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Jan 12, 2018

Getting Serious about Humor in Counseling

One of my goals for January is to find a new therapist.  Part professional development, part self care, I’ve learned that having a counselor rounds out my support system, even when life feels relatively stable.

So why a new therapist?  I was fortunate to have a fantastic clinician at my college counseling center.  Now that I’ve graduated, it’s time to take what I’ve learned in class and in session, and find the next best fit for myself as a client.

When I think about “what worked” in my previous counseling relationships, my initial reaction surprises me.  In addition to warmth, listening skills, and insightfulness, I realize that I need someone who is comfortable with humor. As a client, this sounds reasonable to me.  Laughter relieves tension, and therapy has more than a few intense moments   As a new professional, however, I’m a little unsettled.   Truthfully, I wouldn’t know the first thing about using humor therapeutically.  We spend years refining our counseling skills through training, supervision, and practice.  Intentionality is central to how we approach our work.  How does humor, a seemingly whimsical and subjective phenomenon, fit into this?

As described by Dr. Samuel Gladding and Dr. Melanie Drake Wallace, below are a few things to consider when deciding how and whether to use humor in session:

Humor can be positive or negative. Examples of positive humor are puns, anecdotes, irony, and clichés.  Negative humor includes sarcasm, teasing, and morbid/dark humor.  Stick to the positive types of humor, which tend to promote a more affirmative atmosphere.

Humor can be planned or spontaneous. When we are in session, the focus is what’s happening in the moment. In that regard, unplanned humor may arise (think linguistic or Freudian slips). 

Humor is intended to move the session along.  It’s not about having a funny moment for the sake of a laugh. If you run into an awkward or tense pause and need to get the session back on track, humor may facilitate that.

Humor is a choice.  You don’t have to use it.  But if you choose to, let ethics inform your decision.  Is humor in your client’s best interest or your own?

A few other ideas

  • To get a sense of how receptive your clients are towards humor, ask them what they find funny.  Also, take note of whether they joke about themselves. 
  • Use an icebreaker at the beginning of a session
  • Make a joke at your own expense.  Spill coffee on yourself in session?  It’s okay to laugh at or comment on your own blunder (but not at your client’s mistake!)
  • Use humor responsibly, but take yourself lightly when doing so. 
  • Be authentic when using humor.  Don’t compromise congruence for humor.

Luckily, you don’t have to be the next stand-up sensation to add some levity to your sessions (I’d be in trouble, if that were the case).  If you feel comfortable infusing a bit of good natured, constructive humor (and you’ve weighed out the benefits and risks), see what happens next time an opportunity presents itself.  A touch of humor could be an unexpected catalyst for insight, or at least a chance to strengthen your rapport.


Gladding, S. T., & Drake Wallace, M. J. (2016). Promoting beneficial humor in counseling: A way of helping counselors help clients. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 11(1), 2-11. doi:10.1080/15401383.2015.1133361
Christine Hennigan Paone is a counselor in training at Monmouth University as well as an aspiring counselor educator.  Her research interests include creativity in counseling, multicultural career counseling, and pedagogy.

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