After my essay on the 9/11 Anniversary, I decided to make room for my basic Yin-Yang nature: here is an article on eight styles of humor. (The 9/11 essay, “Ten Years After: A Personal Remembrance of Sep 11th – Strategies for Grieving, Surviving and Evolving: (http://www-stressdoc-com.blogspot.com/2011/09/ten-years-after-personal-remembrance-of.html). The early-mid 20th century pioneering film-maker, artist and comedienne, Charlie Chaplin, would approve of such a dramatic-comedic shift. According to Chaplin, The paradoxical thing about making comedy is that it is precisely the tragic 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.
The humor styles are paired in “Four ‘H”” polarities: Healing-Hostile, Harmonizing-Harpooning, Humanizing-Higher Power, and Humbling-Heroic. (Forgive my alliterative, categorizing compulsion. An Israeli friend thinks it’s in my cultural-religious-“Talmudic scholar” DNA. I believe it is part addiction-part geographic location, i.e., having resided in the Metro-Washington, DC-federal government nexus for twenty years, I’m the founding member of a new twelve-step AA group – Acronym’s Anonymous!) My hope is that by differentiating the applications of humor, more people will find and explore a style or styles suited to their temperament, taste and tactics. This is hardly an academic exercise. Daniel Goleman, acclaimed author of Emotional Intelligence, has discovered that the most effective managers employ humor three times more often than their less capable counterparts. So let’s get to work by examining definitions and differentiations.
Defining Humor and Wit
a. Humor recognizes the absurdities in everyday situations along with the incongruities in our personal make-up, and playfully embraces or pokes good-natured fun at our fears and foibles. It often has a silly, non-verbal component exaggerating voice tones, facial gestures and body movements. Humor may be drawn out for effect. I liken it to letting the air out of a blown up balloon, and watching it crazily circle, sputter and plop. Of course, pushed way beyond human limits it may go from the silly to the ridiculous.
b. Wit quickly and imaginatively expresses the connection or analogous properties between things seemingly dissimilar, improbable or contradictory. America’s original humorist, Mark Twain, said it best: “Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which before their union were not perceived to have any relation.” (Now whether this coupling will produce any brainchildren…) Wit is highly verbal tending toward a sudden, sharp edginess (which, alas, can easily go over the healing edge into hostility or ridicule.). According to Shakespeare, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Think of wit as sticking a pin into that inflated balloon (or a puffed up ego). An example of concise wit, perhaps, is my self-invented title of “Psychohumorist” ™. (Of course, I let folks decide where the emphasis on that word should go. Sometimes the fine line between wit and humor fades into the head work. 😉
Saying funny things
Saying things in a funny way
What is being observed
What is being mentally constructed
Strong nonverbal component
Slow, physical exaggeration, silly
Quick, sharp, surprising analogies
Letting air out of balloon (sputtering)
Sticking pin into balloon (deflating)
Finally, an ability to integrate humor and wit may just strengthen our resiliency while helping civilize the world.
Here are illustrations of the 4H(2) Humor Styles:
I. Healing-Hostile Humor
1. Absurdity to the Rescue. The first example of healing humor actually has a 9/11 context: upon reopening after the tragic events, the BWI airport hired Groucho Marx impersonators to banter with the crowds waiting on line to help reduce understandable traveler anxiety. The absurdity of it all struck a positive nerve and facilitated a much needed emotional release. As psychiatrist and humor authority, David Fry, noted, “Laughing with gusto is like turning your body into a big vibrator, giving vital organs a brief but hardy internal massage.” Others have likened full-throttled laughter to “inner jogging,” as it releases chemicals such as endorphins and dopamine which have a mind-calming, pleasure inducing effect.
2. The Face-Saving Yet Ego Affirming Defense Mechanism. Healing humor not only helps transform order (and disorder) into the comically chaotic and cathartic, but it is based on ego strength and the awareness of limitations, not simply on anxiety-driven self-deprecation. Such a humorous perspective reflects a loosening of inhibition and lowers the volume of rigid or judgmental inner voices. This humor also looks at life events the same as everyone else and bravely if not ironically may see something different. For example, the early 20th c. French novelist, Anatole France, upon turning 75, looking in a mirror, observed: “Mirrors just aren’t what they used to be.”
This is not a passive stance but an active one, providing “Triple A” stress relief insurance:
a) Aggression. There’s a confident, if not somewhat competitive, component to self-effacing humor. It tells an audience or an antagonist, “I can poke fun at myself even better than you can poke fun at me.” Or, “You only know the half of it…my pain, my cleverness, etc.”
b) Affirmation. When audiences laugh warmly at such humor, they vicariously acknowledge their own shortcomings and, most important, are likely admiring the humorist’s display of openness and courage.
c) Acceptance. The ability to expose flaws and foibles often is a tangible sign of self-acceptance; perfect performance has been replaced with the modus operandi of purposefulness and playfulness.
No less an authority than Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and a student of humor, recognized the power of this “highest defense mechanism.” For Freud, the capacity for mature humor – by which he meant internalizing the “parental” encouragement of our efforts and the gentle tolerance of our failures – is perhaps the greatest gift such figures (whether actual or cultivated inner voices) can bestow upon a child…or a “Healing Humorist” can share with a colleague. Of course, sometimes those “parental voices” come with a little static.
3. Share and Smooth with Edgy Humor. Consider a “healing” example that involves a ritual of sending humorous cards to family members, especially to my parents. The cards are particularly effective because they capture or play upon a certain tension that exists within the relationship. A recent Mother’s Day card said, “To the woman who helped me become the man I am today.” The opened card continues: “Of course you have to take some of the blame!” Being able to poke a little fun at us both and also share the laughter definitely continues to smooth some of those rough edges in the mother-son tie.
1. Even Cutting Humor Can Heal. Here’s a classroom vignette pitting me against a demoralized yet demonizing antagonist that raises two key questions: First, there’s the issue of “is message sent message received?” As will be evident shortly, this question needs to be considered within the psycho-social-cultural context being used by different parties to interpret the meaning of certain actions and to attribute the motivational stance or bias of certain actors? Next, did my overt and covert counterpunch fulfill my intent: to disarm hostility and preserve harmony without being harsh or hurtful? Let me illustrate. I was leading a two-day Stress Management workshop in Salt Lake City, Utah for a federal government agency that was experiencing interpersonal tension and morale problems. The first day seemed to go well. The most tangible evidence was that the next morning a few folks initiated buying donuts for all forty participants. So a variety of donuts were being distributed before the class formally starts. All of a sudden, a male audience member, who later identified himself as a Mormon, began vehemently protesting: “You call yourself a stress expert, and you’re going to allow them to pass out those donuts; with all that fat and sugar!”
I was taken aback. I acknowledged his beliefs and his concern for the nutritional issues as regards physical and psychological well-being. (A few years earlier, for a legal magazine, I had written about changing my diet and exercise regimen. I always liked the title of the article: “Hard Realities vs. Hard Arteries: Fat Food for Thought.”) Before I could finish, our pedantic protester cut me off, continued the challenge, and then declared: “How can I trust anything you say about stress, when you take such a hypocritical position!” Trying to be reasonable, again agreeing with some of his concerns, still I recognized the buying and sharing of donuts as a real form of social nurturance and support. Both of these are important for relieving stress and building emotional health and group morale.
Our nutritional moralist seemed undaunted. I also realized that this ongoing confrontation was agitating the entire group, though no one said anything. I didn’t want to lose control of the atmosphere of positive learning and sharing, nor did I want the audience to lose trust in my capacity for leadership. The tension reached a critical point. I reflexively went into a self-effacing survival mode and replied with maybe a shade too much impatience and irony: “Well, I guess the only way I can justify my behavior is to paraphrase the American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘[Too much] consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’”
A woman from the audience fairly shouted, “That’s a good one.” The confrontational standoff was over. My antagonist was disarmed and deflated. At the time, I mostly thought I was poking fun at myself to get Mr. Moralist off my (and the audience’s) back. But in hindsight, I wasn’t simply self-lampooning, but was also wielding a witty (albeit unconscious) weapon. A more direct message could have been: “Obviously, you are not pleased with my approach. I wish it wasn’t creating such doubt. I’m willing to talk more during the break or at lunch. However, right now I have a class to lead, and we all need to get down to work.” And if this still wasn’t sufficient, that is, if the individual could not cease and desist, I would then have to ask him to leave the room until he was ready to participate in a non-disruptive manner.
Today, when I share this story with counselors, educators, or trainers, a number gasp, groan, or grimace. I truly did cut down Mr. Mormon in public. I was not psychologically correct, for which I have conflicting thoughts. And yet, in the spirit of embracing contradiction, my counter ultimately had a healing effect. By the afternoon, Mr. M. could venture out of his crusty shell, this time without fighting dietary demons or Stress Docs. With the help of a group exercise, he began to acknowledge to the entire class his intense feelings of work burnout. This out of character level of honesty and vulnerability was made possible by disarming his previous offensive defensiveness. And it garnered him, not the moral high ground, but down-to-earth emotional sustenance and problem-solving support from colleagues (who had been inhaling his burnout fumes for months).
The moral: By momentarily disarming an antagonist (perhaps with a tad more antagonism than consciously intended, but without malicious intent), while still pursuing understanding and healing, you can improbably both set limits on and also support a “stress carrier.” The “too much consistency” message (and an audience member’s enthusiastically aggressive second), defused the threat to our learning environment. It also eventually short-circuited a self-defeating burnout-blowup cycle and opened a path and process for honest sharing along with some healing, collegial empathy and acceptance: the competence of the leader, the working integrity and harmony of the group along with the humanity and social standing of a wounded participant are all reaffirmed. And by mixing caring and confrontation…you can even (symbolically or moderately) eat donuts!
II. Harmonizing-Harpooning Humor
1. Using the Anger of Grief to Rebuild an Alliance. Freedictionary.com first two definitions of “harmony” are: 1) “agreement in feeling or opinion; accord: live in harmony” and 2) “a pleasing combination of elements in a whole or order; or congruity of parts to their whole or to one another”: color harmony; the order and harmony of the universe. Years back a Federal court was automating its record keeping system and was experiencing some opposition from a number of employees. This was especially true for those most affected by the change in a key data form. Not surprisingly, employees had not been consulted. The obvious emotionally charged questions: why weren’t the folks in the trenches, the ones most directly involved with the informational processing changes, consulted about operational dynamics and consequences? Why isn’t our experience respected and our perspective valued?
Instead of only focusing on employee resistance to change, I challenged management to examine their one-sided decision-making process. I also thought employees were grieving, that is, experiencing feelings of loss, both of a familiar mode of operation as well as the loss of job control and sense of professional authority and autonomy. After discussing the managerial missteps, I shared a “pass in the impasse” aha! with the court leadership: “Let’s have a ‘forms funeral.'” All employees would have a chance to bemoan the loss of the old, express concerns about new procedures and, most important, criticize “unilateral” authority for not initially seeking employee input. Not surprisingly, this novel, perhaps somewhat absurd communal catharsis broke through the barriers both to accepting change and to participatory decision-making. We also began healing some organizational wounds. In Yin-Yang fashion, honest expression of aggression and acknowledgement of missteps along with a pledge for more participatory decision-making produced tangible accord. Even more significant, though, there now was a basis for organizational synergy: not only is the whole potentially greater than the sum of the parts, but ongoing collaboration will generate a new congruity – transforming seemingly disrespected and disconnected parts into more respectful and actively coordinated partners.
The metaphor of a “Forms Funeral” might well resonate with the early 20th century disabilities pioneer and universally-acclaimed humanitarian, Helen Keller, who observed: The world is so full of care and sorrow it is a gracious debt we owe one another to discover the bright crystals of delight hidden in somber circumstances and irksome tasks. On a more pedestrian level, a healing humor that also harmonizes not only encourages an ability to walk in another’s shoes, but may enable all parties to acknowledge and feel each other’s bunions! When orchestrated humor helps a) affirm professional identity, b) break down social-cultural barriers, c) productively resolve conflict and d) facilitates two-way understanding through the embrace of a mutual mirthful metaphor illuminating how “we’re all in this rite of passage together,” there’s a “higher power” at work and play.
1. Bending the Roles to Regain Resilience. My conception of “harpooning humor” has little do with an Ahab-like obsession. I’m not looking to kill the whale; the objective is to lance and momentarily silence a big, blubbering, babbling ego and “shrink” it down to a less bombastic or bullying scale. And you don’t always need a visible target, only one in the mind of the beholder. Consider this vignette. The first involves a very challenging moment in a workshop with nurse supervisors and their administrator. These professional women were itemizing tensions and frustrations with their primary “stress carriers”…the mostly male doctors. (A “stress carrier,” by the way, is someone who usually doesn’t get ulcers, just gives them!)
Perhaps I had become the symbol of the male species, for the administrator, voicing the group’s anger, impatiently cried out, “What happens if you’re just tired of always accommodating these physicians; of being the one who has to bend? Then what do you do?” Listening between the lines, I heard, “Okay, Mr. Expert, let’s have your revelation.”
Believe me, at this point, divine intervention seemed like my only hope. Fortunately, only time froze and not my brain. “How about this,” I blurted out. “Tell the physician you may not be your normal cheerful self today. When he questions ‘why not?’ say, ‘I hurt my back.'” I paused. “Now when the doctor asks, perhaps somewhat haughtily, ‘How did that happen?’ in a most humble manner reply, ‘I’m not sure, but I think I’ve been bending over backwards for too many people, lately.'”
Well the women roared their approval. A psychiatrist, Kris Ernst, once noted: “what was once feared, and is now mastered [even if only in one’s mind; remember, “Conceiving is Believing”]…is laughed at.” Of course, the Stress Doc’s converse applies: “what was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master.”
2. Turning the Bait into Playful and Purposeful Bite. Sometimes you are baited into an ongoing interpersonal battle; transform your goal into “bait and switch” – lampoon both parties and calmly leave the scene with laughter in the background. As a mid-’90s Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant at a large US Postal Service Processing & Distribution Plant walking the workfloor was commonplace. (Believe me, humor was not a luxury.) One day, I came upon a couple bantering, seemingly playfully, if not a bit seductively. A collegial chorus was also present. The back and forth turned increasingly provocative when the woman suddenly mouthed the “f u” expletive while throwing her antagonist the proverbial finger. The onlookers quickly warned the couple about me: “Be careful, this guy is the ‘Company Shrink.'” Then the guy egged me on: “Now what do you think about what she just did?” With tension building, I nervously paused, then rallied: “What do I think? I just think she thinks you’re # 1,” and walked off with collective laughter behind me. (A vital humor skill: learn to playfully bite the hand or hands that feed you!)
The remaining pairs of humor styles – Humanizing-Higher Power and Humbling-Heroic – will be illustrated in Part II. Until then…Practice Safe Stress!
Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, “The Stress Doc” ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote & kickoff speaker, webinar presenter, as well as “Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst” known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the “Doc” is a team building and organizational development consultant. He is providing “Stress and Communication, as well as Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building” programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and 13th Expeditionary Support Command, Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services. Mark has also rotated as a Military & Family Life Consultant (MFLC) at Ft. Campbell, KY. A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, The Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online “HotSite” — www.stressdoc.com — called a “workplace resource” by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc’s “Practice Safe Stress” programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.
Eight Humor Styles in Action: Building Stress Resiliency with Interactive Humor – Part II
III. Humanizing-Higher Power
1. Paradoxical Perspective. One way of employing “humanizing humor” is to capture the seemingly contradictory or paradoxical nature of our species. For example, consider my one “holiday” joke that distinguishes the familiar phrases, “holiday blues” and “holiday stress.” Now holiday blues is the feeling of loss or sadness you have when, over the holidays, you can’t be with those people in your life who have been or are special or significant. And holiday stress…is when you have to be with some of those people!
2. Surprising and Provocative Links in Context. A second manifestation of this humor is taking natural, emotionally charged aspects of being human and then playfully linking them in an unexpected, if not witty, fashion, a fashion that may tweak convention. Remember, you often need to be sensitive to your audience’s comfort threshold and be cognizant of cultural context, especially when wading into provocative areas, like sex or religion. For example, when I moved from “devil may care” N’Awlins to politically conscious if not correct Washington, DC I had to rethink carrying over a stress workshop closing punchline: “They say laughter is the best tension reliever and sex is second…So if you’re having funny sex you’re probably in good shape!” (In fact, one New Orleans conference group expressed interest in bringing me back to give a talk on “Funny Sex.”)
However, politically cautious DC audience dis-ease eventually required using a different close, one that played on a familiar adage. I now stress the importance of “The Serenity Prayer”: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know where to hide the bodies!” (Okay, so you can take the boy out of “The Big Easy” but not the irreverence from the boy.) And even with this closing, I’m conscious of context. With a military audience, I modify the last phrase: “and the wisdom to know where to hide the…money!”
3. Both Self-Effacing and Self-Affirming. Humanizing humor helps me accept my flaws…with a little attitude. For example, as I’ve middle-aged, I occasionally take jibes about my hair loss. I firmly remind the moprakers that, “You should have more respect for my hair. It was recently placed on the World Wildlife Federation’s endangered species list!”
4. Bridging Humanity and Cultural Diversity. Little did I know that such a playful yet feisty attitude about my hair (or lack thereof) would one day morph into a truly powerful response in a highly charged social setting, i.e., with a racially divided jury. Employing humor to resolve contemporary cultural conflict is dicey. Nonetheless, by carefully exploring the face-saving power of self-effacing humor, you just may discover a small “pass in the multicultural impasse.” Let me illustrate. Several years back, I was on jury duty in Washington, DC. An African-American male in his early 20s was accused of selling cocaine to an undercover African-American policeman. Our jury consisted of nine African-Americans and three Caucasians. Tension was building as we deliberated upon the case. In particular, a number of the African-American jurors questioned that the police had mishandled a piece of the evidence. (To me, this piece of evidence did not appear critical in establishing the fact of the alleged sale.)
Based on the increasingly pointed and heated discussion, it was clear that most of the African-Americans were leaning toward acquittal. Two other white jurors and I along with a black middle-aged male were swaying in the opposite direction. After an informal poll and more frustratingly fruitless attempts to influence each other’s position, a middle-aged black woman next to me cries out, “Well, it seems that the white folks and this one black guy are holding us up.” Suddenly, this black male juror jumps up and stares hard at his accuser, i.e., the accusation being that he’s just going along with “whitey.” Then, in an agitated, increasingly loud voice, he challenges back: “What are you trying to say? Just what are you trying to say?” The room crackles with tension. The African-American forewoman seems paralyzed.
Now, a young black woman, on my other side, with long, pretty braids anxiously blurts out, “This is ridiculous. All we’re doing is pulling our hair out.” The electricity and anguish jolt me into action. I fairly shout, both at my neighbor and the others, “Hey, that’s not fair. You have a lot hair more than I do.” There’s a startled pause…then the room erupts with laughter. The forewoman eventually says, “Guess we needed that. Now let’s get back to the facts of the case.” And we did, in a respectful and more tolerant manner. While we ended as a hung jury (six to six, by the way) we didn’t finish a racially hung up one.
Closing Points. Escalating tension is ripe for humor intervention. And when the tension is driven by cultural concerns, if used carefully, humanizing humor can play a powerful healing and harmonizing role as its universality transcends diversity. A self-effacing humor intervention that absurdly pokes fun of one’s own flaws and foibles may just sneak under that too sensitive “political correctness” radar and allow the warring parties a stress relieving laugh. And the group can productively return to the task at hand…status quo ante bellum.
B. Higher Power.
1. We’re All in the Same Ark. Unfortunately, tension continues among many diverse groupings, and not just those within the human variety. According to Walt Kelly, creator of the classic cartoon, Pogo, “civilized man” is not only a danger to his own species…but endangers many others as well, including “so-called” wild animals. And while I’m not sure that Kelly was a conservationist, his cartoon certainly has timely relevance for all manner of intra- and inter-species relations. Consider his down-to-earth “higher humor” perspective. One gloriously sunny day, Kelly’s protagonist, Pogo, a warm-hearted possum, and his cynical catfish friend, Porky, are lazily boating down the Okefenokee Swamp. Porky avers, “I must say God did all right…but he should have stopped just one day sooner.” Pogo replies: “Don’t be so misanthropic, Porky. If it wasn’t for human beans life wouldn’t have so many laughs.” Porky’s immediate retort: “It wouldn’t need as many!”
Being human, we need the laughs, especially from a “higher and humanizing humor.” As quoted in Part I, according to film pioneer and humorist, Charlie Chaplin, “It is precisely the tragic 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.” With a touch of prophetic irony, the Pogo cartoon encourages some knowing laughter but, more importantly, Kelly is asking the human animal, one of God’s mighty, if not almighty, creatures, to engage the planet and its various inhabitants with a bit more humility.
2. Let’s Get Literal. Southwest Personnel also integrate humor as part of their daily “high-in-the-sky” routine. For example, I recall a flight in which a steward was giving the standard safety orientation on seat belts, emergency exits and oxygen masks. Now I suspect many listen a bit apprehensively or try to tune out the familiar speech. However, this professional humorist got everyone’s attention when he calmly noted, “As part of our trip will be over water…in the unlikely event this flight becomes a cruise your seat cushion is removable.” There was a palpable pause, then a wave of laughed rolled down the aisles. This ironically playful “reframe” decidedly produced some unanticipated stress relief.
3. Encourage Disarming, Daring and Defiance. With an oppositional predisposition to question or lampoon the conventional and the self-righteous and/or armed with a “higher truth” you are often ready to embark on a path that may be grand or grandiose (or maybe both. Hopefully, yours is a non-fundamentalist or fanatical truth.) The challenge: caught in an ego entangled, thorny dilemma or steeped in honor-bound, “b.s.”(be safe) tradition, can you employ a humor that removes blinders, helps others see what they can’t or won’t see, upholds diverse sides, and appreciates life’s subtleties, absurdities or possibilities. According to creativity guru, von Oech, Sacred cows make great steaks!
Actually, the struggle involved in dismantling or surmounting that sacred wall has the potential for generating uncommon vision and vistas along with fresh pathways and processes. (Of course, some of us have been around long enough to know that at times there may well be a fine line between vision and hallucination! 😉
To see and think anew not only means getting out of the box; sometimes the box may have to be torn down or blown up. As one of the giants of 20th century art, Pablo Picasso (a man of many, and not always endearing, paradoxical qualities), observed: Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction. (Here’s where the humorless fanatic can be quite problematic: When your goal is to create an absolutely pure or “righteous” standard or society, then anyone viewed as not being one with the in-group is quickly judged to be “unpatriotic,” perhaps an “Illegal.” Or another’s differences are not simply perplexing but are deemed threatening or sinful and must be shamed and condemned; sometimes the sinner must be eliminated not just lampooned or excommunicated.)
For me Picasso is not talking about destroying individuals but about breaking away from outmoded ways of sensing and conceptualizing. You often have to disrupt habit chains or decisively challenge “less tried and now accepted as true” assumptions in order to “see what everyone else has seen and think what no one else has thought” (Albert Szent-Gyorgi, Nobrl Prize-winning scientist). And while the tearing down, explosion or breaking apart process may be painful or scary, it paves the way for two essentials for creative exploration: 1) it clears the familiar playing field; you have a new (or mostly clean) canvas to work with and 2) it often induces a state of uncertainty and confusion which may drive you to perceive and build fresh, perhaps even fantastic, connections or relationships among the seemingly disjointed or random ideas and/or elements in your head or problem-solving field. As Mark Twain noted, “wit” loves to discover, play with and combine the unexpected: Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which before their union were not perceived to have any relation. Now whether this conjunction produces any brainchildren is another matter.
4. Discovering and Designing the Truth in a Lie. In addition to the creation-destruction paradigm, Picasso also proposed another seemingly contradictory epiphany: Art is the lie that reveals a greater truth! What does he mean by these “higher” paradoxical observations? For example Picasso drew a soon to be famous portrait of the women of letters and salons, Gertrude Stein. One viewer told the master that his painting did not look like its subject. Picasso’s reply, “Give it time…it will!” So artful exaggerations may foretell the future; they may also enable you to more clearly and less solemnly perceive the past and present.
Let me illustrate these two paradoxes – “destruction as creation” and “lie yielding truth” – by sketching my signature “psychohumorist” ™ 3 “D” –Discussion, Drawing & Diversity – team building exercise. Participants are divided into small groups (4-6 people/group). They are given about ten minutes to identify sources of workplace stress and conflict. That’s the easy part. Then in the same amount of time, the group must produce a team picture that captures the individual stress perspectives. Invariably, a number of the participants experience some confusion, if not anxiety, at the prospect of transforming individual perspective into collective visualization. But once the group realizes they have to discard or replace linear and logical thinking with visual metaphor and holistic figure-ground story telling through pictures, suddenly the conceptual and operational fog lifts…And creative energy and laughter erupts.
An Out-Rage-Ous Design
Here’s one of my favorite group designs. The audience was comprised of NASA and Lockheed Martin supervisors and managers. There definitely was a preponderance of analytical, left-brained individuals who, despite some initial puzzlement, threw themselves into the exercise. There was considerable workplace anxiety; news of budget cuts and personnel reorganization was in the air. One picture (done on full-size flipchart paper with broad-tipped colored markers) was a classic. On a cliff is a devil-like figure, with pointy ears and a long tail, with a trident in one hand, a whip in the other. The executive/devil is driving this flock of sheep to the cliff’s edge and beyond. Actually, the sheep have only one option: jumping off the cliff. And the safety net below has gaping holes. While the content is an exaggeration, you can’t miss the emotional message. And did you note the oppositional pairing of the devil and the sheep? Believe me, the crowd roared their approval.
Which brings us to the Picasso Paradox: As the devil vs. sheep picture reveals art may not just illustrate but also illuminate. Art may create exaggerations and even psycho-logical or out-rage-ous depictions that help dispel illusions. After another workshop, I recall a CEO observing, “I get written reports all the time. But these drawings give me a clearer sense of what’s really going on in the trenches.” Perhaps a vivid yet playful picture that provides a wider and deeper perspective may induce a “higher truth.”
Drawing with a group of colleagues who know your pain heightens emotional support and distance by placing tension producing images-issues in an exaggeratedly familiar and/or a novel or surprising psychological and situational context, thereby evoking stress-relieving laughter. Art often removes or at least poke holes in the “Emperor’s Clothes.” (Do you recall the maxims involving fear, mastery and laughter?: What was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at. And, what was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master!
For some NASA managers and employees there likely was a loss of positions. One manager-in-training in response to her company’s downsizing lamented: “I once had a career path then this boulder fell from the sky and crushed it.” While such pain is surely palpable, higher humor shared with kindred spirits lightens, even if temporarily, the sense of loss and may help one let go and rise anew. As acclaimed philosopher and author, Albert Camus, observed: Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand the loved one obstructed a whole corner of the possible, pure now as a sky washed by rain.
1. Affirming a Higher Standard of Sibling Rivalry. Years ago I shared with my younger brother (a research-oriented Clinical Psychologist) what I thought was a creative “family therapy” intervention. Without acknowledging any artfulness on my part, he immediately said, “You should have said something like…” and proceeded to come up with clever reply, albeit one that could easily be construed as insensitive, if not hurtful. When I reflexively grimaced, he retorted: “What…were you afraid the guy would have punched you out?” “No, I declared, counterpunching. “I just have a higher standard of plagiarism.” Sometimes you can slyly push back and put the other in his place while subtly reaffirming your own authority and integrity.
2. Exposing the Rigidly Righteous. A “black-white” or “all-none” person trying to reconcile seeming contradiction may well experience what psychiatrist, Richard Rabkin, called a state of “thrustration,” which I defined thusly: “Thrustration occurs when you’re torn between thrusting ahead with direct action and frustration as you haven’t quite put together the pieces of the puzzle.” Some are not able to tolerate such tension, but insist on their being “one right answer.” A truly classic New Yorker cartoon, playing off the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, forever lampooned the dangers of self-righteous rigidity in the face of complexity or supposed contradiction. A nattily attired, pompous looking publisher standing behind his power desk begins to chastise a humbly dressed, hat in hand Charles Dickens: “Really, Mr. Dickens…was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could scarcely have been both!” Can you hear the air coming out of the ego balloon?
3. Lightly Lancing the Self-Absorbed without Collateral Damage. As a workshop leader, I’m often questioned or challenged. I don’t mind being put on the spot. Actually, in a weird kind of way, I get excited. I’m up for the intellectual and psychological confrontation; maybe adrenalin is my mental testosterone. However, I am concerned when others get caught in the collateral crossfire. For example, I was leading a two-person role-play exercise for a federal government agency that was reorganizing. One role-play dyad involved a rather good-looking gentleman in his late 50s and a woman no more than half his age. In the role-play, the gentleman is to try and help his partner grapple with an actual problem: with the agency’s reorganization, the young lady is being transferred to another department. She is upset both with the loss of the familiar – tasks, colleagues and friends – and because her commuting time may now double or triple.
In the feedback segment, the suave-looking fellow raises his hand and, with a somewhat self-important tone, comments, “I didn’t really have my heart in this exercise.” Glancing at the woman, I catch a fleeting but perceptibly pained expression. Looking at me, she exclaims, “I thought he was sincere.” In the pregnant moment, a face-saving reply spontaneously generates. Turning to the fellow and the audience, I playfully observe, “Gee, you know this guy broke a lot of hearts when he was younger.” Well, our male lead cracks up laughing, and the audience, including our female protagonist, follows suit.
When I share this vignette, people often ask: “How did you come up with that response?” My answer can only be speculative; events transpired so quickly. But here are some of the variables that I was processing:
a) the age-difference between the players,
b) the striking appearance of the gentleman,
c) his too detached or self-centered statement,
d) her pained look, and
e) my own empathy for the young woman when a belief (about her partner’s intentions with respect to her plight) is contradicted; also, I suspect she’s feeling duped or somewhat exposed.
So my psychohumorist goals are manifold: to help our female player in distress save face while lancing, with a subtle thrust, Senor Suave from his high horse, yet still allowing for a gentle(man’s) landing. And the psychic swordsmanship is double-edged: while appealing to his vanity and former conquests, that is, stroking his ego, I’m also lightly exposing his egocentric manner and “too cool” persona.
Psychohumorist ™ Tip: Try unusual or unexpected observations and interpretations of events. First, this will surprise the parties involved. And, if you’ve captured some understanding of the setting, actions and/or motives, then you just may relax or disarm defenses. It’s safer to acknowledge our foibles when they are playfully teased out with laughter. So seek the higher power of humor: May the Farce Be with You!
1. Burnout Battlefront Humor. Heroic humor is not just daring and valiant; it’s also “M*A*S*H” humor”-like enabling us to survive the burnout battlefront. I recall a stress workshop 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.
Alas, there are limitations to this kind of heroic 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. Remember, sometimes the most important thing survival humor can do is provide a warning signal when your capacity for laughter dries up, when your funny bone has gone totally numb: it’s likely time for some “R & R” if not permanently moving away from harm’s way.
2. Unconventionally Defusing Systemic Tension in a Hazardous Environs. The next “battlefront” scenario comes from a State Department Manager stationed at the American Embassy in Kuwait in 1990 as war clouds were gathering in darkness and intensity. Not surprisingly, war-zone tension began to invade in-house. Being restricted to the compound was exacerbating stress levels; interpersonal sniping was on the rise and generating numbers of working wounded. The Ambassador decided to intervene before the internal grumbling and overt grousing eroded psychological coping capacity and organizational morale. He told his second-in-command to inform personnel that the next day was a holiday and that all embassy staff would be going to the beach.
His deputy, incredulous, protested: “Sir, a war could break out any moment. It’s not safe to leave the compound!” The Ambassador, nevertheless, reaffirmed his desire to have people ready to go to the beach the next morning.
Bright and early the next day the Ambassador descended the stairs in bathing trunks and robe while carrying a blowup rubber ducky. Most personnel were not similarly attired. “Ye of little faith,” declared the Ambassador and proceeded to march everyone outside. And lo and behold, during the night, somehow, this Ambassador had managed to have tons of sand trucked in and dumped in the compound. And staff had a tension-relieving, fun-filled day at the beach. The in-house stress siege was broken; the embassy personnel regrouped their individual and group resources and professionally weathered the war storm.
Strategic Points. Defying conventions or rules, whether in relation to an external enemy or, when critical, even regarding departmental procedures is a key weapon in the motivational humorist’s bag of tricks. When an authority figure is both brave and playfully absurd in the face of hazardous threat or bureaucratic rigidity, the role-modeling and morale-building effect is contagious. (This scenario surely illustrates the incongruous function of humor.) Add some visual props and others can come out of their battle shell and play. Active planning for and participating in a group grief process such as a Forms Funeral (Part I) or in a absurdly defiant Beach Ventilation-Celebration allows stressed individuals to go from pawns to performers, immediately enhancing a feeling of self control and communal safety. And team rejuvenation, not just tension relief, may be your final reward.
3. Be Vivid and Visual, Surprising and Self-Effacing…and Out-Rage-Ous. I invariably close out my “Practice Safe Stress” workshop (a clever witticism, in my humble opinion) by informing the audience of my secret identity. Putting on a Blues Brothers hat, black sunglasses and pulling out a black tambourine, I then announce my pioneering efforts in the field of psychologically humorous rap music, calling it, of course…”Shrink Rap” ™ Productions. Once the groans subside, I counter: “We’ll see who has the last groan,” and suddenly belt out, while prancing about the room:
When it comes to feelings do you stuff them inside
Is tough John Wayne your emotional guide?
And it’s not just men so proud and tight-lipped
For every Rambo there seems to be a Rambette…
The boss makes demands yet gives little control
So you pray on chocolate and wish life were dull.
But office desk’s a mess, often skipping meals.
Inside your car looks like a pocket book on wheels!
There’s more, but I’ll spare you. (Actually, the Rap Performance maybe lasts 90 seconds. I’m definitely following Shakespeare’s pronouncement: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”)
The crowd goes from bewildered to bowled over. After the laughter and applause dies down, I revert to self-effacing form: “That’s okay; I’ve been doing this long enough. I know when an audience is applauding out of relief.” I then sneak in a self-effacing counter to the applause, with a disclaimer: “After twenty years of all kinds of therapy – from Jungian Analysis to Primal Scream – I have one singular accomplishment…absolutely no appropriate sense of shame.” (People may question my capacity to sing or keep a beat. I often say, “Another white boy without rhythm.” However, no one questions my daring or courage.)
My final comment is delivered in a slightly smug manner: “I know what you’re thinking: ‘Doc, don’t quit your day-job.’ It’s too late…This is my day job!”
Clearly, I’m joyfully on the performance edge. Providing some witty lyrics while poking fun at my own absurdity – confronting the “Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure” – is a great way to break down barriers and bond with an audience. (I’m both “saying funny things” and “saying things in a funny way.” The former reflects the essence of wit; the latter, humor.) The audience truly gets a taste of exuberant energy, for which so many folks hunger. And, remember, people embrace and are more open to a serious message when it’s gift-wrapped with humor.
Perhaps two complementary aphorisms capture this unique role of interactive heroic humor as both catalyst and bridge in the process from victim to vision to vital action:
“What was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at.” (Ernst Kris, Psychiatrist)
“What was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master.” (Mark Gorkin, “The Stress Doc”)
So, hopefully, you now are inspired to pursue some luminous lunacy, to explore the role of heroically healing humorist, maybe even to put all “Eight ‘H’ Humor Styles” into action – Healing-Hostile, Harmonizing-Harpooning, Humanizing-Higher Power, and Humbling-Heroic. Surely, such commitment and courage just might help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!
Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, “The Stress Doc” ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote speaker and “Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst” known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. An Adjunct Professor at Northern VA (NOVA) Community College, the Doc is leading Stress, Team Building and Humor programs for the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions, Ft. Hood, Texas. Mark is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online “HotSite” – www.stressdoc.com – called a “workplace resource” by National Public Radio (NPR) or call 301-875-2567.