The Stress Doc Letter
Strengthening Stress Resiliency and Brain Agility with Humor and Natural SPEED
By Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW
“The Stress Doc” ™
My participation as the “Stress Doc” ™ at the USPTO Health Fair reminded me of two basic facts: 1) people like to laugh, especially when they can share a gentle and knowing laugh at their own flaws and foibles and 2) especially in a high demand-production work environment and a “TNT – Time-Numbers-Technology – Driven- and Distracted World, many folks are hungry for concepts, tools, and strategies that will impact and improve the quality of daily life. In particular, professionals want to: a) facilitate stress resiliency (to bounce back with energy, conviction, and spirit from a high tension-demand situation) and b) enhance brain agility (to address or anticipate problems effectively and efficiently; building upon yet moving beyond familiar patterns of thought, cognitive focus and flexibility yields deep and diverse, productive as well as innovative viewpoints and real-time action plans).
Let me illustrate the high energy, interactive, and time-conscious approach with participants visiting my vendor table. Within five minutes, the use of fast-paced, purposeful, and personal questions stimulated both engagement and open-mindedness about strengthening a stress management regimen and overall work-life balance. Specifically, I employed a two-step approach:
Ø First, getting people’s attention by using an unconventional method of evoking memories of past performance pressure situations and then breaking the tension with a knowing laugh, and
Ø Second, offering the “Stress Doc’s Formula for Natural SPEED,” that is, asking people about key mind-body health-life style choices along with communication-relationship styles; my goal is to help others more purposefully think about and plan ways to strengthen personal everyday stress resiliency and brain agility.
Finally, whenever possible I tried to inject some self-effacing mirth. Remember, people are less defensive and more open to a serious message when it is gift-wrapped with humor.
Preparing the Mind with Humor
My opening gambit was offering those strolling by a “free stress-relieving laugh.” In general, people took the bait. While handing them a copy of an old “Shoe” cartoon, I suddenly declare, “Okay, but you have to get serious for ten seconds. You’re back at school, you have a tough professor, facing a tough final exam…Read this to yourself – begin!” Most quickly adopt a serious game face, and then proceed to read the caricature: Shoe’s teenage nephew, Skyler, is ready to take a big exam. Skyler declares, “I’m psyched, I studied all night…let’s go.” He suddenly sees a box asking for “Name.” Skyler is confused, blurting out: “Name who? Name what.” Skyler starts climbing onto his desk as signs of panic distort his face. Finally, hitting his head, the teen sheepishly says, “Oh my name…Come on Skyler, get a grip!”
Whether reading alone or with a group of “test-takers,” an array of knowing smiles and chuckles along with some laugh-out-loud guffaws invariably emerge or erupt. Personal experience definitely affects the intensity of the reaction. Nonetheless, almost all can relate to a previous “deer in the headlights” test-taking or stage fright type of experience. Several parents ask to keep the cartoon, wanting to share it with a child.
Having effectively captured the individual’s or group’s attention while creating some anticipatory curiosity about this Stress Doc character, I now ask if they are ready for a rapid-fire quiz. More specifically, “Would you like to assess and/or strengthen a capacity for personal stress resiliency and brain agility?”
All it takes is a slight nod of the head, and I’m asking participants self-reflective questions around my “Formula for Natural SPEED” – Sleep, Priorities-Passion, Empathy, Exercise & Diet. Are you ready for the quiz?
S = Sleep. Are you getting at least seven hours of sleep a night? Alas, many people aren’t; either they have trouble falling asleep or getting back to sleep upon waking during the night. Sufficient sleep is critical; for many people, consistently getting less than six hours of sleep is associated with an array of mind-body problems including deficient information processing and memory retention, along with mental mistakes and a greater propensity for accidents. Recent sleep studies suggest that chronic insomnia may lead to both the loss of brain volume and the build-up of Alzheimer’s-related brain plaque.
In addition, chronic sleep deprivation is associated with cardiovascular complications, strokes, as well as obesity and eating disorders, along with the onsite of diabetes symptomatology. (Of course, there is a physiological-family predisposition factor, that is, biologically some people can function well on less than six or seven hours of sleep; however, this minority often have learned the art of “power napping.”
Here are some “Sleep Hygiene” tips:
1. Unplug: Turn off all visual electronics one half hour before getting into bed. Watching TV and especially being on the computer or tablet typically stimulates your brain. If you were a cabdriver, now’s the time for that “Off Duty” sign.
2. Transition to Sleep Mode: To facilitate drowsiness, consider such sleep transition activities as taking a bath or shower, light reading, listening to soothing music or a sounds of nature CD (helping induce a meditative state); if work angst persists, itemize the things that are troubling you or make a next-day “to do” list, and then continue into sleep mode. Of course, if sleep problems are disruptive and chronic, affecting your day-to-day mood, mindsets, and performance, then seek medical and/or psychological consultation.
3. Power Napping: Some folks have difficulty taking short “cat naps.” Listening regularly to soothing sounds as part of bed-time preparation may well generalize into a capacity for a “ten to fifteen minute” rejuvenating post-lunch or mid-afternoon nap. Wellness savvy companies are discovering the link between brief nap intervals and sustained employee productivity.
4. Nutritional and Supplemental Support: Some folks opt for warm milk, chamomile tea, or a small bowl of low-sugar granola cereal to help prepare for bedtime. Others find supplements such as melatonin a useful sleep aid. A hormone made by the brain’s pineal gland, melatonin helps regulate your wake-sleep cycle, rising in the mid-to late evening and dropping during daylight. Seasonal (and artificial) light affects the body’s melatonin production, as does aging. Natural melatonin levels slowly drop with age. Some older adults make very small amounts of it or none at all. Trace amounts are found in foods such as meats, grains, fruits, and vegetables. (Consult with a medical professional about melatonin and other sleep aid supplements.)
P = Priorities. Three questions were posed to establish “priority consciousness”:
1) Are you comfortable saying “No” to people?
2) Are you comfortable disappointing others?
3) Do you understand when “being mindful” needs to replace “multitasking?”
In my mind, the first two questions are linked, though a number of folks might say “yes” to one question and “no” to another. As people acknowledged, difficulty saying “No” or setting limits leads to being stretched too thin (trying to be “everything for everyone”) or being used or stepped on “like a welcome mat,” to quote one quiz-taker. A perpetual pleaser, someone who never wants to disappoint, is inviting trouble. Remember, burnout is less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away! Consider this golden rule, a requisite of adult maturity: “If you don’t find a balance between giving of yourself and giving to yourself, you are surely at risk for losing your “self”!
Some quick tips for saying “No”:
1. With a Colleague – when a colleague, friend, or family member asks for a favor and your plate is momentarily overloaded, after hearing them out, say, “Right now I can’t assist you with “abc” but I may be able to help with “def.” Or, call me back in two days, and I might be able to help with “abc.” (You are allowed to put some responsibility on the favor-asking party.) Of course, some may be grumpy with your new boundaries. Again, hear them out and concisely reaffirm your initial position. Over-talking or excess justification erodes a sense of integrity and conviction, both in your own mind and in the eyes of others.
2. With a “Big Boss” – when this authority declares there’s an “emergency,” the “sky is falling down,” it is critical not to let this person’s false sense of urgency become your anxiety. (Remember, emergencies are truly life and death matters.) Take a few breaths and respond, “I know this is a very important issue. Because it’s critical, let’s take five minutes. Help me reprioritize so I can give this important project the time, energy, and focus it deserves.” Don’t just jump off a problem-solving cliff when asked or ordered; down the road, this only invites mistakes and misunderstandings. By reframing the emergency as an “important problem” and by asking for some guidance re: project priorities, you are actually establishing appropriate, reality-testing boundaries, and not overloading your work plate. These steps help you gain some stress-reducing time and sense of control. And you may even be massaging the boss’ anxiety and ego. (Okay, at least think about it.)
Finally, the third question about “multitasking vs. mindfulness” is actually a trick question. Increasingly, research is revealing that our brain doesn’t multitask but quickly switches back and forth among the various tasks. Unless the activities are simple or rote, or involve non-distracting background “noise,” multitasking yields all too predictable results: compromised concentration and reduced performance. When constantly “switch-tasking” the brain never gets sufficient opportunity to warm up to a specific task, thereby inhibiting the mind’s optimal potential for productive and imaginative problem-solving
P = Passion. The second “P” is linked to Priorities; when viewing our “TNT” world through a Natural SPEED survival lens, one must set work-life boundaries to purposefully design “Passionate” space-time, especially for the high priority of a personal hobby. Hobbies that stimulate both mind and body like sewing, gardening, cycling, dancing, playing an instrument or a sport, etc. not only are relaxing and nurturing, but may also facilitate skill development, expand curiosity and new learning curves, along with a tangible sense of accomplishment.
In addition, research has found that activities that exercise the brain-body, e.g., formal dancing, with its need for both precise and spontaneous moves along with quick decision-making, is especially effective in helping slow down cognitive decline or dementia. (For me, an equivalent experience/hobby was running a weekly AOL “Shrink Rap and Group Chat” group for a number of years. As Instant Messages (IMs) would flood the screen in real time, orchestrating cross discussion, adding some concise insight, having my responses challenged, asking thought-provoking questions, and providing useful tips, while quickly setting limits on inappropriate comments, definitely kept my fingers flying and brain humming.)
E = Empathy. My question: “Do you have a Stress Buddy (SB) in your life, especially at work?” For example, when you’re upset with a supervisor, ready to storm into his or her office, your SB is the colleague to whom you turn: “Before I put my foot in my mouth or someone’s butt…talk me down!” Alas, it’s not so easy finding a mutually supportive and candid give and take partner. First, listening to or reassuring others can at times itself be stressful. Second, some folks just do a lot more taking than giving or listening. Just make sure the shoulder lending is not a one-way transaction. If you are always the pillar, those who lean on you may not be quick to see when you're feeling shaky. Remember, “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! Beware playing the heroic, self-denying superman or superwoman role. Have at least one Stress Buddy with whom you can let your hair down (especially on a "bad hair day”).
E = Exercise. Do you get thirty minutes of brisk exercise three-five times a week? Regular exercise provides both physical and psychological advantages. Thirty minutes (or even two fifteen minute segments) of vigorous, non-stop, large muscle movement activity – brisk walking, swimming, bike riding, dancing, etc. – releases brain chemicals such as endorphins and dopamine which are the mind-body's natural mood enhancers and pain relievers. It's less a runner's high and more that we can step back and see things with a calmer disposition and fresher perspective.
When stressed, everything feel’s up in the air. The answer: to feel grounded. There is nothing like a brisk thirty minute walk for creating a beginning and end point for a tangible sense of accomplishment and control. Actually, you’re developing a “success ritual.” And while I don’t always love to exercise, after my ten-minute “while still in bed” morning routine of stretching, sit-ups, push-ups, yoga positions, etc. and my early evening walk…well, I do like feeling virtuous.
And finally, in addition to mood, endurance, and cardiovascular benefits, daily exercise aids peak performance – whether in the boardroom or bedroom!
D = Diet. And the last question: “Do you engage in “Brain Smart” eating?” A diet high in saturated fats (red meat, whole milk products, fried oyster po-boys; having lived in New Orleans, I’m convinced most major restaurants are owned by the cardiologists) and simple sugars (sodas, Twinkies, even most fruit yogurts are loaded with fructose or sugar) may induce a short-lived energy boost. However, many of these selections invariably induce drowsiness and mental torpor, not to mention fostering clogged arteries and diabetes. And too much alcohol and caffeine is a roller coaster headache – moodiness or depression often follows aggression and agitation
To get a mind-mood advantage, try this nutritional regimen:
1) Omega 3 Fatty Acid Fish – salmon, sardines, tuna, and mackerel; especially good for brain health; these fatty acid fish counteract free radicals that can cause oxidative damage (akin to the rusting) of brain cells; may improve the efficiency of nerve signal transmission at synapses
2) Antioxidant Fruits and Berries – blueberries (aka “brainberries”), strawberries, raspberries; “the purples” – prunes raisins, plums, and cherries; also reduce oxidative damage to cells; in addition to slowing cognitive decline, diets rich in fiber may lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, obesity, and diabetes; may also lower bone loss; finally, a recent study revealed that men in Asian cultures with high fiber/bran intake have significantly lower rates of prostate cancer and problematic polyps
3) Leafy Green and Cruciferous Vegetables – broccoli, spinach, kale, cauliflower, red bell peppers, beets, onions, corn, eggplant; loaded with essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants these veggies promote brain health, heart health, and have cancer fighting potential; a ten year study of 13,000 nurses who ate more cruciferous and leafy vegetables in their 60’s had a lower rate of decline on a variety of learning and memory tests; the more of these vegetables eaten, the better the test scores
4) Go WACky Over Nuts – three nuts with body-mind-mood benefits are walnuts, almonds and cashews; walnuts are high in omega 3 fatty acids, decreasing cardiac risk and increasing blood flow; eating almonds daily is associated with reduced rates of heart attacks; almonds also lower blood sugar and insulin levels after meals; cashews have similar properties to heart healthy olive oil and may reduce the intensity of migraine attacks; these nuts have minerals such as magnesium, phosphorous, and copper that strengthen bones and teeth while relaxing nerves; however, don’t go nuts over nuts – have 7-10 nuts at a time to maximize dietary and weight management benefits
5) A Quick High Fiber Snack – try a celery stalk with almond butter – helps lower blood pressure and has Vitamin K, which helps fight osteoporosis; one INOVA Hospital nurse who took the SPEED test mentioned that celery may also help reduce the incidence of breast cancer.
Finally, remember, just because taking some vitamins is good don’t assume taking more is better. There are vitamins, like Vitamin E, that can be dangerous in high doses. And vitamins and other herbal supplements can also interact with prescription medications, lowering their effectiveness or causing harmful side effects. Again, consult with a medical or nutritional expert.
I can’t think of a better way to conclude this essay than with the closing verses from my “24/7 SPEED (Shrink) Rap ™.” (Email firstname.lastname@example.org for the entire poetic lyric.)
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!
1) Subject: Yawn! You're in digital print
Story came out yesterday -- and you're in it! It's at
Or for sharing purposes use the shorter one: http://qz.com/85385/ - and I hope you will share it.
Thanks so much!
My article: Ancient trees and magic create new career
2) My girlfriend’s daughter, Melanie Rudnick, also a friend and colleague, is starting her own coaching business, and writes a personally engaging and thought-provoking blog. I wanted to introduce her to my readers. Enjoy!
New post on www.melanierudnick.com
"I should eat healthier." "I should work harder." "I should be doing more." "I should be a better parent/spouse/friend." "I should exercise." "I should be able to get this." Have you ever told yourself any of these things or something similar? I sure have. Actually, the only thing you "should" do, is stop “shoulding” all over yourself! Telling yourself you “should” or “have to” do anything will just make you feel crappy.
How does it make you feel when you think you "should" do something? This little word that most people throw around so freely and regularly, causes a whole lot of pain in our lives. "I have to" is an equally, good mood killer. Think of something you "should" or "have to" do. When you think that thought, how does it make you feel? My guess is, not very good. The thing most people don't even realize is that YOU DON'T ACTUALLY HAVE TO DO ANYTHING!
A couple of months ago my 1 1/2 year old spilled milk in the backseat of my husband's car, while I was driving it. Now, if anyone reading this has ever spilled milk on something and let it sit overnight, they would understand that by the next day, it literally smelled like something had died in there. I was so cranky about it because I kept telling myself, "I have to take it to the dealership to get it cleaned." This thought lead to other thoughts about how I didn't have the time to deal with this, and how I didn't want to do it, and what if the smell didn't come out (all painful thoughts). My mood increasingly got worse until it dawned on me that I didn’t actually HAVE to take the car to get cleaned. I actually WANTED to do it because I didn’t want my husband to have to deal with it, and I was CHOOSING to be kind, and take the burden off of my hubby because he already takes care of so many things for us. This thought made me feel sooooo much better, and I was able to go get the car cleaned with little resistance, and the experience was no big deal.
By just changing the words “have to” to “want to”, or “choose to”, there is a tremendous amount of relief. If you really didn’t want to do something, you wouldn’t…simple as that. No one is forcing you to do the things you do, except you. Sure, you could argue, that you “have to” go to work every day because if you don’t you will lose your job. The truth is, you are choosing to go to work every day so you don’t lose your job. Try it….“I should go to the gym today”, or “I want to go to the gym today.” “I have to have lunch with my mother-in-law”, or “I am choosing to have lunch with my mother-in-law.” It is always a choice. No one is holding a gun to your head, and even if they were, it would still be up to you to decide what to do!
Another area where that pesky word, “should” gets us in trouble, is when we think other people “should” be/say/act a certain way. Who are we to know what anyone else should do?! It’s actually none of our business how anyone else lives his or her life, just like it is no one else’s place to tell you how you should live your life. For our moods to be so dependent on other people’s behaviors is borderline insane when ya think about it! The only person you have control of is you, so to have expectations of others to be a specific way in order for you to feel good, is giving all of your power away. It’s up to you to decide how you want to think about how other people live, and if it bothers you, it has everything to do with you, and not them. Other people’s behavior has absolutely nothing to do with you. No one “should” behave any way other than they way they do. When you think otherwise, you are not only arguing with reality, but you are setting yourself up to be unhappy, and why would you choose to make yourself unhappy?!
Take one day to try and notice how many times you say “should” or “have to”. When it pertains to yourself, try and replace it with “I want to”, or “I choose to”, and notice how it feels. When it comes to someone else, remind yourself that he or she “should” be exactly as they are, because that is exactly who they are. If that is upsetting to you, then take a deeper look at you, and what you are making other people’s behavior mean. Once we stop “shoulding” on ourselves and others, there will be more space for loving, and how much better does that feel?!
Melanie Rudnick | May 24, 2013 at 3:14 am | Categories: Relationship Coaching | URL: http://wp.me/p3sxm1-5v
1) Subject: Federally
Employed Women (FEW) Spring Fling
Thanks Mark. It was indeed, a pleasure meeting you as well. I look forward to including you in many future events. I will definitely keep in touch. Let me know if you would be interested in possibly traveling to a regional or national training meeting, with either organization. I have been brainstorming trying to think of ways the Chapters can assist with larger participation percentages. Haven't quite thought out the logistics, just wanted to get a feel on the interest, if any.
Alita Gregg, President
Federal Triangle Chapter, FEW
Yes you may place me on your email list.
I will keep you in mind for future comedy events for our company. It seems that our President has already finalized the details for our company celebration on May 25th.
We will stay in touch. Really enjoyed you!
Diana B. Morgan
Chief Financial Officer
iCON OF SUCCESS, LLC
1914 J.N. Pease Place
Charlotte, NC 28262
2) [Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA/HQ); One-day Stress Resiliency Workshop for 18 Managers]
Good Morning Mark
My intentions was to email you right after your class on Thursday (5/9/13) but of course I got side tracked. I would once again like to share how much I enjoyed your class. As I stated before if I come across anyone who might need your services, I will forward your contact information.
Thanks again for a such a refreshing class.
3) Louisiana Nurse-Family Partnership Annual Educational Conference -- April 3-5, Baton Rouge, LA 2013 Practice Safe Stress: BuildingTeam Resiliency & Morale through Humor keynote for 150 Nurses and Social Workers
April 8, 2013
Some formal comments from Paula Zeannah, PhD, Clinical Developer & Infant Mental Health Director, LA Bureau of Family Health and Sonya Myers, PhD, Maternal, Infant & Early Childhood Home visiting Program (and Conference) Coordinator: "You addressed issues that were relevant to our program staff...Thank you for an infomative and inspiring talk...We really appreciate your contribution to making our annual educational conference a success."
However, the below "Comments" from attendees vividly and personally capture the program's interactive,energetic, therapeutic, illuminating, and FUN essence:
• Very interactive and entertaining while remaining professional and very informative.
• Awesome, will share this with my family.
• Funny! Therapeutic! Loved it!
• Great way to start things off. Very Interesting and funny.
• Informative. Very interactive. Would be a very good session after lunch on a long day.
• Really enjoyed this presentation. Mr. Gorkin was entertaining and informative, the group activities were fun and illuminating.
• Like the presentation style, humor is a necessary means for survival!
• Great job. Definitely Need More of This.
[Eval scores and more comments below]
Sonya S. Myers, Ph.D.
Louisiana OPH Bureau of Family Health
Maternal, Infant, & Early Childhood Home Visiting
(MIECHV) Program Coordinator
1450 Poydras Street, Suite 2032
New Orleans, LA 70112
Phone: (504)568-2784/Fax: (504)email@example.com
Engaging and Energizing Audiences through Purposeful Play:
An Interactive Exercises Model and Method
Over the years I’ve had pretty consistent success with my workshop/speaking programs, usually some mix of managing stress, effectively dealing with conflict (or breaking down status-communication barriers), and building team (or department or interdepartmental) trust, cooperation, and morale.” However, it seems the programs really get into high gear when the audience is feeling considerable frustration about present operations, including burnout-inducing conditions, and anxious about a future in flux. In addition, the learning lab especially flourishes when in-house relations and the community as a whole seem to be fraught with “us vs. them” divisions.
Why might the programs work with individuals and groups feeling disconnected and disgruntled? Why do so many emerge from the program feeling affirmed, more open-minded (less “us vs. them”), and that we’re all needed to patch up some dysfunctional and self-defeating holes in our boat? How is it that both individuals and teams experience a greater sense of resiliency and hope, along with a plan for future problem-solving action steps?
While I typically present clear and concise ideas on preventing burnout and building stress resiliency as well as dealing with transition, loss, and change, I believe the real catalyst is my interactive and fun group exercises. Having participants engage in relevant and real world exercises that encourage: a) the sharing of genuine emotions, especially the release of aggression, b) laughing knowingly at one another’s personal-situational challenges while chuckling together over respective flaws and foibles, and c) collectively stimulating and encouraging the mind-body-spirit, heightens individual and team commitment, learning, and bonding.
The 4 “C-ing Catalyst for Humor, Wholeness, and Hope
In general, during times of uncertainty, conflict, and/or change, people are looking for tools, techniques, and tips for getting a home and work life handle on stress and conflict, as well as more effective interpersonal-intergroup cooperation and coordination. Many are highly receptive to “4 ‘C’-ing” learning forums that help foster or reinforce a sense of personal Confidence and Competence, team Camaraderie and Collaboration. People want to be energized and synergized, that is, to be part of a dynamic sharing-learning-inspiring-connecting process and structure that nurtures and facilitates: a) the expression-exchange of meaningful ideas and problem solving or resiliency skills (Competence), b) a sense of discovery and hope, that is a an imaginable future with promise and opportunity (Confidence), c) being playful, even a little “outrageous”; have you noticed, the middle word in out-rage-ous is “rage”; remember, helping others safely and playfully work out even a little of their aggressive energy and emotion while enhancing self-awareness is a gift (Camaraderie), and, finally, d) the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts (through Collaboration). Most want to be connected to an open, vital, uplifting Community.
Three for the Show: Purposeful and Playful Workshop Exercises and Strategies
Let me describe three interactive workshop exercises that gradually cultivated this synergistic happening. These exercises can be operationalized in a variety of settings – from a handful of team members to hundreds of conference participants. I will also list the “how to” working principles that enable these exercise-interventions to enhance stress resiliency while facilitating engagement and motivated performance, along with team and community morale. The three exercises are:
A. Empathic Icebreaker Exercise. To get people in an open, playful, and moderately risk-taking frame of mind, psychically warm them up. Try my “Three ‘B’ Stress Barometer Exercise.” Break up a larger audience into clusters of a half dozen or so. Then, with a volunteer recorder in each group, have the individuals briefly (3-5 minutes) discuss: “How does your Brain, Body and Behavior let you know when you are under more STRESS than usual?”
Several groups report back their “3 B List.” Not only do we obtain a broad and highly recognizable compilation, but there’s opportunity to discuss the double-edged nature of many of the stress smoke signals: a) mind – your mind can be racing one moment and then shortly after you feel like you are experiencing brain freeze or brain fog, b) sleep – some days you don’t want to get out from under the covers; then there are those who are on Ebay or watching the Home Shopping Network at 3am, and c) eating – I’ll ask the audience how many folks will eat more when under stress, to stop that anxious, gnawing feeling in their gut; a sea of hands go up. Next I ask, “Are there any folks who lose their appetite and eat less when under stress?” A few hands wave tentatively. My immediate reply: “And we hate those people, don’t we!” And invariably, laughter echoes throughout the room. One other favorite smoke signal is muscle tension, neck, shoulders, and my former problems with a “Boomer Back.” Oh, and TMJ. My answer to the question, “We know what TMJ really stands for, don’t we…Too Many Jerks!”
Clearly, this exercise helps folks realize they are not alone when it comes to stress and “smoke signals.” And of course, acknowledging their pain while laughing at themselves and laughing with others, not only is a stress reliever, but it’s also a social bonding agent. Finally, this “light-hearted” take on signs of stress facilitates moving into a more serious discussion on chronic stress and burnout. Remember, people are less defensive and more open to a serious message when it’s gift-wrapped with humor!
B. Power Struggle Exercise. Now for the second exercise that pairs Person A and Person B. Imagine you are caught in a power struggle with a problematic individual or, at least, someone who can be a “pain in the butt.” This individual can inhabit either your professional or personal life. For this mind game, the specific issue is not critical. Let’s say the general content involves issues of control, status, or who has (or doesn’t have) the right or power to make a decision. For simplicity sake, let’s say Person A is an employee or a junior family member and Person B is a supervisor or a more senior family member, e.g., an older sibling. (In other words, while you are looking at your exercise partner, you are imagining facing off with the antagonist in your head.) In this exercise, the battle begins with the Person A/employee declaring, “You can’t make!” and the Person B/supervisor countering, “Oh yes I can!” My workshop instructions specifically caution antagonists about getting out of their chairs. But the players can be as aggressive or as whiny as they wish. After a couple of verbal volleys, the participants are encouraged to say what they would really like to say to their antagonist.
Not surprisingly, at some point during this exchange, for many folks there is an eruption of laughter. (Actually, at another military spouse program, the outpouring was so loud and animated, that the soldiers in a room across the hall were so startled and concerned, they were about to storm into our meeting.) Perhaps it’s the somewhat artificial and absurd nature of the interaction. Also, some people cover up intense emotions, such as raw aggression, through nervous laughter. And for a group of folks that have been holding in a lot of emotion for a good while, e.g., the military spouses, the exercise allows them to break out of character and/or role, to engage in a good “primal scream,” as it were. Still, for me, the number of people who get hooked by the battle, who “want to win,” seems significant. Why are so many so quick to get caught up in power struggles? I’ve come up with “The Six “C”s of Power Struggles:
1. Control. Who will be in control? I believe this is connected to authority issues and, ultimately, the parent-child dynamic. That is, a person still fighting overt or covert emotional battles with family members or other significant adults, under enough work or home-life stress, will invariably bring and project such issues in the workspace.
2. Competition. This also has family roots – sibling rivalry issues. Who is better? Who is the favorite? Certainly, cliques and “in-groups” stalk many office halls and work floors.
3. Change. During periods of transition, there’s much uncertainty. Who is in charge? Do the rules and operational procedure still apply? Some people will try to fill the void, appropriately or inappropriately. Change often stirs uncertainty and anxiety and that may push some to become overly rigid, manipulating or controlling.
4. Cultural Diversity. Surely the variety of socio-cultural and demographic dynamics shape how we give meaning to experience, including meaning to the motivations, beliefs, and behaviors of self and of others. Personal maturity is often required if difference and disagreement are not reflexively equated with disapproval and disloyalty.
5. Communication Skills. Exercising the skills for effectively negotiating the aforementioned “C”s – Control, Competition, Change, and Cultural diversity – especially in the context of an actual or potential emotionally charged power struggle requires a communicator who can be both assertive and empathic; a communicator who can both affirm limits and respect boundaries. With communicational dexterity, this individual is often able to “find the pass in the impasse.
6. Courage. And finally, you have the courage, you are willing to risk doing some self-assessment regarding these forces or “hot buttons” that propel you into disruptive power struggles. And, you are open to critical and constructive feedback from others. You have the integrity and fortitude to engage others in genuine and productive conflict resolution.
Key Communication Principles
Now let me provide four communication tips and tools for preventing a conflict or misunderstanding from turning into a full-fledged struggle or an ongoing battle:
1. Drop the Rope. How do you not take the bait when someone is provocatively fishing for an argument or power struggle? The challenge becomes not instinctively pulling back when someone offers you a rope and then “yanks your chain.” You don’t have to prove you can give (or be) as big a jerk. In fact, you can just “drop the rope.” This is not a sign of weakness. Your message is, “I don’t want to play this self-defeating or dysfunctional game. Can we come up with a more productive way to address the grievance or solve the problem?”
2. Use the “Four ‘P’ Process of Empathic Engagement.” One or both parties in a power struggle are usually angry or anxious about something. Your antagonist may be upset about your actions (as a supervisor) or about a common problematic situation. For example, in an employee’s mind, are you playing favorites in the department? In order to quickly connect to a belligerent or injured party (after setting limits on any harassing behavior, of course) attempt to engage the other person around his “Pain” and “Passion” or her “Purpose” and sense of “Power” (or feelings of powerlessness or helplessness). These “P”s are definitely a pathway to empathy and possibly more peaceful and productive coexistence.
3. Reduce the Status or Power Differential. As a manager (or parent of a teenager) unless absolutely necessary, don’t lead with your authority trump card. In fact, try to level the playing field; strive for adult-to-adult communication. I believe there is a disarmingly simple yet effective and efficient method of reducing status differences: “Ask a Good Question.” In an interpersonal context, especially one fused with tension or conflict, there are “Four Pillars of a Good Question”:
a) Humble Pillar: The questioner let’s down a “know-it-all” or “overly sure of his data and its implications” mask; assumptions and inferences are held in abeyance pending some genuine communicational back and forth. And sometimes, being humble infuses the moment when you can say, “I don’t fully get where you are coming from, but I want to listen and learn.”
Finally, with an assist from social psychology research, humility helps counter a common perceptual bias. “Attribution Theory” examines how someone perceives another person’s motives and behaviors. It’s especially interested in perceptual error based on an observer attributing a person’s motives or actions (especially in a “negative context”) to personality factors instead of situational forces. Here’s an illustration. Let’s say a relatively new colleague at work (whom you don’t know well) has come in late two times in the past week. It wouldn’t be surprising if you (and others) began to start wondering about his or her motives and competencies, e.g., is the person lazy, disorganized, disenchanted with work, or just plain old passive-aggressive? However, if you were to come in late a couple of times, or were asked to speculate about reasons for your hypothetical lateness, research indicates you would likely quickly note, for example, the traffic conditions, needing to get a child to daycare, illness in the family, etc.
Can you see the bias? When explaining our own problematic behavior we first focus on situational or outside conditions affecting intentions and actions, thus providing a rationale or protective cover for any outcomes or consequences. In contrast, while observing others our initial predilection is to judge based on inner personality or motivational traits, not on environmental constraints. An assessment focused on the individual alone, not seen in context, is more judgmental, making it harder to be empathic or forgiving, or even just truly curious. (For example, “I wonder why she behaves that way?” said with obvious tone, is often more a disguised judgment than a question of genuine concern.) And this tendency to broadly, quickly, or indiscriminately place personal evaluation over situational consideration is called “Attribution Error.” Humility asks more questions and makes fewer assumptions.
Openness Pillar: The questioner’s humility facilitates a posture of
receptivity to the other’s position or perspective; one may learn something new
or valuable or have a supposition modified. Take time for “R & R and R & R”:
Receive and Reflect … and then Respond and Reevaluate, based on
“give-and-take” dialog. Of course, two Stress Doc mantras underlie this mutual
Ø Difference and Disagreement =/= Disapproval and Disloyalty
Ø Acknowledgement Does Not Mean Agreement; (remember, most people don’t expect immediate agreement; what they do expect is to be genuinely listened to and that the other party makes a genuine effort to grapple with if not grasp their perspective)
c) Understanding Pillar: Broadening a “head and heart” outlook not only encourages greater awareness of and tolerance for the other, but it enhances the imagination, inspiration, and innovation potential of multifaceted and multicultural teams and organizations. When Conflict and Challenge spark Consciousness and Creativity these elements combine and crystallize as Four “C”-ing soul mates. The process of give-and-take listening and questioning helps each person tackle the question, “What can I do to respond more effectively, compassionately, and unexpectedly to the other’s needs and desires.” It also challenges the questioner to gain insight regarding his or her own biases, habitual patterns, and prejudices.
d) Respectful Pillar: Being respectful is less about putting someone up on a pedestal and more about paying careful attention to (showing curiosity and a desire to understand, that is, asking good and open-ended questions about) their lived experience, emotional framework, and world view.
Clearly, if consistently applied, these foundational pillars provide a safer and more secure interpersonal context; they tend to elicit more forthright communication. And if you are fortunate, your antagonist will even provide critical feedback. Why do I say fortunate? In the long run, I believe nothing builds trust more than when a person expresses clean and clear disagreement, frustration, or anger, perhaps challenges the other’s expertise or authority, yet discovers that the recipient doesn’t fall apart, run away, or analytically cut them off at the knees before establishing real understanding; the receiver-target doesn’t abandon them, and/or doesn’t blast back or seek revenge. You may not agree with the other person’s argument, but as we’ve outlined, you have demonstrated humility, openness, acknowledgement, and respect.
Finally, I’m convinced, five-ten minutes of careful and compassionate listening, that is, “asking good questions” – being humble, open, understanding, and respectful – pays interpersonal dividends: you will reap an “HOUR of Power” regarding trust- and relationship-building.
4. Avoid Black or White Thinking. An argument that must result in one person being ‘right” the other party “wrong” clearly tightens the tension in the tug or words if not war. Dividing antagonists into “winners” and “losers” doesn’t foster lasting conciliation and working partners. Oftentimes, a sign of real strength is the capacity for some comfort with uncertainty or even being tentative in the heat of battle: “I’m not sure about that” or “Right now, I don’t agree. Still, you make a good point. Let me think more about this.” In fact, taking a time out, while also establishing a concrete reengagement time, often allows you to retreat and reflect and return with more resolve and reason
Again, allowing for uncertainty or delayed decision-making (instead of rushing to judgment) creates subjective space for opinions and strategic options. You are inviting the other to be a genuine problem-solving participant. Setting aside “all or none” “victor or victim” thinking encourages power sharing over power struggle. Both parties can generate an array of leading edge and colorful ideas.
Disarming Words of Wisdom
With the “Six ‘C’s” (of power struggles) and the above communication “principles” and “pillars” in mind, as a manager or message receiver and sender what might you say to a provocative employee/individual who declares (or in so many words avers), “You can’t make me”? Consider this response:
1) “I don’t know if I can make you or I can’t make you. That’s not where I’m coming from.” [Resisting the provocative bait. You’re not quickly playing the authority trump card, more momentarily placing your status or power on the shelf; you are vital and vulnerable without giving up your power potential.]
2) “If there is a problem – if I’m bugging you or our situation is problematic – I’d like to hear about it.” [Inviting criticism takes courage; it often elicits real feedback and can help build trust. Of course, when someone’s feedback turns into flame throwing, protective action is vital. Remember, there’s a difference between someone displaying some “attitude” in the heat of a disagreement and being “abusive.” The former is smoke, the latter fire. Try to tolerate the smoke, quickly put out the flames or move away from any rapid fire attack.]
3) “I need your contribution to meet our goals. I believe I’m in a position to support you. For us to succeed we have to be pulling together not pulling apart.” [Acknowledging the other and also recognizing self. Affirming the process – from dropping the rope to forging a power and performance partnership.]
C. Discussion and Drawing Exercise. Building on the Three “B”s, and the Power Struggle Exercise, the next logical question is: “What are the sources of stress and conflict in your everyday home and/or workplace operations?” Again, the large group is broken into smaller units (4-6 people). However, after the discussion phase, the team needs to create a group picture, logos, or stress symbol that captures the diverse stress experiences of the participants as a whole. Consider this example: Years ago, a burnt out CEO of an engineering company was running his company into the ground. Actually, he was hardly running the company; more likely he was off flying his airplane. Finally, he hired a Vice-President who anxiously called me for some stress and team building help. In our workshop, one of the groups drew a picture of a menacing creature, calling this big stalking dinosaur a “Troublesaurus.” All the little people in the plant are scattering in fear. However, one person, bigger than the rest, is totally oblivious, has his back to the dinosaur with his head in the clouds while watching a plane fly by. Helps you get the picture, doesn’t it?
My reassuring participants that this is not, “True Confessions,” that is, they can share at whatever level feels comfortable, actually seems to free up the sharing, venting, and visual imaginings. Images run the gamut from stalking dinosaurs, time bomb time clocks, never ending mazes, sinking ships in shark infested waters, etc. Groups are kept on track by having up to ten-minutes (with frequent reminders) for discussion and the same for the drawing segment.
Playful and Purposeful Interventions: A Strategic Analysis
So what makes these exercises so successful as stress reducers and builders of team synergy – whether with spouses, soldiers, or civilians? Consider these seven strategic components:
1. Universality. In a 24/7, anytime/anywhere, TNT – Time-Numbers-Technology – driven and distracted, and lean-and-MEAN world, everyone can readily participate and acknowledge his or her own stress smoke signals or sources of pressure. Most participants can admit being trapped into, “Why should I be the one to drop the rope” power struggles. With the workplace becoming increasingly diverse, we need to expand multicultural understanding while not overlooking our mutual humanity.
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. Common calluses make uncommon comrades.
3. Laugh at Our Flaws and Foibles. Just a little exaggeration can tickle some knowing laughs from familiar yet often serious stress signals and our coping behavior. This point was highlighted in the description-discussion of the “Three ‘B’ Stress Barometer Exercise” and my interplay with the audience around sleeping and eating issues along with TMJ. With the “You Can’t Make Me Power Struggle Exercise,” many are surprised and even laugh, both at the absurdity of the moment and the intensity and competitiveness they bring to the seemingly artificial encounter. And there’s nothing like sharing a laugh around common flaws and foibles to reduce status differences and create a communal ambiance.
4. Mind-Body Healing and Hardiness. Getting people to laugh not only releases the body’s natural pain-relieving and mood enhancing chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins, but also places stressful events in a lighter perspective. Sigmund Freud, himself, saw philosophical humor as the highest defense mechanism: “Look here! This is all this seemingly dangerous world amounts to. Child’s play - the very thing to jest about.” While a psychoanalytic student of Freud, Dr. Ernst Kris, saw laughter as a sign of resilience from wrestling with a personal or interpersonal demon: What was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at. (And as the Stress Doc inverted: What was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master!)
5. Non Verbal-Verbal Expression and Releasing Aggression. While many adults are anxious when it comes to drawing, once reassured that stick figures are fine (and that “I’m a graduate of the Institute for the Graphically Impaired”) they 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 quite like a group 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. And, not surprisingly, the power struggle drama allows for quite a theatrical display of both body postures and gestures along with a myriad of expressions shaded by tone, volume, and pacing. Again, this release of aggression (both verbally and through various gestures) tempered by recognition of the situational absurdity and individual exaggeration has a cathartic effect.
6. Open Interaction, Gradual Integration, and Creative Problem-Solving. Perhaps the most valuable problem-solving aspect of these exercises is that no group member has “the one right answer.” In addition, while the immediate reaction of some is an anxious, “I can’t draw,” seeing others participate frequently has even the most hesitant picking up a colored marker. (And I reinforce an important team dynamic principle: don’t give up on an initially reluctant group member; once more confident of what’s realistically expected – visual ideas and imagery are more important than artistic wizardry – this same individual often jumps into the fray, and may even become a most energetic contributor.) Clearly, some participants concentrate on the verbal discussion; others become more animated during the drawing phase. Both verbally and non-verbally one person’s suggestions will readily trigger ideas and images that embellish the group product and strengthen the interactive process. Everyone’s responses are valuable; the final picture is truly a team production. Some have commented that the exercise challenged the use of a different part of their brain. Almost all can relate to my “jazz riff” analogy.
7. Group Feedback and Recognition. In the first and third exercises, teams get a chance to share their lists and drawings with the larger group. In the final phase of the drawing exercise (“the fashion show part of the program”) the work teams show off their creative designs. For audiences in the hundreds, we'll have groups display their artwork on tables or on walls and turn the hall into an art gallery. Participants mill about and survey all the other groups’ efforts. Designs are chosen or volunteered for “show and tell.” Participants experience pride from overcoming their initial drawing confusion or anxiety. And in both scenarios, a final benefit is the self-esteem boosting recognition each team receives from the collective for work well done. In fact, the free flow of ideas and expressions has generated a real synergy power source: not only is the whole greater than the sum of the parts, but in this sharing-laughing-learning platform now parts magically transform into partners.
In conclusion, the above seven strategic tension busting, energy releasing, team building and playfully high performing practices and principles provide both an individual and collective high-octane formula for transforming home-life and workplace pressures into head-heart-hope generating synergistic processes and products. Not only is the whole greater than the sum of its parts…but the real magic arises when parts transform into partners. And you now have a blueprint for bringing back this robust learning experience into everyday operations and meetings, to help yourself and others…Practice Safe Stress!
Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote, kickoff and webinar speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known for his interactive, inspiring, and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the "Doc" is a Team Building and Organizational Development Consultant as well as a Critical Incident/Grief Intervention Expert for Business Health Services, a National EAP/Wellness/OD Company. He is providing "Stress and Communication,” as well as “Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building" programs for a variety of units at Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services.
A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. The Stress Doc blog appears in such platforms as HR.com, WorkforceWeek.com, and MentalHelpNet. His award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – www.stressdoc.com – was 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call 301-875-2567.
(c) Mark Gorkin 2013
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