Engaging and Energizing Audiences through Purposeful Play: An Interactive Exercises Model and Method

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Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More

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

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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.

b) 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 engagement:

  • Difference and Disagreement =/= Disapproval and Disloyalty
  • 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!

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