Taking humour seriously in business coaching

Humour can be a surprisingly powerful intervention and source of learning within a strong business coaching relationship. It rarely however, seems to be given much air time on coaching courses. Perhaps, a little more time is spent discussing it in business coaching supervision meetings. However, humour still seems be an aspect of an executive coach’s repertoire that remains underestimated and largely unexplored.

Why is this case? Ironically, humour in coaching is often not taken that seriously!

Taking the time to consider how as an executive coach, you use humour can pay tremendous dividends. Here, I am not talking about telling jokes, inventing amusing stories to entertain or impress clients. It is not about trying to be funny or deliberately engineering humour into a session. This would be to place the coach inappropriately at centre stage of the meeting.

I am interested as an executive coach myself, and as a trainer on business coaching courses, in the way in which humour, can arise in the session quite naturally. It need never to be forced, as it emerges when the conditions are conducive, and mutual trust is present.

Wikipedia defines it as:

“Humour (or humor in American English) is the tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement. The term derives from the humoral medicine of the ancient Greeks, which taught that the balance of fluids in the human body, known as humours (Latin: humor, “body fluid”), controlled human health and emotion.”

What is it that positive, spontaneous humour provides in a business coaching session?

Humour builds relationships and shared experiences

When applied spontaneously, yet carefully, humour builds rapport and creativity in the coaching relationship. It contributes to people’s feelings of well-being. It can connect us with others, foster belonging, security and shared participation When humour and some laughter are present in a business coaching session, this sense of connection is often mirrored.

As long as it is not overdone, amusing stories and funny anecdotes can become a way of recalling the participative experience in the coaching sessions. Remembering comic metaphors or referring to examples that made you both laugh, can support the building of a shared history within a trusting, confidential coaching relationship

It is a marker of strong bonds and an indicator of people getting along well. Humour and empathy play a vital role in aspects of social intelligence. It can lubricate social encounters, relaxing people and creating a mood of optimism.
You can read more about this in Daniel Goleman’s book ‘Social Intelligence’ The new science of relationships.

Humour’s light touch, paradoxically means that deeper issues have space to emerge. Where positive humour is present in the coaching relationship, it is usually a sign that there is sufficient rapport between the two individuals for coaching issues to be aired more openly. The climate creates safety and this increases the receptivity to new possibilities.

Exploring tricky relational dynamics honestly can be a challenge. Humour can support exploring the topic differently. It can shake up reactions and thinking. Perception then changes. It can draw clients away from taking things too personally. Humour then plays an important part in dislodging self-positioning and self-blame.

It can create new agency about the role that your client is choosing to play in the wider system. A wry angle on it and being able to gently laugh about themselves and the situation, can change how the client then decides to interact with others beyond the business coaching session. This shift often then produces different, healthier relationship outcomes.

Humour can lighten the load

A sense of humour lifts the mood and raises energy levels. It can help clients to change their attitudes. It is a way of challenging client’s thinking without being overly confrontational. It can breakthrough stuckness and open up a new thought or emotional connections.

Martin Seligman, the founder of the ‘positive psychology’ movement, identifies humour as one of the core strengths that characterise people with a ‘healthy’ optimism. So having a sense of humour is an element of resilience and of keeping going when under pressure. It can lift people out of overwhelming busyness – enabling them to find new, more manageable next steps and ways of moving forwards.

The healing power of humour

When a client has shared something that is difficult or potentially shaming, some soft laughter about the situation or themselves is often a sign of relief. It can restore emotional balance and establish a new equilibrium. It can sooth the situation and welcome in the healing process.

Humour can pour oil on troubled waters, break the tension and reduce conflict. It can usher in some new resiliency and resolve for the client.

The Freudian slip

Sometimes, the Freudian slip contains an unconscious leakage about the client’s thought processes. It provides an interesting way in which a coach can move towards some potentially rich learning. Reflecting on what the client has just said, can open up a discussion about a deeper underlying theme.

Picking the theme up – lightly and being curious about it – together (rather than insisting it is a burning ‘truth’ to be exposed!) can unearth hidden factors that would have otherwise remained out of awareness for the client.

Humour surprises us producing new insight

At a seminar that Professor Paul Brown was leading that I attended, he explained his interest in ‘brain plasticity’. This refers to the ways in which humans can learn, building on the earlier work on the three ‘types’ of brain we all possess: the reptilian brain (or brainstem), the mammalian brain (the limbic system) and cognitive brain (the neo-Cortex). Our emotions are mediated through our limbic system and our amygdala.

Social interaction is governed at a basic level by what he calls ‘limbic resonance’, we encounter people and our reactions to them are governed physiologically by the non-verbal clues we each display.

Paul Brown argues that there are eight basic emotions (Fear, Anger Disgust, Shame, Sadness, Surprise, Trust, Excitement). Of these, five (Fear, Anger, Disgust, Shame and Sadness) are the emotions of survival, governing threat avoidance and defensiveness, two (Trust and Excitement) are the emotions of engagement, and one (Surprise) is the emotion that can be a bridge to the two other clusters of emotion.

The link with humour is powerful; humour often has an element of ‘discontinuity’ that evokes surprise along with other potential types of encounters, such as, challenge, newly felt bodily sensations and lateral, creative thinking.

When positive humour or ironic humour (in the context of a trusting business coaching relationship) emerges, it can cause a reaction of incongruence or surprise. It may, therefore, create a possibility for change by evoking what Paul Brown calls the ‘potentiating emotion of surprise’.

He suggests that this is one of the key ways in which learning can take place. When humour emerges well in the coaching relationship, we are co-creating the ‘limbic resonance’ and the physiological conditions to potentially, find new ways of seeing the world. This is the fertile land where insight seems to grow.

If you would like to read more Paul Brown and Virginia Brown have written a highly accessible book, ‘Neuropsychology for Coaches’ Understanding the basics.

When is humour unhelpful in business coaching?

Humour does also have a dark side. If it is inappropriately or clumsily applied by the coach or the client, it can cause a rupture to any coaching relationship. It can be hurtful and undermine both parties.

Smoke and mirrors humour

Deflective humour in coaching often crops up. It can become a clever form of smoke and mirrors!

It is used to avoid or distract attention away from the issues by either the coach or the client. It can support denial and steers away from the deeper work that needs to be focused upon.

For those who exercise adept humour deflective skills, they can almost seamlessly move away from off the issue with a joke or a funny story. This means that the uncomfortable emotions are avoided, or the problem remains unaired, or the real issue stays hidden.

If the coach is not sharply aware that this is going on and does not pick it up, they may inadvertently collude with the client in the session. Part of the skill of a coach is to spot when deflective techniques that are being used the session and to raise awareness of what is happening.

Sarcasm can fuel power dynamics

Sarcasm can also leak into a session, particularly if the coach or the client are not fully aware of how they use this particular brand of humour.

It may masquerade as a challenging intervention by the coach or as a pointed, smart remark by the client. The effect is how it lands, and it can be interpreted as a real put-down. This then fuels power struggles and the business coaching relationship becomes out of kilter quickly.

The sarcastic blow can be delivered by either the coach or the client. It may evoke defensive reactions or spin one or other of those involved, into projecting all sorts of intentions onto the other. It can plant the seeds of transference and counter transference. Traces of old relationships flood in, muddying the waters of the sessions.

Gallows humour

Black or Gallows humour names what is happening in a very different way.

According to Wikipedia:

“Black comedy or dark comedy is a comic style that makes light of subjects that are generally considered serious or taboo.”

On the one hand, it triggers insight and new learning because it draws attention in the coaching to what is not being said. Black humour can therefore help with resilience and release tension, in very difficult or extreme situations.

Gallows humour provokes laughter rather than tears – the two sides of the same emotional coin. Black humour paradoxically makes light of the dark. When the coin is flipped, the tension is released and trapped emotions can be expressed more easily.

In this respect, it has potential on occasions, when used with wisdom, to be applied well in a coaching session.

On the other hand, however, it is a spikey humour that uses incongruence, timing and taboo subjects. Its application requires skill, sensitivity and care by the coach.

This type of humour has a unique, ironic spin or an amusing, shocking twist to the story, it is a risky stance to take for a coach. It can cause offence or hurt your client’s feeling should they take it the wrong way.

Unless you know your client well and are sure they will respond constructively to this type of humour, it is best to err on the side of caution and refrain from using it.

Your humour habits

There are a set of flexible and responsive ways of using humour that you can call upon in service of our clients. The ability to use humour well depends upon your own awareness of how you use humour in your daily life, not just in your coaching sessions.

It is about understanding how your humour habits have formed and how they play out now at this time in your life.

Without prior thought or attention, it is likely that you will use the same habits unconsciously in your coaching sessions that you use in everyday life. Exploring this topic can raise your awareness and enhance how your ability to apply humour effectively. Your understanding will offer you the opportunity to adjust old humour habits and perhaps, try out some potential new approaches.

Here are some questions, designed to kick start your own reflections about the application of humour in your business coaching sessions with clients:

  • When does humour emerge?
  • What form does it tend to take?
  • When does humour support the client and why?
  • When is it unhelpful?
  • Are there certain clients that you use humour with more than others?
  • What lies behind this?
  • Are there ‘no-go’ issues or certain emotions that you avoid through deflective humour?
  • When was the last time you laughed heartily with your client?
  • What provoked it and what was the effect?
  • How do your clients use humour?
  • How culturally aware and sensitive are you to your client when using humour?
  • What can you learn from how your clients talks about organisational humour?
  • In what form is it present or lacking in their system?
  • Are there in-jokes, humorous nicknames or quirky stories that are part of that culture?
  • What is your personal development ‘edge’ as an executive coach in relation to humour?

Taking it further

If you are interested in reading more about humour by Jude Elliman, you can read her chapter ‘What happens in moments of humour with my clients?’ in ‘Behind Closed Doors’. The chapter is part of a thought leadership book for executive coaches.

This is what Nancy Kline, author of ‘Time to Think’ Listening to ignite the human mind.
says about Jude’s chapter on humour.

“Until reading Jude’s chapter I had assumed that analysing humour inevitably desiccates it. Henri Bergson’s essay on laughter had years ago moulded that assumption for me. But Jude has given the world a remarkable piece. Woven with her own grounded lightness, and gracefully academically supported, her chapter takes apart the moments of humour in her coaching in such a way that we sit with her, wonder with her, and see as dispassionately as she does when and why her humour works, and when and why it doesn’t.

Two important general points linger. Both are paradoxes. One is that humour can create safety for progress on deep issues. The other is that for coaching to be regarded as a serious profession, it must recognise the transformative power of humour.

And in my own work I see time and time again that ‘after laughter, thinking improves.

Thank you, Jude.”
Nancy Kline

If you would like to discuss humour in your coaching practice, then please do get in touch. Contact Jude Elliman to book a supervision session.