Sunday 30 September 2018

Humour and coaching

For some reason, an event from a few years ago (OK, about twenty, but don't rub it in) came back to me very vividly this morning.

It is one of those moments which I still cringe to remember.  I was coaching a very senior person, retiring from a large corporate organisation. We were talking about managing the transition from his big job to being a retired person, and the various things which he might do with his new-found spare time.

He came to our second or third meeting, and announced that he had booked on an Adult Education course.  I expected it to be about cameras and photography, as I knew this was an interest he wanted to invest more time in.  He announced its title: "Getting to know your sewing machine."  And I laughed.

To be quite honest, I can't even remember why I laughed: it was incongruous and unexpected, certainly.  And (but memory may be playing me false here) I think I thought he was cracking a joke. But what I do remember was his reaction: it was evident that I had broken rapport in a serious way, and it took a little while to recover it.

All of which set me thinking about humour in coaching (or maybe it was the other way around, and I was reflecting on that, which brought this incident back to consciousness).

A quick search on Google suggests that I should read Jude Elliman's chapter (What happens in moments of humour with my clients) in de Haan's Behind Closed Doors, so I have ordered that. But so far, none of the coaching literature that I have read has tackled the topic.

Which is odd.  For certainly in my coaching, (and judging by both individual and group supervision sessions, I think in the work of others) humour is a common feature.

I have blogged before about the benefits of laughter; but I think there are also other specific benefits of a humour perspective.

At the most fundamental level, of course, humour is a great rapport builder (when appropriately used); laughing together builds bonds and a shared humorous perspective also builds trust.

Another benefit is precisely in that word perspective. The mechanism of many jokes is a sudden and radical shift in perspective:

Two fish in a tank.  One says to the other - how do you drive this thing?

The humour is not so much in the word play, the pun on two meanings of the word tank; but on the sudden shift from the ordinary - two fish in an aquarium - to the extraordinary. The value of this in coaching, of course, is that shifting perspectives allows us to see things anew.

Another aspect of perspective is characterised by the expression good-humoured. This suggests that healthy optimism that enables people to be effective agents in their lives. Good humour in the coaching relationship can help recall that good humour in the coachee, at times when perhaps it has had to retreat.

Humour has its risks, too, of course. A clanger like the one I describe at the start of this post is one of them.  But there are others: laughing at a ridiculous situation is one thing - laughing at the people involved is something else; and just occasionally clients may try to get the coach to collude in that.  Likewise, some clients may have patterns of humour that are sarcastic, or passive aggressive: in such cases, the coach's role, in good humour, may be to name and invite discussion of such patterns - not to laugh and move on.

Self-put-downs are another interesting issue; occasional humour at one's own expense can be a great antidote to arrogance, and possibly open the door to learning and insight; but again, when they become a habitual mode of thinking, they are likely to have very adverse effects, and merit discussion.

Which brings me to my final point (at least until I read Elliman on the subject) which is that not all laughter is to do with humour. It is usually (unless faked or 'social') an emotional release; but the emotion may be embarrassment, or even distress: it is important as a coach to be sensitive to what is really going on, and to make that a topic of (always good-humoured) curiosity.

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