Using Humor in the Counseling Relationship©

By Steven M. Sultanoff, Ph.D.

Orginally published in
Laugh It Up, Publication of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor, May/June, 1992, p. 1.

The goal of counseling is to help clients feel better and act differently. All models of counseling attempt to reach this goal by creating interventions that focus on one of four areas. Each model intervenes on feelings, behaviors, thinking, and/or biochemistry. Humor can effect changes in all four areas and therefore, a counselor who learns effective uses of humor increases the potency of the counseling.

Humor as a Therapeutic Intervention

To use humor effectively in counseling requires that the counselor 1. have planned humor in his/her repertoire, 2. be willing to risk using the humor, 3. have assessed the client's level of humor and his/her ability to accept humorous interventions, 4. be prepared to respond to the client's reaction to the humor, 5. be capable of taking him/her self lightly and his/her work seriously, and 6. use humor which is genuine and congruent with who the counselor is as a person. As with all therapeutic interventions the counselor must ask him/her self, "How will this humor help my client?" The counselor must avoid gratifying his/her own need to be humorous and focus on how humor will be helpful to the client.

Planned Spontaneity

Many therapists are under the mistaken notion that humor cannot be developed or planned for application in the therapeutic relationship. Their argument is that to be effective humor must be spontaneous. Their vision and understanding of humor is shortsighted. Humor indeed must be spontaneous, however, equally it must be planned. The process is called planned spontaneity.

Effective therapeutic interventions are planned in that the counselor is trained to offer facilitative responses to the client. At any moment during treatment the counselor selects a particular response based on his/her knowledge of the client and what interventions might be effective with a particular client. The same concept applies to the use of therapeutic humor. The counselor, to be effective, must be prepared with "humor tools" such as cartoons, anecdotes, jokes, puns, signs, props, etc. which illustrate a wide range of psychological issues. However, the way in which these tools are utilized to intervene therapeutically with a particular client is based on the counselor's understanding of the client and the timing of the intervention. The humor is planned in that it is part of the counselor's repertoire of skills and like all interventions is used spontaneously to be most effective with the client.

In my practice I keep copies of numerous cartoons as well as props such as juggling balls available in my office. If I have a cartoon that speaks to a particular issue, I will present it to the client as a form of communication. "Ziggy," "Cathy," and "Peanuts" cartoons are filled with messages that might be appropriate to a particular client at a particular time. For clients who seem to take on too many of the world's woes, I often share a Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown, Sally, and Snoopy are inside the house looking out at a driving rain storm. As they look out into the night's darkness Charlie Brown and Sally are sharing how difficult it must be for all the animals out in the storm including the birds, deer, rabbits, and even the little bugs. Snoopy goes off and returns moments later in his slicker and with a flashlight and Charlie Brown says to him, "No, I don't think we can rescue all of them."

By sharing this cartoon many co-dependent clients gain perspective on their own rescuing behavior. They learn to laugh at themselves while placing perspective on the situation.

Juggling balls are a prop I use to illustrate a point. When a client is discussing the many problems he/she is 'juggling,' I may pull out the balls and show how it is easy to juggle one ball (e.g. a new relationship). However, when there are two balls (e.g. the relationship plus a new job) it becomes more difficult. If we increase to three balls (new relationship, new job, and buying a home) the task is much more difficult. As we add more balls we find that the balls exceed our capacity to juggle.

Even the process of humorous exaggeration can be planned although the content of what exactly is exaggerated is spontaneous and evolves out of the client's presentation.

The Risk of Using Humor

Using humor in any situation involves the risk of the humorous individual being rejected. The risk of humor in counseling is a greater one in that the concern is not with the counselor being rejected for using the humor, but for the client to be potentially harmed by receiving the humor. Humor must be in the client's interest and not for the counselor. By using humor the counselor risks alienating the client, being perceived as not taking the client's predicaments seriously, being perceived as less competent and therefore less capable of helping, etc. Effective use of humor requires that the counselor assess the client's ability to relate to humorous interventions.

Assessing the Client's Ability to Therapeutically Accept Humor

In order for the counselor to attain an acceptable level of risk for using humor he/she must assess the client's ability to relate to humor. Assessing another's readiness to accept humor is not an easy task. However, there are several guidelines which can help. First, clients can be asked directly what they find humorous. As they share their humor the counselor can observe how animated and energized they become. The greater the energy the more in touch with humor. Also, by knowing what humor the client enjoys indicates the type of humor which will be best received by the client. For example, a client who tells jokes may relate to jokes, anecdotes, and stories by the counselor, while a client who enjoys cartoons may be more receptive to Peanuts, Cathy, For Better or Worse, etc.

Second, clients who in their presentation laugh at themselves and situations are more open to humor interventions than clients who do not laugh. The depth to which a client can laugh will be directly related to the depth of humor the counselor can use therapeutically.

Finally, to test a client's level of humor the counselor may relate a funny story, joke, cartoon, etc. that does not directly relate to the client and observe how the client responds to the humor.

Responding to the Client's Reaction

As with all interventions in counseling it is critical for the counselor to respond to the client's reaction to the intervention. This is especially true of using humor. When the counselor uses humor he/she takes a risk. The humor used is far less important than the reaction to the humor. In addition to the client's reaction, the counselor's ability to understand the reaction and reconnect with the client is crucial. If the client integrates the humor and seems to react favorably then the counselor has learned an effective intervention. If the client reacts negatively, then it is imperative that the counselor repair the "damage" by understanding the client's reaction to the humor. The counselor must take himself lightly by not becoming overwhelmed by a negative client reaction and take the work seriously as illustrated by effectively responding to the client's negative reaction.

Taking Yourself Lightly and Your Work Seriously

It is essential for the effective counselor to be serious about the therapeutic process while at the same time being able to take him/her self lightly. Too often counselors become wrapped up in their need to "perform" effectively and when attacked by the client become defensive and therefore, ineffective. Counselors who take themselves lightly are able to unhook from their own defensive reactions, accept their therapeutic blunders, and remain focused on the client.

Being Genuine and Congruent

Effective counselors are genuine and congruent. This means that they act and respond in a sincere and honest manner. In using humor, genuine counselors laugh when they experience something as funny and do not force laughter that is insincere. They do not attempt to be humorous by sharing humor which they themselves do not experience as humorous.

Humor through the development of planned spontaneity, with an understanding of the client's ability to integrate therapeutic humor, and with the counselor's ability to be genuine and take him/her self lightly can be an effective intervention tool for the skilled counselor. Humor can be employed to directly intervene to assist clients to change how they feel, how they act, how they think, and even how their biochemistry responds. As with all therapeutic interventions the counselor must begin with asking how will this humor be of value to then client and the therapeutic process.

copyright, 1992

Humor Matters™

Steven M. Sultanoff, Ph.D.
Mirthologist and Clinical Psychologist
3972 Barranca Pkwy. Suite J-221
Irvine, CA 92606