Facilitation and Humour

I do lots of work in Germany. And it’s a frequently voiced myth that Germans have no humour. In fact, just to muse for a bit about humour in general, it’s also a frequently voiced myth that the British have all the humour. Be it black (The Young Ones), slapstick (Benny Hill) or Monty-Pythonesque, some of the wierdest things laughed at the world over do seem to come from the island. What I most love about British humour (to continue on this broader line) are the gentle and cleverly-silly comedies championed by famous Brits from Will Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens to Steven Fry and Hugh Laurie (wow, he’s really famous now), Blackadder (as opposed to Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean), Hugh Grant and Richard Curtis, who really is genius and is behind most cool British humour since the mid-80s.

Ok, so that’s enough of my uninformed and nostalgic look back on the sort of pleasant stuff I enjoy laughing at over and over again. What’s it all got to do with facilitation? I’ve stressed elsewhere the importance of placing an issue or topic at the centre of all facilitation; of ensuring that questions are asked, expertise accessed and results reached. And all that’s true. But I’ve also said somewhere else (I think) that it’s vital to get every participant connected with a) the issue and b) the group, in order to understand how his/her voice can be part of the overall results. And that’s where humour has to play a part.

I would argue that if a group of people who are expected to work together to solve a problem can’t laugh a bit together, they may as well forget it. Laughing helps us to bond – I’d say 100000 times quicker than talking about bonding. It helps us to shake off little niggles and focus on the broader picture. It helps an individual stop thinking about what he/she wants to say next and to listen to others. How does it do this? (I’d love a brain scientist to give me some information on this.) I think it’s that in relaxing and throwing off the bondage of being right or better or wiser than others, we are able to come to deeper understandings. We relax when we laugh together. “Laughter is one of the universally shared expressions of emotion we are ‘allowed’ to display publicly”, Felix Oldenburg, my friend and colleague, once said.

Careful of Irony: Irony is the elder sister of sarcasm. Irony has been to better schools and done her hair neatly. She’s perfected her speech and style and has a first at Oxford. Sarcasm, the little sister, is rude and dirty. Irony is always exclusive. We set ourselves apart from what we have said and it’s also judgemental of others. It doesn’t work in facilitation. We, as ironic facilitators, will make enemies of our participants at worst and frighten them into passivity at best.

1 thought on “Facilitation and Humour

  1. Shawn Cunningham


    I use humour in facilitation all the time. Sometimes I am just plain silly, on other occasions I try to get all the participants to make a Mexican wave when the energy goes down. For a long time I tried to be very serious during facilitated sessions, until people that knew me commented on this. I have since decided to carefully use humour. It makes it easier for people to deal with sensitive topics and their own fears. I don’t mean that I act like a stand up comedian (all the time). I often use role plays or simulations to get the group to act out a scene using humour or exaggeration. The world is serious enough as it is.

    But I will be the first to say that one should be really careful. I’ve been a joker all my life, and I know who can take being mocked and whom not. I must always check to make sure that a comment or a joke will not be too insulting to people.


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