Is humour an appropriate way to interrupt someone’s emotional state?

I have recently completed an NLP practitioner training course and have sent some wonderful new people off into the world. A question about humour in sessions came up during the training and we didn’t get to explore in the level of detail that I would have liked. I’m going to share that conversation with you instead.

Humour is helpful for lightening life up a little bit. Life is tricky for many people and if we can have a smile on our faces and a spring in our steps or a little bit more fun in day-to-day situations, then that can’t be a bad thing.

When, how and why should you be funny? If you are a practitioner of some kind or a therapist, you might be a little shy of bringing humour into your sessions. Some of you may be leaders and managers and could be a little anxious about using humour with your colleagues so the context you are in is going to dictate when and if humour is appropriate for that environment.

For example, as a therapist, you might think that humour is not something that should be brought into your sessions, but I would politely disagree with you. When we are dealing with people’s problems particularly longstanding issues that have a lot of emotional charge behind them, we can use humour to create a better perspective on that problem and to shrink it. We can helpfully distort the problem so that they don’t see it as being as big and scary as it was, and it can now look sillier and funnier.

I was speaking to a client this morning and mentioned this to him and said he’d been through lots of other therapists before coming to see me. I said to him “Don’t think that just because we’re doing this that it needs to be painful. You’ve caused enough pain to yourself already, why would you put yourself through more pain unnecessarily? If we can solve your problem whilst having as much fun as possible would that be okay?”

What do you think he said to that?

Of course, people want to have more fun and more smiles on their faces whenever they can. As adults, we do not do enough smiling, but context is going to be important. If, for example, my client was telling me about something deeply traumatic and they needed to get something off their chest, at that point my role is to listen and not to be disrespectful by making their ‘thing’ funny if that’s not what they’re ready for. Therefore, context is so incredibly important.

If you’re a leader or a manager, there are probably a huge number of times where bringing humour into the workplace is not a good idea and again it’s going to come down to context. If you have a great relationship with your staff, they may appreciate that can stop you from seeming intimidating and maybe they can perceive you as slightly more approachable.

If a member of staff comes to you because they are anxious about something, humour might not be appropriate. Then again, humour may be perfect for that moment because it may change their state positively and get them focused.

How do we tell the difference?

When do we know that the context is right for humour? Firstly, you must have an all-important ingredient called rapport. You need to have a good rapport with the people that are around you. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve known them for ages, that’s not necessarily what rapport is about. You could have known someone forever and still have a bad rapport with them. Equally, you could have just met someone for a few minutes and have a great rapport with them. Sometimes we click in that moment with someone. You could have had rapport with someone yesterday and then not today. Rapport is always shifting, evolving, and changing so how do you know when you’ve got it versus when you haven’t? (See part 2!)

If you are in the right context for being humorous and you have rapport, then proceed but proceed to do so with caution.


By Gemma Bailey