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On Becoming an Organizational Psychohumorist: The Art and Application of Healing Humor

Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc")

The Doc decides it's time for some summer reruns. And he goes with one of his favorites: How to become a psychohumorist (TM)? And the key questions still apply: especially when it comees to the Stress Doc, should "psychohumorist" be one word or two...or if one word, which has more relevance - the first or second part?

Budget cuts, reductions in resources and reimbursements, loss of patients and key personnel ... "managed scare." In today's health care climate, it's not just downsizing, it's downright "frightsizing." Which is why now, more than ever, we need to bring humor and laughter into our personal, professional and organizational lives.

Burnout Battlefront Humor

I recall a stress workshop I did with VA Hospital Head Nurses. These women were feeling stretched to the limit by demanding doctors, impatient patients and visitors, staff productivity and morale pressures, not enough supplies, difficulty communicating with the administration, etc. The tension in the room both crackled and hung heavy like an impending storm or siege. Then each nurse thunderously barked her name and work station: Johnson, W-14, Thomas, W-16, Sanders, W-20, etc. I reflexively responded: "It sounds like you're reporting from your battle stations." The spontaneous and palpable sighs and nodding heads let me know I was psychologically on target.

At the same time, these nurses knew how to circle their medicine carts against these perceived antagonists or, at least, to defuse momentarily their "combat fatigue" with some "M*A*S*H" humor. The nurses' favorite supervisory battle cry: "Do your eight and hit the gate," "Nine to five and stay alive." Hey, she who laughs last...lasts!

Transforming Humor

However, there are limitations to this kind of survival humor and the respite it provides. Such humor, based on frustration and aggression, while understandable, too easily results in an "us against them" mindset. Overt conflict or passive-aggressive behavior patterns spilling into operations and work relations is almost predictable.

From my perspective as a long (and still) standing speaker, workshop leader and consultant on reorganizational stress, anger, team communications and humor here is the challenge: to transform that individual and group aggressive energy (or apathy, helplessness, etc.) and dark or covert humor into open, supportive venting followed by creative problem-solving interaction. An organizational humor catalyst orchestrates a learning setting whereby: a) issues and ideas get raised gradually in a safe yet real manner and b) workshop participants undergo an evolution - from seriously motivated observers to thoughtful and playful, task- and emotion-oriented problem-solvers.

Transforming darkness or heaviness into lightness and enlightenment is no trivial quest. As that great humanitarian and undaunted, perceptual pioneer, Helen Keller, observed:

"The world is so full of care and sorrow that it is a gracious debt we owe to one another to discover the bright crystals of delight hidden in somber circumstances and irksome tasks."

The Path of Healing Humor

Ironically, the mental and allied health professional often working the battlefronts of "care and sorrow," along with those of rage, loss, addiction and shame, is primed for making the transition from psychotherapist to healing humorist. As the groundbreaking film director and comedic genius, Charlie Chaplin, observed: "A paradoxical thing is that in making comedy the tragic is precisely which arouses the funny...we have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of natural forces and (in order) not to go crazy." (Or, at least, not too's preference.)

So how to become a "psychohumorist?" Can you blend a touch of personal craziness, an appreciation for absurdity or contradiction, and an ability to verbally and non-verbally express your comfort with neurosis, empathy for pain and acceptance of conflict? (Of course, this capacity for acceptance is both for oneself as well as for and with others.) Throw into this psychological and communicational gumbo a sense of timing and..."voila." You now have a recipe for serious and luminous lunacy. And, as a purposefully playful catalyst, you will help folks acknowledge, explore, gently laugh at and even, at times, transcend their own fears, flaws and foibles. (The old "Ha-ha" to "Aha!" and back again trick.)

Self-recognition through laughter is vital yet, clearly, not sufficient. The fundamental goals of the organizational healing humorist - from workshop leader or conflict mediator to meeting participant or facilitator - are interactive. They involve strengthening mutual understanding, shared enjoyment and productive collaboration among diverse and often competing people, programs and departments. (Rather critical objectives in today's "do more with less" climate.)

Some Psychohumorist Techniques and Strategies

I'd like to share three successive "stress and humor" workshop interventions for quickly engaging and loosening up an audience, modeling playfulness and motivating serious fun and group creativity. These techniques will illustrate both conceptual and applied strategies (and, hopefully, a couple of good one-liners) of a psychohumorist. (I'll complete the list in Friday's column.)

1. Setting the Stage through Ebb and Flow. After a somewhat compelling and humorous opening (such as the VA Head Nurses scenario) I quickly engage an audience with questions that allow for spontaneous and individual association, e.g., "What's the first thought that comes to mind when you hear the word 'stress'?" Picking up on the group's responses, I further elaborate the dual nature of stress smoke signals. For example, we establish that under significant stress people may sleep too much or, conversely, know all the best buys at 3 AM on the QVC cable shopping channel. (Psychohumor Tip: Identify with, yet surprise, your audience or playfully challenge their expectations.)

Or, with another complex stress reaction, I poll the participants: "Be honest, how many people overeat at times to numb stress?" After general sheepish acknowledgment, I ask the others, "When stressed, how many folks lose their appetite and eat less?" Upon seeing a few fluttering hands, I cry out, "Of course, we hate these people." (And the audience breaks out in knowing laughter.)

Eventually, I run down "The Four Stages of Burnout," which really grabs people's attention: "Gulp...he's talking about me!" (Email for a copy.) While the overall mood gets a bit somber, I still break in with the unexpected or the exaggerated. For example, after exaggerating the labored, deep sighing of an exhausted individual, (and then leading a group sigh) I ask the audience, "When do you hear people caught up in deep or heavy breathing and sighing?...Other than when you call those 1-900 numbers, of course." (By the way, the straight answer I provide is, "when encountering individuals dealing with poignant loss, such as grieving family members at a funeral.")

With these scenarios, I hope I've illustrated the principle, along with techniques, of ongoing ebb and flow - between the serious and the humorous, the predictable and the unexpected, and between sharing information and evoking group association and participation. I like keeping an audience on the motivational edge. Under states of acute or optimal physiological arousal, people are primed to break their own or the group's tension with humor. Just give them a laughing chance.

More psychohumor techniques and strategies next time. Until then, be a model for...Practicing Safe Stress!

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