The Stress Doc presents a four step, “Four 'R'” communicational guide for building successful “give and take” professional relationships. The Four “R”s are dramatically illustrated in his recent encounter with an ENT surgeon.

Many of us “Boomers” grew up with an alliterative academic mantra as educational foundation, that is, the Four “R”s – Reading, Writing, Rithmetic and Religion. Let’s just say I focused more on the first two “R”s and sort of made a nominal wave at the latter. (For example, I am a self-professed Jewish Atheist; of course, my biggest fear is being accused of redundancy.) However, I continue to make up for slighting this upstanding letter. For example, I prominently share a burnout scenario caution flag in many of my Practice Safe Stress programs. It’s called “The Vital Lesson of the Four ‘R’s”: If no matter what you do or how hard you try, Results, Rewards, Recognition and Relief are not forthcoming, and you can’t say “No” or won’t “let go,” that is, you can’t step back and seek a new perspective…trouble awaits. The groundwork is being laid for apathy, callousness and despair. (And especially when overcommitted, I also extol this Stress Doc truism: Do know your limits and don’t limit your “No”s.)

Recently, I have designed a new Four “R” mantra. It’s called the Four “R”s for a PROductive – Professional, Reciprocal and Ongoing – Relationship. Let’s first examine the PRO acronym. By “Professional” I mean there are certain standards and expectations for behavior on the part of both parties. “Reciprocal” means that despite different levels of expertise or authority there is meaningful give and take; one party is not perceived to be inherently or psychologically subordinate to the other, despite differences, for example, in age, rank or professional standing. Each person has the freedom and choice to speak their minds and speak from the heart (though, naturally, it may be harder for the “junior” partner). And “Ongoing” speaks for itself: this is not a one-time encounter; the relationship has mutual significance as well as a past, present and future.

Now to those “R’s. Especially in work-related arenas, to engage others PROductively in our increasingly complex, diverse and wired world, it is necessary to navigate and negotiate emotionally charged, “T ‘n T” – Time- and Task-Driven – organizational settings and interpersonal situations. Effective engagement requires blending both “high task” (performance focus) and “high touch” (people focus). A good communicator is able to connect with his or her own needs and emotions, goals and hopes. This individual is not afraid to share personal flaws and foibles and then use such connective-collective, head and heart understanding for building a relationship bridge with the other – whether ally or antagonist.

And a PRO communicator knows the value of injecting some humor. For example, Daniel Goleman, in his ground-breaking work on Emotional Intelligence, found that the best managers used humor three times more often than their less successful counterparts. As I like to say: “People are more open to a serious message when it is gift-wrapped with humor.” So let’s see if I can walk my talk with an en-light-ening argument for PROductive engagement requiring a “Four ‘R’ Foundation”: Being Respectful, Real, Responsible and Responsive.

The Four “R”s for a PROductive Relationship

Using the online ARDictionary, let’s examine the Four “R”s:

1. Respectful. PROductive relating starts with a capacity to truly “take notice of; to regard with special attention; to regard as worthy of special consideration; hence to care for.” This conception goes beyond formality and even civility. The process of relationship building requires mutual interest and investment: in the context of being a PRO, respect means a willingness to take the time and energy to understand (or at least care about) the other’s lived experience and world view. And, certainly, one can respectfully disagree. (Of course, in the face of an all-knowing, egomaniacal, “You don’t seem to realize, I really am as important as I think I am” stress carrier, it can be a challenge remaining respectful. At these times I try to quietly recall the words of French novelist, Andre Gide: “One must allow others to be right, it consoles them for not being anything else.”) Perhaps it’s time to move to the second “R.”

2. Real. A relationship that is real is “true; genuine; not artificial, counterfeit, or facetious”; it also connotes “having substance or capable of being treated as fact,” e.g., the “real reason.” However, your position on an issue doesn’t necessarily have to stand up in a court of law to be real. Sometimes it’s a willingness to initially speak from the gut or heart, but then be committed to verify when possible or to separate fantasy from reality when desirable. For me, one defining quality of “being or keeping it real” is a willingness to express a belief or take a position that may challenge, disappoint or even anger the other person(s). Now the position taken isn’t simply defiance for defiance sake. (Though I’m a big believer of irony whereby you say one thing but obviously mean the opposite to skewer a position or person that deserves some ego-deflation, or at least needs some help in getting real. For example, the notion of FOX News being “Fair and Balanced” seems to me a wonderful example of unintended irony.) And unless you are in a relationship of great power disparity, and potential for abuse, preserving your sense of self through passive-aggressive resistance does not meet this standard of being “real.” (Civil disobedience, of course, does meet this standard.)

When PROductively “real” you are sharing something that reflects a core belief or value and/or are challenging a position that you believe threatens to undermine a climate of respect and authenticity. Ultimately, you are both affirming your own integrity and the honesty of the relationship, whether this involves one other person or the authenticity of a larger group dynamic. Trumping loyalty with reality, you refuse to be trapped in an asymmetrical “Loyalty Loop”: Those who never want you to answer back always want you to back their answer. Clearly, a “real” relationship is “not to be taken (or given) lightly.”

3. Responsible. As a PRO, being “responsible” means “likely to be called upon to answer; to be answerable.” It involves “a degree of accountability on the part of the person concerned.” You are seen to have impact upon if not be in charge of a person or situation as an “agent or cause.” You are “worthy of or requiring responsibility or trust.” Clearly there is a connection between being responsible and being professional and conscientious, especially regarding one’s exercise of decision-making powers.

Conversely, one common example of not being responsible is when a person simply blames another for a problem or for his or her compromised performance. To do this means forsaking your “Authority, Autonomy and Accountability” – what I call the “Triple ‘A’ of Personal/Professional Responsibility.” Ideally, people should be encouraged to reasonably and ethically exercise their “Authority” and be given sufficient “Autonomy” to do so. At the same time, PRO relating is synonymous with being held “Accountable” by some monitoring process for one’s decisions and actions.

In a PROductive relationship, not taking responsibility too frequently means you are accepting that another party has the power to define your competency, your identity and the problem-solving dynamics of a situation. And from such a vulnerable if not victim-like position, not surprisingly some people become defensive, too quickly seeing provocative or even mere problematic interaction as an issue of respect. I think the words of the universally admired first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, have much relevance: “No one can take away your self-respect without your active participation.” So don’t be responsible for an unhealthy power transfusion.

4. Responsive. The foundational word for responsive is “sensitive” – “being susceptible to the attitudes, feelings or circumstances of others.” For me, responsive is the counterpoint to being reactive – where sensitivity has less to do with feeling with and for the other and more to do with defending an insecure or injured self. My conception of responsive equates with a strong capacity for empathy, an ability to walk in another’s shoes, and especially a capacity for feeling those bunions. In contrast, reaction is frequently an overemotional state. And when someone is chronically reactive (think fight or flight on steroids) he or she perceives events as darkly threatening. Often other people are held in suspicion and are to be quickly attacked or avoided. Reaction has a primal if not primitive quality; responsive is a complex and compassionate blend of head and heart. When responsive you are processing both text and context, seeing both the individual trees and the bigger forest.

At the same time we must go beyond a psychological perspective. Being responsive means you are “ready or inclined to respond…to people or events; you show effort in return to a force.” You are willing to consider and act upon “suggestions and influences.” Yet, the most effective response mechanism does not necessarily involve strategic assertion or a dramatic display of knowledge or authority. Sometimes being responsive means knowing when and how to ask the right question, or when to be silent and simply touch the other’s shoulder.

Case Example

Let me share a recent exchange that captures the Four “R”s of PROductive relating. I was in the office of an ENT doctor. Recently, a tissue growth was discovered inside my ear. The diagnosis was uncertain as was the need for surgery. What was certain was the constant ringing in my ear and the significant hearing loss. The Stress Doc was definitely feeling stressed. (Fortunately I didn’t lose my sense of humor. Upon hearing about my tinnitus (ear ringing), a friend, trying to be helpful, suggested that I might want to get a white noise machine. My immediate reply: “I am the walking white noise machine!”)

Back to the examination office. Just before reviewing my CAT Scan the doctor shared some good news. The growth is outside the eardrum, making the surgery less dicey though, at this point, there’s still potential for some diminished hearing or ringing aftereffects. Not surprisingly, I had some questions, and proceeded to raise them. Perhaps I interrupted him as he was about to view my CAT Scan, for suddenly the doctor raised his hand and said, I was “coming across with too much intensity.” I was taken aback by his confrontation. To myself I wondered, “Where’s the boundary between being direct and being intense?” Clearly, I don’t want to antagonize my doctor. Keeping my cool, I finally said, “Perhaps the uncertainty this past month (we couldn’t schedule an earlier appointment) has something to do with my intensity.” I was acknowledging my behavior without apologizing directly. (Being Respectful to other and self; being Real and taking some Responsibility.) The acknowledgement seemed to free up the doctor to respond in kind: “I’m pretty intense myself. Perhaps your intensity helped bring out my intensity.” (Being Real, taking some Responsibility and being Responsive.)

We had no trouble communicating the rest of the appointment. The doctor wanted me to get a second opinion with a more experienced colleague. Before leaving, I told the doctor that I valued our previous “open” exchange. He then said, “I’m here as your partner and advocate.” (And he even responded within twenty-four hours to a subsequent email.) We both ended up being PROs. (Being mutually Respectful, Real, Responsible and Responsive.)


Hopefully, with the concepts and case example you now have a Four “R” template for building Professional, Reciprocal and Ongoing relations. Be Respectful, Real, Responsible and Responsive both personally and with others and you will be a PROductive communicator. And you’ll also be on a four step path for helping one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Author's Bio: 

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, Ft. Hood, Texas. 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" -- -- 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 or call 301-875-2567.