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Story Request, News of the Wild and Managing Critical Aggressor Article


A colleague/friend and I are thinking about ways of expanding a “psychohumor” message through various media, including training videos, new/social media outlets, TV and who knows whatever other media mutations will be spawned by the time you read this email.

[Hey, I just was informed that my words have made it to Iraq. (The announcements immediately follow and the article is pasted below.) So who knows what crazy possibilities are still lurking. Actually, some of you are aware that I have been doing “Stress, Team Building and Humor” programs — often at pre-deployment offsites, with both soldiers and spouses — for a number of army brigades these last three years.]

Here’s the first email re: the Doc in Iraq from a good friend and mentor, and the person who first brought me to Ft. Hood, Commander Larry Phelps, 15th Sustainment Brigade, now deployed in Iraq. **

So there I was…in between meetings, caught up on updating my organizer, nothing to do for 10 minutes today. I picked up the latest “Expeditionary Times”…thumbed through the paper. Page 17, full page article, a lovely Jewish man in the upper left hand corner…entitled “Managing A Critical Aggressor: Case Example 1”! Wow…aren’t you the Stress Doctor to the deployed service member now!

How did this come about? Our collaboration to get you wired in to the military was successful beyond my initial dreams!

Proud of you! You should have MAJ Raul Marquez send you a copy!


COL Larry Phelps
Commander, 15th SUS BDE
Every Day…Better!

[** That first program at Ft. Hood was for spouses; the real catalyst was a dynamic advocate, Laurie Dunlop, a volunteer/spouse active in the 1CD Rear Family Readiness Group.]

Subject: RE: E-Times (UNCLASSIFIED)
Date: 9/27/2009


So far we’ve published two of your articles in our Expeditionary Times. SSG Strain sent you the one from last week and now you have the 1st one. We are trying to have one of articles published biweekly…I think they are insightful and extremely helpful.

Col. Phelps said you were trying to get in contact with me…now you have my email. If you have any other articles you would like to share with us…send them to me and we will review and include them in our

Thank you for your support and for making us laugh while still addressing some very important issues.

Take care,


Marquez, Raul E MAJ USA 13th ESC PAO

Back to the need for stories. Toward this end, we’d love to have anecdotes, stories (shorter is better) about workplace/power struggles, embarrassing moments that especially askew to the absurd if not outright funny. Your privacy, of course, is absolutely respected, unless you would like to have your story published in my newsletter and/or blog. Of course, you will receive full credit. (Another option is to publish your story anonymously). Anyway, I will try to publish as many stories as possible.

Thanks for your help.


And here’s the essay in the Expeditionary Times put out by the 13th Expeditionary Support Command currently based in Iraq, normally stationed at Ft. Hood, TX:

Managing a Critical Aggressor: Case Example I

By Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, the “Stress Doc” ™

Let’s try a mind exercise. You’ve just given a presentation at an important meeting. As the meeting concludes you turn to a colleague (a casual acquaintance) and ask, “How did the presentation go?” And in a decidedly judgmental and unfriendly tone this colleague declares, “Frankly, you fumbled the data. Obviously, you didn’t prepare very well!”

Imagine being the presenter. How would you feel receiving such critical feedback? And what would you say or do in return? (And let’s assume that punching this guy in the nose is not a good intervention strategy.) Actually, this is the scenario I pose to attendees of my “Managing Anger and Difficult People” Program. (Also subtitled, “When Going Postal Is Not an Option.” And as a former stress and violence prevention consultant for the US Postal Service I feel entitled to my attitude.)

Let me begin this analysis by illustrating three common emotional and behavioral reactions to this “critical aggressor” exercise:

1. Feeling Rejected or Exposed. If this instance applies, you likely feel hurt and put down by the antagonist’s harsh words. Or you are surprised by the stinging critique; you believed your presentation had been at least satisfactory. Now you may feel exposed. Feelings of guilt (“I could have tried harder or done better”) or shame (“this criticism confirms my inadequacy or worthlessness”) may dominate. Now the only means available to counter the criticism is with hastily conceived self-justifying explanations or face-saving rationalizations.

2. Feeling Attacked and Becoming Aggressive. In this scenario you quickly feel defensive and reactive. You might think, “How dare this jerk be so hostile?” Or you might say, “How the hell do you know how I prepared? And what makes you such a hot shot expert (you bozo)!” And while immediately counterattacking and feeling entitled (“an eye for an eye, an ego for an ego”) your reactivity may well indicate wounded pride.

3. Feeling Fearful or Humiliated and Withdrawing. Whether lowering your eyes in defeat or turning pale in a state of shock, you now feel intimidated and helpless. Incredulous at the brazen verbal harassment, some sensitive individuals or folks with underdeveloped assertive muscles, become immobilized. A target’s suppressed rage may also add to a sense of impotence. Now you likely sit passively or withdraw ignominiously from the battlefield. (Of course, a tactical withdrawal may be a productive and purposeful step. But more on this shortly.)

Positive Limit-Setting Strategic Interventions

Having delineated three defensive reactions, it’s time to describe a constructive and strategic approach to setting limits on a harsh aggressor. Consider these basic assumptions, attitudes and actions:

1. Understanding the Difference between Reaction and Response. The aforementioned feelings, thoughts and behaviors are defensive reactions. (And “defensive” in this sense does not mean healthfully self-protective.) A target quickly feels attacked and psychically wounded; he or she is being verbally mistreated or abused by the aggressor. And whether lashing out in anger or feeling humiliated and quickly retreating, the “victim” is in reactive mode: “You’ve hurt me” or “You made me upset” or “It’s your fault” or “You caused me to strike back.”

However, there’s a strategic alternative: you can experience and process your feelings and thoughts before behaving in a knee-“jerk” manner. You can acknowledge feelings of pain, shame and anger, and then get centered. You can begin to place this person’s behavior in context: is the critic’s assessment objective (even if his manner of delivery is woefully subjective) or does he have an agenda? Or, might she be jealous?

By processing your thoughts and feelings and by assessing or, at least, questioning the aggressor’s behavior patterns and situational constraints you are now ready to transform a reaction into an assertive and effective “response.”

2. Metacommunicate. Here’s my conflict management axiom in dealing with a critical aggressor: before justifying or explaining your behavior comment upon or confront – whether tactfully or directly – the aggressor’s harassing tone and/or content. Using our mind exercise as an example, you might say: “I’m open to feedback, but I don’t appreciate being attacked.” Or, such global and unspecific comments are not useful and, frankly, I find them hostile. Can you be more specific and professional?

Along with staying centered and non-reactive, you are setting appropriate boundaries. You’ve returned the harsh critic’s verbal hand grenade (as opposed to freezing up or to hurling it back in an enraged or vengeful state).

3. Use Assertive “I” Messages. Underlying this tactfully assertive approach to defusing hostility is the recognition that assertive “I” messages, unlike blaming “You” messages, don’t add static to communication channels. “You made me” or “It’s your fault” transfers all the power to the aggressor. In reality, one-sided blaming often rationalizes an immature reaction or counterattack. In contrast, a constructive “I” message acknowledges your experience as a target: “That hurts” or “I’m angry right now.” Such a message also states what you don’t like or what you do prefer: “I don’t appreciate being attacked and I don’t listen well. I can hear and consider more specific feedback.” “I” messages help reaffirm your integrity while establishing healthy boundaries. So abstain from those reactive “You”s or risk becoming a “blameaholic.”

4. Take a Time Out. Finally, if the aggressor’s initial barrage leaves you stunned or speechless, you don’t have to stay in the ring desperately trying to summon up a counterpunch. Basically you can state, “I won’t be a party to this kind of verbal barrage (or “harassment” if encounter is more hostile than just heated). Or, if feeling centered, you can declare: “I need a time out before responding.” You also can say, “I believe we need a timeout for us to have a professional discussion.”

Remember, it’s okay if you don’t have a perfect comeback to an aggressor’s spewing. Take time to think about and sleep on the problem and a response…Then you’ll nail the jerk tomorrow! Just kidding. 😉 Seriously, taking a time out is not a sign of weakness. Basically it is a strategic retreat to help you cleanse a wound, get centered and to formulate and “I” response. Hitting the pause button affirms your integrity while setting limits and boundaries on a charged exchange.

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, “The Stress Doc” ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and “Motivational Humorist” known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the “Doc” is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits and is AOL’s “Online Psychohumorist” ™. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading “Stress, Team Building and Humor” programs for the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions and Brigades, at Ft. Hood, Texas, Ft. Carson, CO and Ft. Leonard Wood, MO. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online “HotSite” — www.stressdoc.com — called a “workplace resource” by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc’s “Practice Safe Stress” programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.

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