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Purposeful and Playful Workshop Exercises and Strategies

Mark Gorkin, LICSW

Purposeful and Playful Workshop Exercises and Strategies: The Art of Practicing Safe Stress

At the recent Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) Annual Meeting in Nashville, I had the opportunity to lead a Practice Safe Stress program for nearly two hundred. It was the last day of the conference and the morning after the late night "Party with a Purpose." The turnout and the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response to "Managing Stress and Building Team Cooperation through Humor" says at least two things, especially in light of the tight economy and the post-September 11th climate: 1) more than ever, people are looking for tools, techniques and tips for getting a home and work life handle on stress and conflict and 2) professionals are highly receptive to "4 'C'-ing" learning forums that allow for emotional sharing, individual and group creative expression and that stimulate a sense of Confidence and Competence, team Camaraderie and Cooperation. That is, people want to be energized and synergized: to be part of a vital organizational process and product whereby the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Let me first briefly describe two interactive workshop exercises that gradually facilitated this synergistic effect. These exercises can be operationalized in a variety of settings - from a handful of team members to hundreds of conference participants. And then I will list the "how to" working principles that enable these interventions to reduce stress while facilitating high performance and team morale.

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 discuss: "How does your Brain, Body and Behavior let you know when you are under more Stress than usual?"

B. Discussion and Drawing Exercise. Building on the Three "B"s, the next logical question is: "What are the sources of stress and conflict in your everyday 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 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 them up. 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

So what makes these exercises so successful as stress reducers and builders of team synergy? Consider these seven strategic components:

1. Universality. Everyone can readily participate and share their own stress smoke signals or sources of pressure in a 24/7, anytime/anywhere and lean-and-MEAN world.

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: a) Sleeping Problems: Aren't there days when you just don't want to get out from under the covers? Still, aren't there some folks who, at 3am, know all the best buys on E-bay or the QVC Home Shopping Channel? b) Eating Issues: Do you find you eat more or excessively snack when over anxious? Then again, are you one of those folks who lose their appetite and eat less when under duress? (Of course, we hate these people. ;-) c) Clenched Muscles: Does mind-body stress contribute to neck or back strain? What about a clenched jaw or TMJ: "Too Many Jerks"…We know that one!

4. Mind-Body Healing. Getting people to laugh not only releases the body's natural pain-relieving and mood enhancing chemicals such as 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."

5. Non 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 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.

6. Open Interaction and Creative Problem-Solving. 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 non-verbally one person's suggestions will readily trigger ideas and images that embellish the group product and strengthen the team process.

7. Group Feedback and Recognition. In both exercises, groups get a chance to share their lists and drawings. In the final phase of the drawing exercise ("the fashion show part of the program") the groups 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. A few designs are chosen 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 conclusion, the above six 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 workplace pressures into synergistic processes and products. 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!