You cannot be serious

Yesterday I attended Carole Pemberton’s excellent coaching masterclass on resilience and, a few weeks ago, the launch of a new book curated by Liz Hall on Coaching in Times of Crisis and Transformation. On both occasions I have had fascinating conversations about the place of humour in coaching, particularly when a client is emotionally in a really difficult place.

We know about the dark humour shared by professionals who deal daily with people in trauma. A group I worked with on a leadership programme were in the front line of supporting victims of rape and sexual assault. When I respectfully asked what that was like, I was told “oh, we have a real laugh” but they implied no disrespect for the victims or their experience.

After my mother died quite suddenly, I recognised the jokes that my brothers and I shared as we cleared her house were part of the grieving process. After all, what else can you do but laugh when you discover that someone had 15 shoe-horns and a stash of plastic gifts from ancient Christmas Crackers.

It strikes me that part of resilience is over-coming the darkness of a situation, of finding some light in it. It’s a part of gaining perspective. And that is one of the things that coaches must help their clients find in all situations. It does not diminish the difficulty our clients face, but it does help the burden feel lighter. This echoes Jenny Campbell’s findings about the internal resources of resilient leaders.

Now, as Jimmy Tarbuck once said, in humour, timing is everything. Clients need their crisis or trauma to be recognised, they need to be heard. Responding with a guffaw to a heart-felt tale of woe would quickly lead to a reputation as the Frankie Boyle of the coaching world. And humour is not only antidote to darkness or negativity, it can carry some of the emotional response in being wry or wistful or acerbic. So we need to listen carefully to it, it’s not just catharsis.

As I coach, I am respectful and can be serious. I empathise with the depth of challenge that some clients experience. But like my favourite coaches, I am also playful, iconoclastic and robust. So if I am going to be fully present with my client, and help them to bring all their resources to any challenge, then that playful self also needs to turn up.

Being fully present shows that I am ok sitting with a client in crisis. That helps them find hope and move towards a mental state that is flexible and able to work with the possible. It’s the third state between rigidity and chaos that Paul Brown and Helen Leeder Barker write about in Liz Hall’s book and it’s a state which allows a focus on the future.

So, as coaches we need to hold ourselves lightly: balance our wisdom and commitment with childishness. And if someone asks what happens in coaching, talk about it as a place not only of serious endeavour and safety but also as a place of playfulness and perspective.

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