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Yes, and … improv can be therapeutic

By Lindsey Phillips September 7, 2021

Two of the main rules of improv are that you must agree with the other person and add to the conversation. One of the most commonly used improv games “Yes, and …” illustrates these principles. 

Two people face each other. One person starts by voicing a single statement. The other person accepts this idea and builds on it by responding, “Yes, and …” For example, if someone says, “The lake is full of alligators,” the other person could respond, “Yes, and one of them is swimming toward us.” 

“In a lot of ways, improv is like a therapist,” says Andrea Baum, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Texas. “It’s giving that unconditional positive regard but also reflecting, tracking, and conveying empathy and understanding.” 

Baum discovered improv when she started looking for more playful counseling modalities. She decided that to enhance her role-playing, which she was using with clients, and to help herself focus more on being in the moment, she would take an improv theater class. In the process of having fun, she also observed several parallels with counseling. 

“I noticed that what I was trying to teach my clients to do, improv was organically doing,” she says. “Things like keeping them in the present moment, accepting themselves, finding their voice, expressing their authentic selves [and] connecting with other people. There were so many risks people were taking because they felt safe in [the improv] environment.”

Later, she learned about how improv could help caregivers better communicate with their loved ones, and this hit home for her. When Baum was 15, her father suffered a brain injury, which led to early onset dementia. Improv now served another purpose for Baum: “I started using these techniques that I had learned in improv with my dad, and our entire relationship just completely changed for the better. It was life-changing.”

Her experience with improv inspired her to partner with an improv educator and open Stomping Ground Comedy Theater in Dallas. She serves as the director of Improv for Life, a series of therapeutic improv classes and workshops that she designed for several populations with unique needs. 

Building connections 

In preparing to transition his counseling practice online a couple of years ago, Gordon Smith, a licensed clinical mental health counselor with a virtual private practice based in Asheville, North Carolina, began researching ways to build intimacy more effectively and efficiently in online spaces. His search led to him taking improv classes at the comedy club Second City. After participating in four online sessions, Smith was hooked. Immediately thereafter, he signed up for an improv group for counselors at the Improv Therapy Group, an organization that provides improvisation training with the goal of improving mental health. 

“I was immediately struck by how this modality allowed for practically instantaneous levels of trust, intimacy, risk-taking and laughter among total strangers,” Smith says. “I realized that I’d found what I was hunting for and was also having a really good time cutting up with a bunch of therapists.” 

Smith, who now serves on the Improv Therapy Group’s advisory board, has created improv groups tailored to working with gifted adolescents, adults and families. In a recent improv group, many of the participants reported that they felt mirrored and seen in the group in a way they didn’t often experience in their daily lives as neurodiverse individuals.   

Improv can also help disrupt toxic patterns in relationships, Smith says. He once worked with a family whose members all felt unheard and unseen by one another. The dynamic was so toxic that the family constantly argued in session, Smith recalls. While counselors can try to engage family members in therapeutic activities during therapy sessions, these activities may elicit only eye rolls or hurtful comments when the relationship is so badly damaged, Smith observes. He finds that the spontaneity of improv activities often interrupts these toxic patterns and opens the possibility of the relationship looking different. 

“All it takes is that first moment of spontaneity where something new happens and toxic patterns are disrupted, if only for a moment, which is what we’re going for in family therapy,” Smith says. Family members can explore how their relationship might look different by breaking out of an assumed role such as “mean mom,” for example. The mom can instead pretend to be “fun mom” for a few moments. Improv allows clients to play with the family narrative and “break” it in fun, nonthreatening ways, Smith explains.

Baum points out that mirroring is a great way to teach empathy and for people to connect with others. One of the first games she uses, especially when working with caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s disease, is having group members introduce themselves by saying their name and doing a silly gesture that expresses themselves in some way. The rest of the group then repeats this gesture three times before moving on to the next person.

When introducing improv games to clients, clinicians need to provide sufficient detail for how to play and show examples from across the spectrum. With the gesturing game, a counselor could exhibit both a small way to gesture, such as barely raising one’s hand, and a big way, such as jumping up and down and waving. 

“It seems like a simple icebreaker, but really we’re giving people the experience of being silly, being themselves, and then everybody accepting and supporting that by mirroring them,” Baum says. “There’s so much that benefits us when we mirror one another. We naturally mirror people when we’re connected to them. It helps us to listen and stay in the moment … and it’s a type of empathy … [to] really listen and repeat what you’re hearing.” 

Caregivers can also apply this skill in their own work, Baum says. They can mirror the ones they are caring for, matching their tone and volume of voice and what they are doing nonverbally. “That can help you connect and create mutual trust quickly,” Baum explains.  

Improv can also be a fun way to end a difficult processing session, says J. Claire Gregory, an American Counseling Association member who is an LPC and a licensed chemical dependency counselor in Texas. She presented on how improv can foster connection with clients and counseling students at ACA’s Virtual Conference Experience this past spring. 

One game she sometimes uses at the end of a process group is “Place, Hobby and Reason to Leave.” The game involves two people acting out a scene. One of the two leaves the room, while the others in the group determine a place (e.g., Texas), hobby (e.g., ballet) and reason to leave (e.g., stinging bees). The first individual returns to the room, and the second person acts out the place, hobby and reason to leave using only gestures and gibberish. The point of the exercise is to get the clients laughing and end the group on a fun note, Gregory says.   

Incorporating improv into counseling 

Comedic improv itself can be beneficial because it teaches communication, connection and acceptance in a supportive environment. So, counselors could recommend that clients who are struggling with social anxiety, confidence issues, self-esteem or relationship issues take a general improv class, Baum says. 

Therapeutic improv, however, differs in two ways: 1) It tailors the improv games to address a specific mental health need or population, and 2) it allows participants to process and apply the skills they learn in the games to their own lives. 

Alison Sheesley, an LPC and play therapist with a private practice in Denver, uses improv to create experiential activities that help group members learn skills needed to overcome some of the mental health issues confronting them. Although general improv classes are about being present, listening, being receptive, building connection and having fun, they are not as focused on helping participants connect what they do in class with their own personal lives, she explains. That’s one of the biggest differences between general improv and therapeutic improv. Sheesley’s focus is never on having clients be funny. She uses improv as a method for imparting life skills, but the humor often still happens intrinsically.

At Stomping Ground Comedy Theater, Baum has created therapeutic improv programs focused on anxiety, autism, caregivers, dementia/Alzheimer’s, kids and anxiety, health care professionals and physicians, and stress management. When working with an improv therapy group, Baum selects or adapts improv games based on the needs of the group population. 

One game she often uses for clients with social anxiety is to have them create a character — either someone they know or have made up — and imagine that character’s most distorted thought about themselves or the world. For instance, maybe the thought is “I’m stupid.” The person then acts out a scene with another person in the group who is also thinking their character’s most distorted thought. For example, the person whose character thinks they’re “stupid” may order a cup of coffee at Starbucks from the other person’s character, who is thinking, “The world is out to get me.” The first person may act nervous while ordering and stumble over their words, while the other person eyes them suspiciously.  

After acting this scene, Baum teaches the group how thoughts, emotions and behavior influence each other. They also learn to reframe thoughts using cognitive behavior theory. Baum asks the group how the characters could change their thoughts to neutral ones. They aren’t allowed to create a new thought, she explains. Instead, they must reframe the current one. The two members of the group assume these new, neutral thoughts and replay the same scene, noticing how things flow differently. 

Improv games such as this one have real-world benefits, Baum says. They give clients tools to communicate so that they won’t feel so lost or self-conscious, she explains. In the process, clients learn how to express themselves or how to position their hands or eyes when they first meet someone.

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Baum has also used improv games to help people with dementia or Alzheimer’s learn how to better express their emotions. After playing the game, she briefly processes with them by asking, “How did that game make you feel? What did you learn from it? How could you use this in your life?” Her goal is to have clients come up with their own conclusions because then they are more likely to apply these lessons outside of session. 

Improv games are similar to techniques that many counselors already use, Smith observes. For example, clinicians may have clients externalize their feelings: “If your feeling could talk right now, what would it say?” That is a form of improv, he points out. This activity helps clients consider how their experience can go differently depending on subtle changes in how they think or act, he explains, which is in line with cognitive behavior theory.  

Reducing anxiety

Improv games work well with people who have anxiety, especially social anxiety, Sheesley says, because it allows them to lean into their social discomfort in a safe — and often humorous — way. Sheesley and her colleagues discussed how comedic improv therapy can treat social anxiety through group cohesiveness, play, exposure and humor in a 2016 article published in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health. 

Sheesley, an ACA member who holds a doctorate in counselor education and supervision, runs a therapeutic improv comedy group in Denver that incorporates skills from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). At the beginning of a recent group session, she explained the concept of defusion, an ACT skill that involves creating space between a client’s sense of self and their thoughts and feelings to lessen their negative impact. This skill helps empower clients to make choices that align with their life values. Sheesley then asked group participants to identify a self-critical thought that contributed to their feelings of social anxiety so they could work on defusing it. In a circle, they repeated the self-critical thought multiple times using different silly voices, which is a well-known ACT defusion technique, Sheesley notes. 

However, she had the participants take it a step further by incorporating aspects of improv. They created characters to represent this self-critical thought and acted out how these characters spoke, walked, dressed and interacted with others. After getting comfortable in these roles, group members performed improvised scenes of inviting these self-critical characters to a party. One person pretended to be the self-critical character, while another person pretended to be the “self” that is negatively affected by this character. Sheesley instructed them not to reject the character but to treat it with acceptance, kindness and empathy. If she noticed a group member was not fully in the moment or was making a T sign (a sign Sheesley taught them to use when they needed a timeout), she would pause the improvisation to allow group members to process their feelings using a feelings chart. At the end of this exercise, group members told Sheesley they were able to view their self-critical thoughts and feelings through a different, more helpful, lens.

Improv can also help reduce anxiety among gifted individuals. This population often lives
in a state of overwhelm because of all the cognitive, sensory and emotional information they are processing, which can cause them to be more guarded and less trustful of the moment, Smith says. 

“The improv space allows for the rule for the room [to be] spontaneity and presence,” he notes. “It allows [gifted individuals] to come into the present and learn more about trusting … and feeling safe in the present. … They have time to practice going with their intuitive sense … and seeing how it works out in a no-stakes way.”

Smith once worked with a 13-year-old client who, like many gifted individuals, presented with asynchronous development (uneven intellectual, physical and emotional development). The client would overthink social situations, and by the time he figured out what to say, the moment had passed. His peers judged him negatively for his awkward and delayed responses. 

When the client first came to see Smith, these rejections had caused him such anxiety that he found it difficult to even open his mouth to speak. Their first few sessions together were only 20 minutes long because it was so painful for the client to talk. “His anxiety was so high,” Smith recalls. “I could see him so bottled up and having difficulty getting words out.” 

Smith knew the client enjoyed playing games, so he asked the client if he would play a game with him. The client agreed. Smith chose the improv game “Energy Ball” because he was also working on building the client’s emotional vocabulary. The game involves passing a ball that can transform into any feeling. Smith began the game by pretending to hold a ball of despair in his hands. Then, he threw it to the client. 

At first, the client played it safe by naming emotions such as happiness or fun, Smith recalls. He would also describe a feeling when he wasn’t sure of the emotional word, and Smith would “catch” the ball and name the appropriate feeling. But after about eight or nine passes of the energy ball, the client relaxed and started talking.

After playing this and other improv games, the client started doing hourlong sessions and grew confident enough to attend summer camp, where he made several friends. 

In improv, “everything that happens is a gift to be taken … and built upon versus some sort of threat. It’s just opportunity after opportunity after gift after gift,” Smith says. “And that can be a cognitive shift: The story I’m telling of what others are expecting of me or how they’re judging me … [changes] to ‘Well, here’s what they’re giving me.’”

Creating a safe space 

Counselors also need to cultivate a safe, supportive space when using improv. Baum and Gregory recommend establishing clear guidelines at the beginning. Gregory makes it clear that inappropriate or offensive words are not allowed, and she tailors her guidelines to the population. When she runs groups for individuals dealing with addiction, for example, she asks participants to avoid referencing drugs or drug use. 

The Stomping Ground theater has an oops/ouch policy, Baum says, that encourages group members to let others know if they are uncomfortable or offended by another’s actions or words.

“With improv, you can’t prepare for all things,” acknowledges Gregory, a doctoral candidate of counselor education and supervision at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “There’s going to be times where maybe a client gets over-triggered, but that can turn into an individual session” or learning experience, she says.

Smith had his own awkward moment in which he felt he crossed a line when acting out a scene in his personal improv group. The game involved group members destroying fear with an imaginary object. Smith picked up a “lamp” and proceeded to aggressively beat the fear out of it. At the end of the scene, he worried he had been a little too violent and may have triggered another group member, so he asked the group, “Was that too much?” 

The improv teacher responded in a supportive way, Smith recalls. She acknowledged that the performance could have been triggering, and she advised him to redo the scene in slow motion, which took the threat out of it. So, the group laughed while he slowly replayed the scene. 

Smith recommends that counselors also apply the “Yes, and …” principle to situations that create discomfort in their sessions. Acknowledge what the client was doing, he says, and show them another way to approach it to ensure that others feel safe. 

The need for proper training 

To successfully incorporate improv into their practice, Baum recommends that counselors take several improv classes and get training. She also stresses the importance of partnering with a highly skilled improv instructor. 

“The person who’s leading the group has to be able to build rapport and trust really quickly and in a playful way to get the buy-in,” she says. “If a therapist tries this once for the first time [without training], it could flop very quickly.” After doing improv for seven years, Baum says she just now feels she could lead a class by herself.

It was through an improv class that Sheesley met Stephanie Jones, an experienced improv coach and therapeutic improv consultant. Sheesley decided to partner with Jones and start an improv comedy play-based therapy group for social anxiety. Jones leads the improv activities, and Sheesley operates as a group facilitator, observing the group through a therapeutic lens. 

Before Gregory started using improv techniques with her in-patient group, she spent time training and discussing the ethical implications with her clinical director. She also sought consultation with other mental health professionals, all of whom advised her to continue learning by going to improv and psychodrama workshops. 

Smith has learned a substantial amount from Improv Therapy Group’s trainings, which allow him to play improv games with other mental health professionals and reflect on how best to use them with clients. Later in training, clinicians learn to create their own games tailored for the populations with which they work, he says. 

What counselors can learn from improv

Sheesley was working in a coffee shop in New Orleans when she first learned about improv from a friend. She started going to the local comedy theater and immediately loved it. Later, when she entered a master’s in counseling program, she noticed the parallels between the two. She recalls thinking, “Improv is exactly what we’re learning in my counseling classes about being receptive and present, listening and responding in the moment.”

She believes improv has also improved her skills as a counselor because it has given her confidence in her ability to handle whatever arises in session. “I’m much more accepting and less reactive to whatever comes up because I’ve practiced that in improv,” Sheesley says.

Smith agrees that in many ways, clinicians are already using improv skills by actively listening and being present with clients. Counseling sessions unfold naturally just like an improv scene, he says. In fact, some of the things he loves about both improv and counseling are “the immediacy, intimacy, uncertainty [and] mystery of how things are going to unfold,” he says.

Smith has also benefited from improv because he now has a deeper vocabulary to explain counseling concepts. He constantly uses “Yes, and …” with clients to build on what they are saying in session. Improv also allows him to crystallize therapeutic language in a casual way. For example, he can talk about “being in the moment” through these games and not from a Gestalt, psychoanalytic perspective. 

Baum thinks improv classes have made her more perceptive. “I’m able to read people really well nonverbally and verbally and pick up on cues. My intuition has improved on what might be going on with someone,” she explains. 

Gregory often found herself in her own head in sessions. She feared saying the wrong thing, and her focus on adhering to a specific counseling theory sometimes caused her to feel less connected with the client. Improv taught her how to step aside from that strictly clinical, structured mindset, she says.

Learning to be spontaneous and in the moment has allowed her to move past her own anxieties and fears to focus more on what her clients need. Spontaneity in improv “doesn’t mean being impulsive,” she adds. “It’s about being tuned in and being authentic to yourself and to the group.” 

Improv has also taught Gregory how to “fail.” She once tried an improv activity with a group, and it completely fell apart because no one wanted to participate. She had the group sit in silence for a few moments while she collected her thoughts about how to proceed. Finally, she asked the group what had happened, and she discovered some tension existed between two group members. 

“You’re going to fail with it,” Gregory admits. “There’s going to be times where you will try [an improv game] … and [clients] are just not really into it. And that’s OK because it leads to a different conversation, which can be therapeutic in itself.”

Learning to laugh again 

Gregory, Sheesley and Baum all agree that improv is a form of play therapy for adults. “At some point when we are becoming adults, we become self-conscious, and we stop playing. We stop expressing ourselves, and we start hiding parts of ourselves,” Baum says. “Improv is helpful because it’s a type of play that adults and children can have to express themselves.”

Sheesley finds that counseling frequently revolves around theories, mainly developed by white men, that are serious and often unapproachable. This isn’t the type of therapy that she wants to cultivate with her clients. She wants to make counseling a safe, playful space. “Laughter is just as therapeutic as crying, and yet we focus so much on crying as the ultimate cathartic expression,” she observes. She argues there is room for both. 

Smith recently led an improv workshop at a Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted mini-conference. He noticed one woman who looked like she wanted to participate but kept hesitating. So, he invited her to play in the next game. She reluctantly said yes, but a few minutes after playing, she was cracking herself up. 

Later, when they were processing the game with the group, she admitted that it was the first time she had laughed since her husband died two years earlier. “And it wasn’t because we were doing grief work,” Smith points out. “We were just playing and being supportive.” 

“Part of our job is helping people become aware of their own patterns, habits, scripts and narratives. … And improv is a way to disrupt those habits and patterns in a very safe way that allows for new perspectives,” Smith asserts. “So much of our work as therapists is just trying to help clients grow and broaden their perspectives on their own lives and to see opportunity and possibility. And that’s what [improv] is.”

People often think counseling must be serious all the time. They incorrectly assume that “if it’s fun, it’s suspicious somehow; if it’s fun, it’s not ‘real’ work,” Smith says. “We need to go to those other places that are sad and scary. [Yes,] those things can happen, and we can play.”

 

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Lindsey Phillips is the senior editor for Counseling Today. Contact her at lphillips@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

No laughing matter?

By Kathleen Smith May 27, 2015

A client comes in for his first counseling session. He has a carrot sticking up his nose and a banana in his left ear.

“Help!” the client cries. “Can you tell me what’s wrong with me?”

“Simple,” the counselor says calmly. “You’re not eating properly.”

Laughter is an essential part of the human experience, so it’s no coincidence that a profession that tries to make sense of the complexity and absurdity of human nature occasionally finds itself the butt Laugh_smallof a joke or the punch line of a comic strip. In its ongoing quest to be “taken seriously,” however, the counseling profession seemingly sometimes forgets that humor can be a key component of wellness and even the therapeutic relationship.

The profession’s squeamishness with jokes arguably can be traced back to the image problem that psychotherapy has in the media, with TV show counselors often portrayed as zany bohemian personalities in offices full of waterfalls and wind chimes. If Tracey Ullman as Ally McBeal’s karaoke-singing shrink and Lisa Kudrow on her Web Therapy comedy series have served as our ambassadors to the world, then no wonder we’re so nervous.

Despite what television portrays, it’s no secret that counseling is serious business. Clients wouldn’t come to counselors searching for solutions if their problems were just everyday troubles that could be fixed with a pat on the back or a funny movie. An equally sobering reality is counselors’ duty to avoid doing harm to clients, which is infused in the profession’s ethics code. Counselor educators spend so much time drilling the principle of nonmaleficence into the heads of graduate students that there hardly seems space left for a crash course in comedy.

But the reality is that we live in a world that sometimes borders on the absurd. And when things don’t work out exactly like they’re supposed to, we can either run for cover or we can laugh about it. “Or, as Taylor Swift might say, ‘Shake it off,’” jokes Samuel Gladding, professor of counseling at Wake Forest University and a past president of the American Counseling Association. “Humor helps us shake things off. Anxiety decreases when we realize that we’re not perfect and that we don’t have to be. Humor gives us that right to laugh. It helps us see more of our humanity and realize that the world isn’t always a somber, serious place.”

Despite sometimes being shunned, the therapeutic use of humor is not a new idea in counseling, and its lengthy history in psychology ranges from the wacky to the profound. Sigmund Freud saw humor as a means of expressing thoughts in the unconscious that had been suppressed in society. Viktor Frankl afforded the hope that humor was a means to lift the human experience above even the most horrible suffering.

Of course, no character in the annals of therapeutic humor is as unforgettable as Albert Ellis. A firm believer that taking oneself too seriously was a sign of psychopathology, Ellis took his in-your-face techniques to an unprecedented level. His infamous “rational humorous songs” were meant to illuminate the absurdities of irrational thinking, even though their bawdy lyrics might make most counseling professionals cringe today. We can no more imagine an addictions counselor leading a recovery group in a rousing chorus of “Drinking Is The Thing for Me!” (sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle”) than we can picture anyone getting away with these tactics other than, well, Ellis himself.

By its very definition, humor is a lighthearted topic, but in the past few decades, science has taught us to consider its benefits a little more sincerely. “Humor is one of the handmaidens of wellness,” says Gladding, a frequent presenter on the subject. “The endorphins kick in, the heart rate is better and our breathing is deeper. There’s an old saying that those who laugh, last.”

Science also tells us there are health benefits to laughing or smiling even when we don’t feel like it. Take, for example, a 2012 study at the University of Kansas, where psychologists Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman tested whether there is any truth to the phrase “grin and bear it.” Before completing short stress-inducing tasks, participants in the study were instructed to smile, to hold their face in a neutral expression or to hold chopsticks in their mouth to simulate a forced smile. Kraft and Pressman found that those who smiled or held chopsticks in their mouths experienced lower recovery heart rates compared with those who maintained neutral expressions. So, although it might sound odd, there seems to be some evidence that people who force themselves to smile in tough situations are healthier and probably happier.

“Before we even knew about the physical effects, Gordon Allport taught us that humor is a characteristic of healthy people,” Gladding says. “It helps with self-awareness, insight and tolerance, yet somehow we conceptualize counseling as serious and without those lighter moments.”

Although the potential benefits are obvious, using humor in counseling is often easier said than done. Sometimes it takes more than a TV show or a New Yorker cartoon for humor to jump-start these effects. Thus, counselors inherit the challenge of determining whether their own funny insights can flip the switch for clients and lighten their perspective.

Terry Bordan, a professor of counseling at Long Island University and a member of ACA, recalls how she once worked with a client who blamed herself for all of her family’s problems. In the client’s mind, she was at fault for everything. So, Bordan turned to her and said, “But what about the economy?” The client seemed bewildered by this response, so Bordan replied, “Everything is your fault, and the economy is tanking. Surely you must have something to do with that.”

The client immediately began laughing, realizing the absurdity of her thinking. “Laughter is a way of celebrating and therapeutically engaging the absurdities of life,” Bordan says.

This type of humor, known as a paradoxical response, is a commonly used technique in counseling. For it to be effective, however, clinicians must first ensure that they have established good rapport with the client. Bordan notes that if a client doesn’t laugh, the intervention will backfire, leaving the person confused or disheartened.

Gladding affirms this judiciousness, noting that respect for the client should be valued above all. “But sometimes,” he says, “I’ll use it with somebody who just refuses to speak, like a teenager. I might say, ‘Wow, this is really bad because now you’re going to have to always order pizza online. You can’t call in.’ Just something like that.”

Teaching humor 

If humor could play such a potent role in the therapeutic relationship, why don’t graduate counseling programs or organizations that offer continuing education dedicate more time to addressing the topic? To begin, educators are not quite sure whether humor is a skill that can actually be taught.

“I don’t know if you can teach somebody to have a sense of humor,” Bordan says. “A counselor has to be their authentic self, and if humor isn’t part of your DNA, then you’re not going to be able to use it successfully. If there’s a spark, you can get more of a flame. But zero times a million still equals zero.”

Gladding suggests that counselor educators and supervisors can focus their energies on helping counselors become better at telling anecdotes or assembling a few jokes to use at appropriate times. But counselors should never feel pressured to be funny, he adds. “Just like some people are better athletes than others, some people are better at seeing the lighter, brighter side of life in a humorous way,” he says.

As for the graduate classroom, Bordan believes there is absolutely a place for humor. She says one of the nicest things a counseling student ever told her was that taking a class with her was like taking a class with Joan Rivers. “People take themselves too seriously, including researchers and educators. And humor is inherently not serious. So it’s almost a frivolous topic, and perhaps it’s shied away from in scholarship and in the classroom because of that,” Bordan says.

Eugene Goldin, a professor of counseling at Long Island University and co-author of an upcoming humor book with Bordan, advises that counselors must find a balance between using humor as a teaching tool and underscoring the seriousness of the work. “We don’t want to leave students with the impression that a client comes in and you start telling jokes right away,” Goldin says. “We downplay humor like we downplay self-disclosure as a counseling intervention when we’re teaching our students, because we don’t want the session to become all about them.”

As with any therapeutic technique, a host of multicultural concerns and considerations accompany the use of humor with clients. Humor is framed by culture and worldview, Goldin says, and it can do more harm than good if a client reacts with confusion or is deeply offended.

“Look at the climate right now,” Bordan adds. “What some people view as humor, others view as a call to war. You have to be so terribly careful and not become involved with something that might be viewed as irreverent.”

Research has found that when working with diverse populations, the counselor’s use of humor can help clients to perceive the counselor as their ally in the strange or potentially threatening environment of the consulting room. In a 2006 article in the Journal of Counseling & Development examining humor in counseling with African American college students, Linwood Vereen and his co-authors proposed that humor could help clients develop a sense of self-efficacy. They suggested that by allowing the counselor and client to process difficult subjects and challenges, humor could be a redemptive feature that promotes optimism and empowerment among diverse clients. They also warned, however, that a counselor’s use of humor could be insensitive and even harmful if it devalued a client’s concerns and experiences.

A double-edged sword 

Therapeutic work can also benefit when counselors choose to incorporate humor into their own lives. After all, it can be difficult to see the lighter side of life when you meet with multiple clients each day who struggle with depression or self-doubt.

“Counseling is toxic in so many ways,” Gladding says. “It’s not that we invite toxicity into our lives, but listening to clients can kind of wear you down.” He notes that he will sometimes attend a comedy act or see a funny movie just to laugh, because it helps him feel more resilient.

Gladding also acknowledges that humor can help prevent counselors from taking themselves too seriously when they make a mistake. He shares the story of how a misunderstanding turned from daunting to funny in his own practice. “Once I was working with a person of color, and she kept saying, ‘I really despise WASPs.’ I’m an Anglo-Saxon-looking guy, and I kept thinking, ‘Oh my goodness.’ What I didn’t realize was that behind the curtains, there were a number of wasps in the room. Then I [finally] realized she wasn’t talking about me at all. And I just had to laugh at myself and tell her I finally understood what she was saying.”

But there can also be a dark side to humor in the counseling room, particularly if clinicians make jokes when they feel uncomfortable or resort to sarcasm if they’re in a bad mood. Through

Former ACA President Samuel Gladding delivers a few jokes while standing on a desk during his session "Humor in Counseling: Maximizing a Therapeutic Tool" at the 2015 ACA Conference & Expo in Orlando. Photo by Bethany Bray/Counseling Today

Former ACA President Samuel Gladding delivers a few jokes while standing on a desk during his session “Humor in Counseling: Maximizing a Therapeutic Tool” at the 2015 ACA Conference & Expo in Orlando. Photo by Bethany Bray/Counseling Today

supervision and self-reflection, counselors should examine when and how they try to be funny. If they’re using sarcasm or dark or risqué humor, then it’s probably not for the betterment of their clients.

“Humor is a double-edge sword,” Gladding warns. “It can hurt or it can heal. If I’m taking inventory of the types of humor that I’m using and I’m finding that I’m putting people down or distracting from what we’re trying to accomplish, then I need to do something else. I need to ask myself whether it’s about [my] self-enhancement or the client’s self-enhancement.”

Incorporating a therapeutic use of humor into counseling practice is about taking small steps. Clinicians shouldn’t feel like they’re trying out for Saturday Night Live or altering their personalities to try to be funny. After all, the therapeutic use of self, including humor, is all about being authentic. The counselors interviewed for this article recommend the following strategies that clinicians and their clients can use to tap into humor as a wellness practice.

Assign humor homework. Gladding shares that he has assigned homework that involves laughter to his clients. “I ask them what they’d like to read or watch — maybe a favorite author or a comedian,” he says. If the client can’t think of anything, Gladding recommends funny but innocuous classic comedies featuring the Marx Brothers or the Keystone Cops.

Schedule time to be silly. Bordan says we should all — meaning counselors and clients — take time out of the day to laugh. “Just do something foolish and silly, whether it’s watching something funny on television or playing with a pet,” she says. “Or maybe just force yourself to laugh. Laughter is contagious, and we benefit when we dedicate part of our day to the practice.”

Use humor as a diagnostic tool. Assessing the role of humor in a client’s life can be an incredibly meaningful tool for counselors, Bordan advises. “Even if that client has no sense of humor, it is a diagnostic clue that can be used in assessing what is going on with [that person],” she says. If a client tends to use sarcasm or cynicism as a self-protective mechanism, then the counselor might be wise to avoid using humor as a tool with that particular client.

Use humor to change perspective. In a 2006 article co-authored with Goldin, Bordan and Gladding, Daniel Araoz recommended having clients see their life through the eyes of a cartoonist. This approach is meant not to devalue a client’s experiences but rather to increase awareness. “To uncover another level of reality in what happens around us is a special characteristic of a large part of what’s humorous and has a unique poetic quality,” Araoz wrote. “It may also be a demonstration of a very wise attitude: to see below the surface, to make the unconscious conscious.”

Mark teaching points with laughter. For counselor educators, humor can hammer down important points in the lesson. “Whenever we hear certain songs,” Gladding says, “we remember certain events that were happening in our lives at the time. When we punctuate a lesson with humor, the same process occurs. We make a mark where students can remember.”

Seek feedback. If a counselor wants to experiment with humor, it’s important to take baby steps. “Get feedback from clients and from supervisors about your own particular therapeutic use of self,” Goldin recommends. He emphasizes that counselors should never force techniques involving humor if they don’t come naturally. “The use of humor is about the client,” Bordan adds. “You’re not in a comedy club waiting for applause.”

When asked, Gladding admitted to feeling pressure to be funny when he presents on the topic of humor at professional counseling conferences. But he finds that starting off with a joke is great way to grab the attention of the audience. Here’s one he shared with me:

What did the math book say to the counseling book?

“Oh, man, I’ve got problems.”

So what did the counseling book say to the math book?

“It’s OK. I’m solution-focused.”

 

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Kathleen Smith is a licensed professional counselor and writer in Washington, D.C. Contact her at ak_smith@gwmail.gwu.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org