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Defying Cultural Patterns and Predictions Engaging Stress and Crisis: The Stress Doc’s 3 “R”s for Discovering Your Responsible, Resilient & Risk-Taking Essence

When you get a thank you card at the end of a program signed by participants during the event either it’s a less than captivating workshop or the group was really motivated to give you feedback. Fortunately, it was the latter and the words inscribed were very positive and poignant – people felt “enlightened,” “inspired” and “the word stress will mean (some) thing different after your seminar.” Sponsored by Federal Asian Pacific American Council (FAPAC), the “Brown Bag” program was, “The Challenge of Natural and Man-Made Disasters: Growing through Crisis and Building Bridges & Networks.” While the turnout was small (ten folks) and richly diverse (a variety of Asian nationalities and two African-Americans, more men than women, most over forty or fifty years of age, and many in management/leadership positions at different federal and DC agencies), we had a truly open and insightful, lively and heartfelt exchange. The focus was less about the tragedy in Japan and more about the challenge closer to home – working for the Federal or DC Govt. (whose funding is tied to the feds), especially in the time of budget cuts and freezes and looming program contraction. (I suspect the small turnout reflected how many government employees are feeling anxious or “out of control” about their uncertain environment; meetings are being called suddenly; people are bunkering down.)

I believe the group was somewhat surprised by the level of intimate sharing, as this is not standard procedure at their meetings. In fact, before the program, one of the program coordinators reminded me that this is a group that culturally does not typically open up about their emotions; FAPAC members tend to be analytical and either hold their feelings tight to the vest (especially in a work setting) or get straight to the point. They are not into the “soft” stuff, regardless of sex. At one point the group laughed at my acknowledging that in FAPAC there are not only Rambos; probably as many Rambettes.

Defying Cultural Expectations: Four Key Steps

However, I have spoken at FAPAC and ASPIRE (Asian professionals at the IRS) conferences before and have always been able to generate stimulating interaction, considerable laughter and meaningful sharing among groups of fifty or more.

So what helped us once again defy the so-called “cultural” tendency regarding openness, and in only fifty minutes? I believe the key was a four step process:

1) Acknowledging cultural coping patterns

2) Pondering why Stress Doc programs with primarily Asian audiences have been so well received

3) Exploring the Chinese iconographic concept of “crisis” – “danger and opportunity”

4) Using a risk-taking questionnaire for self-evaluation, small group consultation and large group discussion along with supportive and informative feedback.

Let’s separately examine these “Four Mind- and Heart-Opening, 3 “R” – Responsible, Resilient & Risk-Taking – Tools of Engagement”:

1. Acknowledging Cultural Coping Patterns. When it comes to dealing with stress and crisis, all cultural groups have both strengths and vulnerabilities. However, I told the group I wanted to focus on a “Western” coping pattern; actually an iconic symbol of the vanishing “Old West” – the cowboy or the traditional “Marlboro Man” – affixed on his horse, all alone, staring out on an expansive horizon. I then quickly shifted to the obvious: in a time of unprecedented interactivity and interconnectivity we cannot afford to be the isolated Lone Ranger or Rangerette. Also, I reminded the group: “Strong silent types get a lot more ulcers than they do Oscars!”

And, of course, this is doubly true in a crisis. Research shows that in times of high uncertainty, stress and “No Exit” challenges, a key to resiliency is connecting and sharing with like-situated others, that is, people who not only can walk in our shoes but also feel our bunions! Misery doesn’t just like company. In fact, research shows it especially likes miserable company. In tough times, almost nothing beats or better helps rejuvenate than sharing an understanding laugh. Finally, when habitual ways of coping are insufficient to the personal-professional-familial challenge at hand, it’s critical to engage with friends, colleagues and/or advisors who can provide new problem-solving ideas and resources, and also help you realize you don’t have to struggle alone.

2. Elaborating Past Program Success. I posited that my programs have been well-received by Asian-Pacific American audiences because we gradually create a safe atmosphere for risking sharing emotions and imperfections, being able to laugh at one’s own (and others’) flaws and foibles, while giving people permission to be a bit “out-rage-ous.” Various conference program exercises, in particular a 3-“D” Team Exercise – Discussion, Drawing & Diversity – enables participants to playfully and pointedly yet respectfully question as well as poke fun at dis-organizational authority and bureaucratic absurdity. And in several post-3-D feedback segments, attendees have emphasized the perfectionist or critical family voice still being carried around. The younger Asian-Pacific American professionals more eagerly jump in to the interactive exercise; the more senior participants seem to experience a greater sense of relief and gratitude for the opportunity to open briefly their personal-cultural “Pandora’s Box.”

3. Exploring the Double-Edged, Chinese Concept of “Crisis.” Back in the 1980s, teaching “Crisis Intervention,” I would share with Tulane University Social Work graduate students how the Chinese wisely depict “crisis” with two iconographic symbols – “danger” and “opportunity.” Back to the present, the FAPAC group brainstormed some of the perceived dangers of crisis – from profound uncertainty and anxiety to loss of control and feeling overwhelmed. In response to a participant’s observation, I quoted psychiatrist Jerome Frank’s definition of “hopelessness”: an inability to imagine a tolerable future. While not quite as easy to identify, we eventually captured the “half full” component of crisis: You are compelled to think outside your box. Breaking away from habitual coping patterns and exploring new problem solving strategies generates unexpected options, resources and alliances. And, with help, if you can fight through the initial crisis-induced fog, confusion, depression, panic or paralysis then the crisis state – by definition a time-limited challenge – will fairly quickly, usually within one day to six weeks, fuel heightened determination and focus, along with an unforeseen capacity for dealing with risk.

And crisis also fuels another driving force: As I asked the group, “What’s the first thought that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Passion’?” Here’s a hint: it’s the “s”-word, but neither the three letter (sex) or four letter (silk or soap opera) variety. Actually, if you have a good dictionary the “s’-word for passion is suffering, as in the Passion Play – the sufferings of Jesus, or more generically, the sufferings of a martyr. I recall a workshop participant’s mind-opening response to the word “passion”: Rosa Parks. Perfect! Crisis, Passion & Risk (talk about some stimulating CPR) can compel one who is truly prepared to take a stand (for Ms. Parks, fittingly enough, by remaining seated), to courageously assert integrity no matter the hostility of the environment.

The Yin-Yang Potential of Painful Memory

There’s another dynamic that captures both sides of the crisis spectrum: the intensity of a crisis state generates cracks in your psychic-emotional defenses. Painful memories and feelings begin to seep or sometimes flood into consciousness. Not only are you dealing with a scary outer world, but your turbulent inner psyche is adding to the boiling and buzzing confusion. The oft asked question: “Am I going crazy?” Likely not; you are experiencing a natural crisis byproduct. And there are two potential benefits:

a) facing and embracing these resurrected emotions helps you grieve and reexamine the pain from the past; you no longer need to employ as much energy keeping these charged, frightening or upsetting emotions at bay. The tears of grief help cleanse old wounds. As I once penned: Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion, each deserves the respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time. In mystical fashion, like Spring upon Winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal, and

b) in kindred fashion, acclaimed 20th c. British author, John Fowles noted, emotional memories are his “electric current.” He needs to be plugged into this power source for creative juices to maximally flow. So potentially, in crisis not only are you thinking out of the box but you’ve also courageously opened your Pandora’s Box. Many forget that the last so-called demon to escape from the mythological box was in fact “hope.” So in the spirit of Yin-Yang holism, embracing potent memories unleashed by crisis frees up latent energy, hope and creativity…a pretty powerful trinity for crisis opportunity.

4. Using a Risk-Taking Questionnaire for Self-Evaluation and Group Consultation. The FAPAC group was ready to put our ideas and insights to work. The evaluation-collaboration-feedback tool was the risk-taking quiz below. First, the participants were divided into small groups of three or four. (Starting small helps foster participation and openness.) After answering the questions individually, each person selected two questions reflecting areas of risk-taking strength (strong “Yes”) and two areas of vulnerability (strong “No”). Participants then shared their results, engaging in give-and-take problem solving with “strong Yes” group members helping strengthen a colleague’s identified areas of vulnerability. In closing, as each team reported back to the larger group, one critical thread emerged: not being paralyzed by failure or the fear thereof, that is, accepting, even encouraging, failure, as a vital learning component of an effective crisis management and creative risk-taking process. Despite the recognition that each person in the room was a success story, many acknowledged the underlying shame triggered by project failure or simply a dread of that lurking “Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure.”

Two failure-busing strategies were proposed:

a) try to redefine failure as less personal judgment and more transitional space between aspiration and current position; a transformational key is recognizing that old critical ghosts still walk the dark halls of your psyche and realizing that these outdated critical-cultural voices need not overrule your own expectations, time frames and standards for success; the understanding gained from trial and error helps close the gap; remember the mantra for turning FOE into friend: when it comes to failure, we are learners not losers!

b) and a second mantra: Strive high and embrace failure: set goals high, give it your best, and accept that you will often fall somewhat short; failure is simply a natural part of your modus operandi; again, falling short and lessons long remembered are the perennial stepping stones for rising and reaching anew.

The Risk-Taking Self-Assessment Quiz

[Adapted from Stacy Hunt and Mark Gorkin, “Risky Business: Learn to Climb Outside Your Comfort Zone,” Legal Assistant Today, June 2006]

To evaluate how much of a social-cognitive and performance-problem solving risk taker you are, answer the following questions. Be honest with yourself! There are no right or wrong answers. Try to answer “Yes” or “No”; for some questions you may decide both answers apply, depending on the situation or context. If so, consider assigning a percentage, e.g., 70% Y and 30% N. This quiz provides the opportunity to explore your personal feelings and beliefs and gain some insight into areas of strength and vulnerability when in or out of a social, emotional and learning comfort zone.

1. Do you associate failure more with learning opportunity instead of with feelings of shame, guilt, inadequacy or being a “loser?”

2. Do you tend to consider things from different (even conflicting) sides and see shades of gray rather than as all or none, black or white?

3. Can you usually work effectively on a problem and reach closure despite feeling anxious or knowing your end-product may be less than perfect?

4. In general, are you relatively comfortable with uncertainty or ambiguity?

5. Can you question or disagree with authority or convention, privately as well as in a public setting?

6. When you are wrong, can you publicly acknowledge an error or mistake, even laugh at your flaws and foibles, instead of attempting to cover them up?

7. Under time or performance pressure do you tend to become more productively focused rather than scattered, inert or impulsive?

8. Are you a self-motivator rather than needing to be motivated by other people, structured goals/rewards, etc?

9. During times of meaningful change, do you feel positively excited and curious rather than feeling anxiously out of control?

10. In general, do you like to explore new paths or procedures instead of following well-practiced or trusted paths or procedures?

11. Are you able to often see or redefine a problem as an opportunity; do you tend to make lemonade from lemons?

12. When it comes to problem-solving do you tend to balance analysis and logic with emotion and intuition?

13. Can you make decisions in a timely manner (or without excessive delay) even when being wrong or making a mistake is a possibility?

If you answered, “yes” to a majority of the above questions, you tend to feel comfortable with uncertainty, performance anxiety, change, i.e., taking risk. If you answered “no,” to half or more of the questions, or have two or three big “NO”s, it is likely time to start developing risk-taking characteristics and time for exploring a larger world.


A four step process has been outlined for turning a “lunch & learn” into a culturally diverse laboratory for cultivating self-responsibility, resiliency and risk-taking (the 3 “R”s; also the title of my new leadership program) during times of stress and crisis. Even with a self-described “analytical, close to the vest” cultural group, in rather short order, a climate can be nurtured that encourages open and intimate sharing, emotional reflection and supportive group engagement. The four keys:

1) Acknowledging cultural coping patterns

2) Pondering why Stress Doc programs with primarily Asian audiences have been so well received

3) Exploring the Chinese iconographic concept of “crisis” – “danger and opportunity”

4) Using a risk-taking questionnaire for self-evaluation, small group consultation and large group discussion along with supportive and informative feedback. Surely here are ideas and steps to help one and all develop those 3 “R”s and to…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, “The Stress Doc” ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff 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. He is providing “Stress and Communication, as well as Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building” programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and 13th Expeditionary Support Command, 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. Mark has also had a rotation as Military & Family Life Consultant (MFLC) at Ft. Campbell, KY. A former Stress and Violence Prevention 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 protected] or call 301-875-2567.

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