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On Becoming An Organizational Psychohumorist

Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc")

In the second segment of a two-parter, the Stress Doc focuses on two group psychohumor interventions: a) modeling playfulness and challenging voices of inhibition and b) using a powerful workshop exercise that fosters openness, creativity and team work while facilitating participants' laughter at their sources of stress and conflict.

In the first part of this series, I illustrated how a dynamic workshop leader ebbs and flows between the serious and the humorous, the predictable and the unexpected, and between sharing information and evoking group association and participation. This keeps an audience on the motivational edge. Under states of acute or optimal physiological arousal, people are primed to break their own or the group's tension with humor. In my workshops, for example, I build tension by presenting "The Four Stages of Burnout," and then break it in dramatic fashion. (See below. Also, if you missed Part I, email me at stressdoc@aol.com.)

Here are two more strategic interventions of the "Organizational Psychohumorist":

2. Modeling Playfulness and Challenging Voices of Inhibition. After completing the presentation on "The Four Stages of Burnout," invariably, a palpable silence envelops the room. (Again, if you'd like my article on burnout stages, email.) I immediately comment, "Now that I've depressed everybody." A nervous laughter breaks out. I then sort of apologize and say, "Let me try to lighten up the atmosphere." Suddenly, I put on a Blues Brothers hat, black sunglasses, and grab my black tambourine. (As a psychohumorist, you don't always have to reinvent the wheel. Just be surprising.)

As disbelieving stares pinball across the room, I explain: "It's a secret identity (which you might wish I had kept secret). I'm pioneering the field of psychologically humorous rap music. And as a therapist I call it, what else, 'Shrink Rap' Productions!" Immediately it's a contest...whether I get more laughs or groans. And then I break into "The Stress Doc's Stress Rap." Here's an abridged version:

When it comes to feelings do you stuff them inside? Is tough John Wayne your emotional guide? And it's not just men so proud and tight lipped For every Rambo there seems to be a Rambette...

Well the boss makes demands yet gives little control So you pray on chocolate and wish life were dull. But office desk's a mess, often skipping meals Inside your car looks like a pocketbook on wheels...

Now I made you feel guilty, you want to confess Better you should practice the art of "safe stress!"

(c) "Shrink Rap" Productions 1992

I think you get the concept. Actually, all kinds of folks really go for the rap. Of course, upon finishing, and after the clapping has subsided, I say, "Hey, you can't fool me. I can tell when an audience is applauding from relief." (And in some ways they truly are. The earlier tension resulting from reviewing the burnout stages is now broken.)

People enjoy and are more receptive to a serious message when it's gift wrapped with humor. The rap also works for other reasons. First, my doing a "Shrink Rap" with "music," in costume is as paradoxical and absurd as it sounds. Some people initially laugh at me; some immediately enjoy the silliness. But after awhile, almost all appreciate that I'm having a grand time just letting it hang out. I'm not particularly worried about looking and sounding ridiculous. And, in the end, I can even poke good-natured fun at my singing. If I'm not taking myself soooo serious, maybe audience members, too, can be a little less hard on themselves.

I believe I'm modeling some real gifts of the psychohumorist: the capacity for self-effacing humor - based on ego strength and the awareness of limitations, not deprecation - along with the loosening of inhibition and lowering the volume of rigid or judgmental inner voices. (In fact, I close the rap routine by claiming, "After years of all kinds of therapy, what this proves is my having one singular accomplishment: absolutely no appropriate sense of shame!")

And speaking of therapy, even Sigmund Freud, himself, might have acknowledged the potential contributions of a healing humorist. For Freud, a noted student of humor and wit, the capacity for mature humor - by which he meant internalizing the encouragement of our efforts and the gentle tolerance of our failures - is perhaps the greatest gift parental figures can bestow upon a child. (Or a psychohumorist upon a colleague or client.)

3. Small Group Discussion and Drawing Exercise. The foundation for the most interactive intervention is now in place. The two existing pillars being: a) the ongoing use of ebb and flow to engage, heighten and sustain audience attention and identification and b) the gradual building of a poignantly playful and seriously absurd atmosphere. The participants are ready for a moderately risk-taking and maximally rewarding problem-solving experience.

I can only sketch this three-parter. (For a more detailed description of the exercise and it's operational procedures, feel free to call or e-mail me. See end of article for those particulars.) First I break up the audience into teams of three or four. Try to have disparate people or department personnel working together. Then I ask participants to discuss the sources of stress and conflict in the organization or department. I remind folks that this isn't "true confessions." People are to share only at a level which feels comfortable. After ten minutes of discussion, the team proceeds to generate a group picture or composite of the individual stress scenarios. (Large flip chart paper and a colorful variety of markers are provided.)

Believe me, I've seen it all: sinking ships, stalking dinosaurs, wildly rampaging twisters, exploding castles, barren deserts and consuming black holes; all sorts of chained bodies and contorted faces (along with a lot of "bad hair days"). Adults seem to divide between those who get excited at the prospect of drawing and the greater number who become self-consciously anxious. To clarify task instructions and reduce performance anxiety, I describe a vivid group design from a previous workshop in addition to reassuring participants that I myself am a graduate of The Institute for the Graphically-Impaired. Stick figures are just fine.

The drawing phase is also limited to about ten minuites. In both segments, I periodically give time limit reminders. This invariably heightens arousal level and task focus.

You'll have to take my word...but the evolution of shared energy in the room is remarkable. From tentative small group discussion to more open, relaxed sharing; from hovering at the edge of the paper (like a reluctant diver on a high board) to a group now frolicking in a body of images and colors of their own making. The decibel level of laughter increases as the images take exaggerated and symbolic shape and direction.

Finally, we do a "show-guess-and tell," whereby the teams pridefully display their colorful composites (perhaps "darkly bright crystals," to modify Ms. Keller's metaphor) while the entire audience free associates to each of the drawings. People can project their perceptions, biases and fantasies onto the pictures. This last interactive-feedback segment becomes a free associative, supportive and playfully aggressive large group catharsis.

Before closing the experience, I ask the audience to reflect on what made the exercise valuable and enjoyable. Here's a condensed consensus list:

a) an opportunity to share real feelings and discover you are not alone, and a greater understanding of the stressors other people and departments are encountering,

b) the realization that "drawing out" feelings, especially angry ones, allows for lampooning, relief and fun,

c) the process of exaggerated drawing allows one to see some of the absurdity in the situation, to take persons and things less personally, while putting events in proportion or a more objective perspective; there's a feeling, even if momentary, of increased control,

d) there was no one right answer, everybody's experience and input was valuable,

e) the exercise was an uncommon mix of both emotional process and being kept on task, and

f) there was creative energy and a chance for true teamwork.

So the exercise enables participants to vent, to gain support and insight while generating laughter and group synergy. In fact, this exercise often breaks the ice between individuals, status hierarchies, sections, departments, etc. It facilitates beginning conflict resolution during the program and also sets the stage for future collaborative problem-solving.

End Game

With the three interventions, a playful and uncommon time and safe space have evolved that allows workshop participants and groups to move beyond frustration and the realm of aggressive humor. Both as individuals and team members, people are now exploring and experiencing themselves as well as colleagues in the role of healing humorist.

In conclusion, today's "managed scare" and "frightsizing" climate is a call for both professional action and health care community healing. Help yourself and your organization bring the specter of downsizing down to size...Discover the art, path and spirit of the psychohumorist. Seek the higher power of humor: "May the Farce Be with You!"

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