THE INTRODUCTION OF HUMOR IN SUPERVISION AND THERAPY
-- WORK IS DEPRESSING ENOUGH WITHOUT BEING TOO SERIOUS
Supervision is a parallel process to the supervisees ongoing work with the client. The primary goal of supervision is to help the worker conduct effective and efficient therapy. The supervisor's role, then, is concerned with elegant instruction - just as he would hope for in the therapeutic encounter between the supervised therapist 1and client. This does not imply that the supervisor "therapizes" the supervisee. Rather he helps create a helping situa-tion in which ideas are presented to the supervisee in such a manner as to engender an internal search and examination of these ideas. The turning inwards in order to ascribe some meaning to the other persons communication occurs simultaneously on three levels. The first level is related to the particular therapeutic situation (what can be done). The second level is that of the supervisee's "professional self" (what can be generalized from this particular situation). The third, and most remote level is the supervisee's own personal core or self (what does this mean for me in my own personal life). |
This "internal search" is the key to any meaningful personal learning, whether the context be supervision, therapy, or any other growth oriented learning situation. The description presentation of information in such a way as to facilitate an internal search" is very close to M. Erikson's definition for therapy: "Therapy is a means of asking people to accept ideas for examination, to discover the intrinsic meanings and then to decide whether or not to act upon those particular meanings" (6).
How does one initiate this internal search? To paraphrase Watzlawick, (15) "The idea is simple, doing it is somewhat less so." One must choose a style of talking which on one hand is less than absolutely clear/rational and yet on the other hand is interesting enough to draw the listener into wanting to understand that which is not immediately clear. If the latter ingredient, a stimulus that arouses interest or curiosity is lacking, the listener may well decide not to exert the required effort and may tune out.
While there are many such styles of talking, metaphor, riddle, confrontation, etc. (14, 15, 1) this article will focus on only one, humor. Humor, for our purposes, is defined as any communication which elicits a smile or laugh. Humor, whose theoretical importance has been discussed by others (7,11,16), is far from a unitary phenomenon. In her research, Killinger (9) has identified seven highly varied humor eliciting interventions by therapists:
1. Exaggeration or simplification: over or understatement of facts, thoughts, feelings, etc.
It is important to note that smiling or laughing can not be successfully counterfeited. Any attempt to mimic, ape or emulate the real thing is almost always apparent to the observer. Therefore any use of humor receives immediate and accurate feedback. This also means that humor is one of the only types of human communication where the respondent can not successfully "lie". This later point gives greater importance to this genre of response when working with difficult/resistant or devious clients.
This author found no empirical research indicating the extent to which humor is used in therapy or supervision. This may indicate humor's marginal status in theory and practice today, though there are signs that the times are changing (7). From my own experience both as worker and as supervisor humor appears most often in group supervision . Such humor is not a tool in therapy, but in many instances a product of the group process and should be seen as used for purposes of group solidarity and tension release. It is usually negative humor and is at the expense of either the worker (poor guy) or the client ( weird ).
While humor often appears in group supervision it rarely ap-pears in themost common types of therapy. The newer, non psychodynamic approaches use it much more (7). It is my belief that until humor is used and taught in supervision as a specific, (and paradoxically) rational tool, it's use will remain a highly idiosyncratic phenomenon believed to be the product of a particular person's personality, and not a learned (therapeutic) behavior.
Before introducing humor into supervision as a rational effective tool which can be acquired through learning and practice, one must understand why therapeutic communication seems to be so universally "serious, rational, professional". My professional experience in the United States, Europe, and Israel clearly indicates a highly uniform style of serious therapeutic communication. One would assume that with so many therapists, coming from such diverse personal and theoretical backgrounds, there would be an equally wide variety of communication styles. But this does not appear to be the case. This narrowing of style clearly indicates a powerful lawfulness which influences professional behavior. Thus, as with any change oriented pro-cedure, rules of stability must be understood and taken into consideration before any actual modification is attempted.
The following are four such factors which may, to varying degrees, stabilize seriousness and inhibit the use of humor on the part of the supervisee: cultural environment; professional training; per-sonal style and the client.
The first factor, cultural environment refers to all the social learning that we have acquired, most of which we are somewhat unaware of. We become more aware when we move into another social milieu which functions under a different set of rules. A classic example is driving a car in England for the first time. Most of us learned to drive on the right side without ever thinking about it. It just simply was that way, and no other thought was given to an alternative. Suddenly we find ourselves in this new milieu and have to explicate what we know and how we know it. All of us have many such rules about behavior which we have internalized without any real awareness of the process. So it is with humor.
For instance, all of us, professionals and non-professionals alike know that "therapy is no laughing matter." Where did we learn this expression? Possibly from a culture which values the ubiquitous Protestant ethic: work is a serious business. This coupled with the strong message of, "sympathy is for people in pain," forms a compell-ing, though usually unexplored, base to build "serious therapeutic communication" upon. While these may be culturally valid rules of behavior for our society as a whole, they should not be taken from the general culture without carefully analyzing their impact on professional education in general, or the therapeutic encounter in particular.
The second inhibiting factor is the professional training of the supervisee. Most professionals have been continually taught to be very careful about making mistakes. "Professionalism", it seems, precludes the making of mistakes. In addition to this, the theory goes, our clients are so dependent on us that if something is done wrong we could destroy them. The unfortunate meta-message to this is "do nothing until you are sure it will work." The impossibility of the latter part of the message insures the former. Professional training consists, in large part, of learning a long list of don'ts which form the basis for a rigid status quo. This makes the therapist much like his client. From my experience in supervision, the status quo is the rule, even though the business of therapy is change.
The third source of inhibition is the supervisees "personal style". It is believed by many people that it is difficult to change a personality. Some things are innate, such as humor. "We are what we are." So say our students and so say our clients. Change is for the other guy. I often share this story, one of many rabbinical stories used to accentuate an important theme, with "hesitant" supervisees.
Once an eaglet fell from the nest and rolled down the hill and ended up on a chicken farm. He grew up with the chickens. He looked like a chicken and ate off the ground like his peers. As it is with chickens, they sometimes become anxious. They run and flap their wings and fly a yard or two in the air, screeching all the while. Our eaglet once did the same thing. But because he was an eagle he flew to the skies. The Rabbis say the analogy is clear. We all feel like chickens, but we are really eagles. It is the task of the helper to remind those of us who have forgotten who we really are, what we can really do.
The key word here is "remind". We do not give or create, we help bring forth what is already there. So it is with humor. I truly believe that you can not teach anyone to be humorous. You can however, remind him.
The fourth consideration in understanding why therapeutic communication is so serious is the client and his presence in the therapeutic interaction. The neophyte therapist often finds the client's inability to overcome a life crisis or multi- problem environment to be overwhelming, if not depressing. It is my own clinical experience that each new case begins with a masked struggle between therapist and client: who will depress whom? The client invariably opens, however innocently (and many times less then innocently), with failures, fears, hospitalizations, drugs, the whole works. As the therapist listens he becomes increasingly depressed, unsure of what might be done for this poor soul. The worker slowly adopts the client's demeanor, accepts his world view. This is the result of believing what's seen and said. The client talks and acts like a chicken and has all the appropriate documents (hospital discharge papers, schools reports of failures, disastrous psychological test results, medicines etc.) to prove it.
It is within this particular context of the early and most critical period of client/therapist struggle, that the use of humor is most appropriate. At this therapeutic juncture, each of the participants (therapist, client, and supervisor ) is attempt-ing to set the ground rules and ultimate goals for the therapy. Humor, if used strategically, may well be able to prevent the client from setting minimal goals, and thereby depressing the worker's high hopes.
There are many antidotes to prevent professional depression (skill, workshops, optimism, stubbornness, distance, etc.) and humor is one such tool which should be in the worker's repertoire. Supervision is the appropriate setting to acquire it, or to obtain permission to use one's own natural humor.
How can supervision help enhance the use of humor on the part of the supervisee and act as a countervailing power vis a vis factors mediating for serious professional communication? A number of specific tactics and underlying principles will be explicated and analyzed below.
Assuming a supervisor who values humor or that we are talking about a self help group of workers, it is strongly suggested one begin a new supervision with the eagle story (or your equiv-alent) as told on page 4. This story is a major tool in all ongoing supervision and serves as an symbol or code for the client's latent abilities ("remember he is an eagle") and for the supervisees fears ("you are talking like a chicken"). This kind of indirect prodding usually brings smiles all around.
I begin each session with a story, metaphor, therapeutic ploy or funny failure which is "cute". This ploy is both an ice breaker and a tone setter because most supervision focuses on the the difficult, failing, or disappointing therapy. And as many of us know, therapy is depressing enough without being too serious in supervision. The following is an example of such opening, a short non sequitur statement:
"Why are you wasting your time in the forest?", the father asked the three year old. "I am looking for God," the small boy responded. "Isn't He everywhere?" the father asked. And again, "And isn't he the same everywhere?" "He is, but I am not," responded the boy.
This is followed by a request for a case presentation for supervision. Thus time is given for the supervisees to "let it sink in." The opener will be related to only if some member chooses to discuss it. 2
One of the most common and frustrating experiences of a supervisee, especially one who has just begun to work, is that the client "does not hear" what is being said. (A colleague once provided an excellent definition of "client": any person who does hear what is being said.) In spite of this selective deafness of a therapist must continue to talk. However, he must (re)fashion his communication in a manner which will entice the client to listen on a deeper level. Then if the client finds it is necessary to argue with what he has heard, it will be an internal dialogue with himself -- and not the therapist.
An example: A supervisee was disappointed that the client felt so alone, in spite of the supervisee's help and warm caring feelings for him. I asked him to tell the client the following story:
A soul came before God and said it was willing to leave heaven and go to earth and inhabit a body only if God himself would accompany him. God agreed, but still the soul demanded more. "How will I know you are with me everywhere, all the time?" God replied, "You can look behind you, at any time, and you will see two sets of footprints. One will be yours, one mine." This satisfied the soul, who then went into the lower world to fulfill the task it was created for. His life on earth had its high points and its low ones. The soul of the person would, at random times, look back to see if, as promised God was with him, and there were two sets of prints. As promised, there were always two sets.
During one particularly difficult time, when things were at their worst, the soul looked back to make sure he was not alone. To his amazement there was only one set of prints. The soul was despondent, and deeply hurt at being abandoned. It was not long after that when the soul's earthly journey was over and he returned to heaven. At the first opportunity he confronted God with the fact that at the most difficult moment on earth, he was abandoned, there was only one set of prints.
God smiled and replied, "Yes, there was only one set of prints. I didn't abandon you though, I was carrying you on my shoulders." Did you smile? Who will learn the most from this story? Client or therapist? The supervisor or the reader of this article? On what level: a tactic for a particular client? A meta issue for all therapy? Or something about ourselves?
Another example in supervision:
A supervisee brought a new case of a young man who had been in numerous therapies before, but always had dropped out before anything could be done. How was he to relate to this obviously pertinent fact? I told him not to relate to it at all, but to tell him the following story: A woman entered the hospital to give birth. As the birth grew nearer, the contractions came more often. With each contraction, they grew in intensity. More often, and stronger. Every half hour, every 20 minutes, 10 and then five. She couldn't stand it any longer. She got out of bed, cursed the doctors, the hospital, everyone who was trying to help, and ran away. Do you think the pains went with her?
We discussed the story in supervision and came up with the following "finish" to the intervention: the supervisee was to ask the client to tell him when the contractions where getting closer together and to precede as if drop out was not an issue. If, and when, the supervisee thought it relevant, he was to ask only about contractions.
Embedded in these stories are other principles for intro-ducing humor in supervision. A major theme during all supervision is the use of positive connotation as described by Selvini- Palazzoli et. al. (14). It is my experience that without the use of this technique humor is nearly impossible. It helps the supervisees distance themselves from their "natural" (read professional) tendency to focus on the D.S.M. III (initials for Dark Side of Man) rather then B.S.M., the bright side of man.
There is, sometimes, a lack of clarity in my communication when I supervise. On such occasions it is, I am told, unclear when I talk about innate abilities, transformation, and other positive elements whether I am referring to the client or the su-pervisee. A recurring question in supervision might be, "I'm sorry I didn't hear. Are you using the D.S.M. or the B.S.M.?" These are well planned spontaneous mistakes, and serve as examples of language which promotes internal searches and dialogues. Gone is the focus on the D.S.M. and what appears to be derogatory language about the client (or supervisee). In it's place is a positively connoted therapeutic language which, in my experience as both therapist and supervisor, leads to emotional closeness and greatly enhances cooperation between therapist and client or supervisor and supervisee.
In the second example, the woman with contractions (page seven), the supervisee was given exacting instructions how to continue with the story after the initial intervention. This type of concrete supervision helps the supervisee to overcome some of the initial hesitancy (stability) about the use of humor and actually experience this type of technique. Clear instructions to the supervisee, when accompanied with strong theoretical underpinnings, encourages him to enter into a new learning process. This process begins with supervisee "doing what he is told" by a supervisor who has the therapist's best interests at heart. Then comes the phase when the supervisee asks if the supervisor "might have a story or joke" for this client or particular impasse in therapy. This stage is called, "doing because it is effective". While humor is used, it still remaining a specific technique, but not part of the persona. Then, for some, the highest order of learning comes about. This is a unification of technique and self, when humor becomes a natural way of dealing with people. Professionals might call it a change in epistemology or world view.3
You know you have reached this latter level of becoming "one" with the technique when colleagues, friends or clients say, "you obviously were born with that talent". They didn't know you when humor was either forbidden or unnatural in supervision or therapy. It is important that the supervisor continually explicate this difficult personal growth process to the naive supervisee who many times believes "either you have it or you don't".
One technique I use early on in supervision to "disprove" this naturalist explanation is to fumble through books on humor or computer printouts of special stories or jokes which are useful in supervision or therapy. This shows the supervisee that humor can be a type of knowledge or behavior which is acquired and not innate. Another technique I use for confounding the "Darwinian theory of great therapists" is the recounting of my first therapy session as a student:
"I remember it painfully. I sat watching the client's mouth move. I, at some point, would say, "I know how difficult it is for you." Or, "I want to help." All the other stuff that I had learned in two years of theoretical classes was not available to me during this frightening test of my skills. After what seemed to be hours, the client left. I ran to my supervisor to discuss and learn from my experience, but my level of anxiety being what it was, I remembered practically nothing. I was amazed, though, that the client could not hear my heart pounding........"
And now my students say I am natural.
If all these tactics and some gentle prodding do not assist the supervisee to attempt to use humor of some type in therapy, then the concept of "error" should be explored and detoxified. As stated earlier in the article professional training strongly emphasizes "do nothing until you are sure that it will work". While the idea is entirely appropriate, in reality it leads all to often to a highly restricted professional who tends to shy away from creative behavior or new experiences.
The catch phrase to watch for in supervision is, "What hap-pens if it doesn't work?" The unspoken continuation of the sentence is much more important, "and if something happens to the client?". This indicates an amusing paradox. On one hand the supervisee feels helpless and inadequate in the helping process. At the same time he feels that each word, movement or nuance may have some massive irrevocable impact on the client. It is my experience that the supervisee moves back and forth on this continuum of powerful/powerlessness. Movement along the continuum is dependent upon the relative influence of the same four factors (described earlier in this article pages 2-4) which inhibit the use of humor: cultural environment; professional training; personal style; and the client.
When the supervisor is confronted with this conundrum the following tactics are among the many possible responses:
A story you may want to tell: A Chasid once came to his Rebbe with the request - - "Teach me what path I should follow through life." The Rebbe replied: "Be seated my son, and I will tell you a story. A man was once walking through a forest and lost his way. Hour after hour he wandered among the trees, cutting his way through the dense foliage and intertwining branches, but could not discover a path which would lead him out of the wood. For three whole days he continued to search, imagining that now at least he was approaching the edge of the forest, but each time discovering that he had only penetrated even more deeply into the gloomy wood. As he wandered on, his legs weary, his back breaking, his mouth parched with thirst, a man suddenly appeared before him. Everything about the stranger showed him to be a man of the forest -- his cloths were woven from bark, his beard was wild and unkempt, his feet were bound in rags, and in one hand he held a gnarled stick.
The man who had lost his way was overjoyed at he sight. He ran towards the woodsman crying aloud: "My dear sir, you've no idea how delighted I am to have found you, how wonderful it is that we have met. Now you can show me the way out of this maze-like forest. I've been wandering through it for days, unable to discover the right path."
The woodsman gazed back at the man with a wry smile: "How long did you say you have been lost in the forest, my friend?". "Three whole days," the man cried. "For three days I've been searching for a path out of the wood, but to no avail! Please - I beg of you - show me the way out of the forest."
"You say you've been lost in this forest for three days?" asked the woodsman. "Just look at me! For ten years I've been wandering in the depths of the wood, unable to find my way out of the maze." At this, the man who had lost his way burst into tears. "When I saw you, I felt sure that I was saved, and that you would show me the way out of the wood. Now I see there is no hope."
The woodsman then said with a gentle smile: "Still, you have gained something by meeting me. For from my experience in wandering through the wood for ten years, I can at least teach you one thing of great value - I can show you which are the paths that do not lead out of the forest...."
The supervisee tends to believe or hope, as the case may be, that there is some way to prevent mistakes and to learn in some fashion that is not based on trial and error. All of us know that it is not possible, but the myth persists. The story about the (therapeutic) forest may help the supervisee come to grips with difference between theory and practice.
The following table summarizes errors or myths that prevent the supervisee/or from being creative or taking chances. The left hand column indicate factors which restrict the use of humor, while the right hand column suggests some ideas or tactics which might help overcome the initial hesitancy.
Table One: Error and Anti-error
I have tried to describe some of the factors which inhibit the use of humor and offer some ideas and practical techniques to help the professional explore additional avenues of communication with clients. All theory aside though, the best reason for using humor is that our work is really depressing enough without being too serious. So let me end with a warning. C. Whitaker (17) enjoined us, "Evolve a joint craziness with someone you are safe with. Structure a professional cuddle group so you won't abuse your mate with the garbage left over from the day's work." I might add, if we don't, we may adopt a strange quasi religious behavior: we pray for cancellations.
1. Baker, P., Using Metaphors in Psychotherapy, Brunner\Mazel,
New York, 1986
2.These activities create a teaching opportunity for an in-depth theoretical focus on indirect language and its' use in therapy. Supervisees are encouraged to read Watzlawick (16), Gordon (8), Dolan (5), Erikson (6), Fry (7), Moody (12) and others (15, 11, 10, 4, 2, 1) as well as to attend seminars in strategic therapy and hypnosis.
3.For a far richer and much more interesting description the reader/supervisor/supervisee is referred to The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi (13). In this small book the difficult learning process by which the Samurai becomes "one" with his sword is rationally explicated. Not by chance the book is subtitled: A guide to strategy.
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