A joke is one of the best, most enjoyable, ways to change a client’s (and your own) state to one that’s more playful and experimental. You can use almost any excuse to introduce one: “I heard a joke this morning, and it’s on my mind. If I don’t tell it to you, it’ll interfere with focusing on my work with you.”
But jokes are useful for much more than changing emotional states. They elicit the neurology that’s involved in a change of perspective and meaning. Every joke or cartoon has a setup that creates an ordinary and easily understood conventional narrative with a conventional meaning. Then the punch line completely changes this, and our response is to smile or laugh as we embrace a new—and usually unexpected—perspective and meaning.
My current favorite setup line is, “What would you like people to say about you at your funeral?” Most of us immediately begin to consider the possible compliments we’d most like to have said of us: “He was a great guy, so generous and kind.” “She was sensitive and empathic, and contributed new ideas to the field.” Once we’ve gotten involved in composing our eulogies, the punch line to the joke’s question—“Look! He’s moving!”—takes us by surprise and makes us laugh, not only at the joke, but also at our own vanity.
Every joke, and most other kinds of humor, involve some kind of shift in perspective that changes your internal images. When your images change, your understandings and responses often change. This is the same kind of change in neurology and understanding that occurs when someone takes even a small step toward resolving a problem. The experiential patterns of humor are exactly the same as the patterns of reframing, in which the meaning of an event pivots and shifts instantaneously.
My favorite normalization joke is to ask, “What’s the difference between kinky and perverted?” When you read the punch line—“Kinky is using a feather; perverted is using the whole chicken!”—your images shift instantaneously as you struggle to imagine what someone might do sexually with a whole chicken. The expansion of the range of possibilities puts a client’s “feather” in perspective.
Even when the content of a joke has nothing whatsoever to do with a client’s problem, it shifts his or her mental state into one that’s more playful and flexible, open to seeing the problem in a new way. If you choose a joke with relevant content, the relationship between the joke and the problem will be even more direct and impactful.
Another favorite is about a young sailor who’d lived a sheltered and restricted life. Some of his buddies decided to broaden his experience by taking him to see some pole dancing. As the woman began gyrating and shedding her clothes, the young sailor’s face suddenly turned ashen. He leapt out of his seat and ran out of the bar. When his buddies caught up with him, he was still pale and shaking. When they asked him what the problem was, he said, looking quite terrified, “My mother always told me that if I looked at a naked woman, I’d turn to stone—and it’s starting to happen!!”
The theme of this joke is the implication that the young sailor is misinterpreting certain natural bodily sensations. This joke would be perfect to tell to a hypochondriac, someone with a panic attack who thinks he’s about to die, or a client with any other problem who’s misinterpreting normal bodily feelings as being disastrous. This will be far more memorable and effective than a conscious summary of the theme of the joke: “You’re misinterpreting ordinary aches and pains as indicating something serious.” As an Argentine proverb says, “In heaven, they tell jokes; in hell, they explain them.”
Putting It Together
When you remember that the experiences that cause feelings are important—rather than the feelings themselves—that judgments are useless distractions, and that the mostly unconscious, nonverbal exchanges, presuppositions, and implications embedded in your communication are powerful means of promoting change, therapy can become a much more liberating experience for you and your clients. But even more important than that is the understanding that your clients, no less than you yourself, are hypnotists who weave a spell in the therapeutic hour. The difference between you is that the success of therapy typically hangs on your ability to demonstrate more skill and awareness in using the trancelike qualities of human communication to move beyond the tunnel vision that can stall therapy and prevent change and healing from taking place.
Steve Andreas, M.A., has been learning, teaching, and developing brief therapy methods for more than 45 years. His books include Virginia Satir: The Patterns of Her Magic; Transforming Your Self; and Transforming Negative Self-Talk.
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