"  This exercise literally helps all participants get beyond the silos and see "the big picture" while making it easier to get on the same page and field of schemes.

And there's a less obvious value added.  While attacking problems in a diverse group may be frustrating and time consuming, the process may motivate more complex conceptualizing and yield a higher order synthesis.  I recall a study of small group problem-solving involving seamen on a submarine.  The most diverse groups predictably achieved higher levels of creativity in their problem-solving strategies and solutions.  Reconciling diversity and seeming contradiction resists easy answers.  However, as a result of this challenge, if the team sustains this complex problem-solving effort multiple perspectives and resources as well as myriad designs and plans may come to fruition.  Invariably, the group breaks out of comfortable assumptions or habitual behavior patterns to imagine new connections among disparate elements and to evolve a fresh consensus-building big picture.

6.  Generating Creativity.
  Invariably, there's an "Amen and Women" chorus when I ask, "Did we see some creativity?"  I remind people not to confuse drawing talent with the wonderfully fresh and imaginative visual metaphors that have been produced.  Everyone is also aware of the great energy in the room.  I liken it to a jazz riff:  people are bouncing ideas and images off each other.

Also, people have said that they really like the drawing part of the exercise because it seems to challenge them to use a different part of their brain, that is, to think of the professional-organizational issues from more than just an analytical perspective.  The power of "interactive imagination" comes to life.

7.  Experiencing Open Interaction and Team Synergy.
  All readily agree the groups quickly transformed into teams.  There is a division of labor.  The exercise allows participants to find a comfortable niche, whether this involves verbalizing and/or visualizing the issues.  And as previously noted the power of team emerges when people realize not everyone has to take the lead or the initiative.  For example, once one member articulates a concept or image that makes sense, even those initially uncomfortable with the coloring part of the exercise can get on (the drawing) board.  Many times I've witnessed a hesitant individual morph into an eager contributor.

Perhaps the most valuable problem-solving aspect of these exercises is that no group member has "the one right answer."  Everyone's responses are valuable.  Both verbally and nonverbally one person's suggestions will readily trigger ideas and images that stimulate a colleague while embellishing the group design and strengthening the team process.  The final product is an amalgam of group ideas and images.

8.  Managing Truth, Building Trust and Providing an Invaluable Assessment Tool.
  If it occurs, one piece of group process requires some "fair and balanced" commentary.  For example, there are times during "show and tell" when an employee-spokesperson focuses on a particular source of stress and, not surprisingly, the target is likely to be "management."  Conversely, when a program is geared to supervisors and managers, "employees" may get caught in the verbal-visual crosshairs.  Who has absolute truth?  Obviously, no one has.  Of course, there are individual employees and managers who are "stress carriers" and need to be engaged if not confronted and even disciplined.   (You know the definition of a stress carrier:  someone who doesn't get ulcers just gives them.)  However, my primary goal is to help both sides better appreciate the other's challenges and demands.  I want employees to better understand some of the external or higher level pressures that the managers face; I want managers to better appreciate the daily grind in the trenches.

Not surprisingly, many of the drawings poke fun or have an edge.  Occasionally I need to remind management that such venting is not a sign of disrespect, but may reflect the need to blow off some steam with people who understand each other's pressures, passion and pain.  This is especially natural when you are asking people to still perform at high levels in the face of budget or staff cuts or other signs of reorg tension.  However, a mean-spirited atmosphere is quite rare; to the contrary, people are usually amazed to discover that they can be laughing and sharing such good energy while talking about workplace issues that usually have them feeling resigned or worked up.

And there's one vital seemingly "unexpected" result:  when employees perceive that management can handle their need to vent and provide some genuine feedback, even some "bad news," and that management doesn't get uptight, defensive or vindictive, then the exercise strengthens the level of trust in the organization.  And I always affirm a management team that brings me in knowing the program will definitely be "out of the box" if not a bit "out-rage-ous."

Finally, I underscore how the pictures are a truly valuable resource.  One CEO remarked, "I get written reports all the time, but these pictures have given me more useful operational info than anything else that's come across my desk."  Or as a Commander of an army brigade observed:  "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."

9.  Highlighting the Power of Time.
  As mentioned above, I usually allot 7-10 minutes each for the discussion and drawing segments of the program.  I also provide periodic reminders, such as "three more minutes" or "last flourishing touches."  Why such an emphasis on the time element; what is the method to being a maddening nag?  As participants note, time pressure is a daily reality.  And time pressure helps people drive for the goal line, especially if key dynamics are at play.

But before providing an explanation, let me place this time-goal dynamic in the context that can maximize the effect.  I find people/groups tend to be the most productive-creative when they have a "good question/problem" to solve.  A good problem-solving task is often one that suggests a broad desired outcome and lets the group come up with its own signature solution.  Clearly, the stress drawings do just that.  And when you combine such factors as people having sufficient skills and resources, valuing imagination over artistic execution, along with having a good problem to solve, and participants are acutely aware of the time constraints…well, you definitely are generating some "good stress," energizing and driving folks to the finish line.  (Some groups are so motivated or competitive they hardly want to stop.  Naturally I quip that, "You know which people wouldn't put down their pens during that 7th grade math test.")

Finally, a link is made between time realities and the need to forsake the pursuit of perfection.  Periodically, I remind groups that there isn't a whole lot of time for fine prototyping in pencil.  People have to "jump in" and act out their emotions and draw out their discussion ideas using the markers and flip chart paper.  Actually, the time limits only underscore the sense of surprise regarding the imaginative if not artistic quality of the pictures:  "Wow, we did all this in just twenty minutes!"  And when everyone signs their name to the picture, you know there is a sense of team ownership.

10.  Encouraging a Dynamic Close:  Discovering the "Inner Child" and a Feeling of Community.
There's a two step process for completing the exercise:  a) it takes little prompting to get the audience to acknowledge the enjoyment in sharing their designs with colleagues:  "Hey, most of us have that inner six year-old waiting to leap out."  Then, while holding up an imaginative drawing I fairly shout, "Hey mom, look what I did today!" and b) I close with a question-observation:  "Is it just me, or do we all detect a greater sense of community in the room?"  The nodding heads and energetic applause underscore the obvious.  Again, affirming the energy and creativity in the room, I end on a passionate note:  "Sure the (organizational) boat has some holes.  But it's our boat.  And if we pull together we can make some repairs and get the boat moving again with renewed energy, direction and commitment."

Finally, depending on time availability, I try to add an exercise segment that builds a bridge between problem-identification and strategic recommendations.  Two teams join together and extract one or two key issues from their two pictures.  Then the large group brainstorms some strategic "next steps."  I encourage the selection of issues that have a reasonable chance of being tackled within the resources and realities of their workplace.  The blended teams present their ideas to the collective; the latter then provides commentary and critique.  Where appropriate, I also encourage groups to bring back their pictures to their in-house teams (or sometimes even their families) and continue the creative problem solving process.  Or the organization can form a matrix ("Save the Retreat") team, and representatives from all roles and levels in the organization can continue the strategic problem solving process.

Closing Summary


This article has presented a stress reducing, morale enhancing and team building exercise that works, whether the audience members are momentarily under siege or facing a chronically hazardous work environment.  It also resonates with participants attending a national conference and wanting to strengthen a sense of professional identification and unity.  First we outlined "Five Steps for Turning 3-D (Discussion-Drawing-Diversity) Danger into Opportunity":
1.  Making It Safe
2.  Allowing for Multiple Sensory Channels and Comfort Levels
3.  Overcoming Confusion and Resistance through Group Dynamics, Ego and Targeted Support
4.  Generating Big Picture Metaphor Power
5.  Transforming Barriers into Bridges

Next we elaborated "Ten Dynamics Underlying the Purpose, Power and Sense of Play of the 3-D Stress Busting and Team Building Exercise":
1.  Sharing Universal Themes
2.  Acknowledgement Overcomes Anxiety, Shame or Isolation
3.  Nonverbal Expression and Releasing Aggression
4.  Laughing at Others' and Our Own Flaws and Foibles
5.  Envisioning "The Big Picture" and a Diverse Perspective
6.  Generating Creativity
7.  Experiencing Open Interaction and Team Synergy
8.  Managing Truth, Building Trust and Providing an Invaluable Assessment Tool
9.  Highlighting the Power of Time
10.  Encouraging a Dynamic Close:  Discovering the "Inner Child" and a Feeling of Community

Here is an individual and collective high-octane exercise for transforming workplace pressures into supportive and synergistic processes and products.  And you have a blueprint for bringing back this robust learning experience into everyday operations and meetings, to help yourself and others…Practice Safe Stress!
 


Testimonials:

1) Federal Asian Pacific American Counicl (FAPAC) -- Southwest Chapter/San Diego Leadership Conference
[1-hour closing presentation on "A Leader's Greatest Gift -- TLCs:  Inspiring Trust, Laughter and Creative Collaboration"; 60 attendees]

Sep 15, 2009

Mr. Mark Gorkin,

     On behalf of FAPAC Southwest Officers and from all the attendees of our Leadership Seminar last Saturday, 12 September 2009, I would like to extend our heartfelt thanks for your outstanding and enlightening training experience.  Everyone in attendance had a great time and gained valuable knowledge on how to deal with stress and how to lead and manage personnel in a stressful environment.  Additionally, the various exercises you provided helped build teamwork.  I am sure that everyone would be able to use the valuable tools they gained from this seminar in their day to day working environment.

     Thank you so much and we look forward to working with you again in the future.

Sincerely,

LCDR "JB" Baluyot
Assistant Supply Officer
Aviation Supply Department
COMHSMWINGPAC
(619)545-3246 cmml, 735-3246 dsn
(619)545-3251 fax
joselito.baluyot@navy.mil

CEO FAPAC Southwest
--------------------------
 

2) Federal Asian Pacific American Council -- DC Chapter Meeting

[45 minute program on "A Leader's Greatest Gift -- TLCs:  Inspiring Trust, Laughter and Creative Collaboration"]

Sep. 3,  2009

Mark,

Again, I would like to personally thank you for taking time to give FAPAC members a wonderful session yesterday at our general meeting.  You have the magic of engaging the audience.   We benefited and enjoyed your session.

Regards,

Marina

Marina Milton, CPA
FAPAC 2009 Program Chair

Marina.S.Milton@irs.gov
 


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.  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 and Fort Leonard Wood, MO.  He is also delivering webcasts for the national Institute for Paralegal Education.  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 stressdoc@aol.com or call 301-875-2567.

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2009

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