Humor in Executive Coaching: Strategic, Effective, and Fun

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By David Brendel, MD, PhD
June 07, 2022
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Executive coaching is serious business. Companies invest substantial resources to support the development of key leaders, optimizing their performance. On the surface, it doesn’t appear that humor would have much of a role in the coaching process. However, humor, if deployed with respect and emotional intelligence, can have a major positive impact.

Contemporary neuroscience and social psychology research shows that humor can foster interpersonal bonding, in part through “mirror neurons” that are activated when people smile or laugh in the presence of others. Laughing activates multiple parts of the brain’s limbic system (the emotion processing center) and the frontal lobe (where executive functions like reasoning and planning occur). People learn and perform more effectively when primed with humorous thoughts and interactions. When executive coaches skillfully introduce humor into sessions, clients may be in a better position to think clearly and develop the insights and skills needed to excel in their jobs. Trust and cohesion between client and coach can also grow when humor is used wisely.

Coaches must deploy humor with nuance and respect. When working with clients whose personalities differ from our own, or who come from a different cultural background, we must be particularly sensitive and cautious. Ill-conceived attempts at humor will at best fall flat and at worst cause offense. We should be humble in scenarios like this and avoid saying things we might consider humorous, but which our client could experience as tone-deaf and disrespectful. Healthy use of humor may come more naturally to some coaches than others. Studies show that humor-based training programs can enhance emotional well-being and reduce workplace stress.

A client of mine who was stressed by an overwhelming workload (and many more presentations than he wanted to make) told me on one occasion that he needed to end our session early to prepare for his talk at an “All Hands” meeting later that day. I shrugged and replied that perhaps he’d like to use our “Four Hands” meeting to talk it through. He paused and chuckled. No longer appearing so clenched, he acknowledged that perhaps he could use a different perspective. He ended up using the full coaching hour and reported feeling a sense of relief that he had slowed himself down. This opened up a meaningful discussion about how to improve his self-management skills and avoid burnout.

Another client of mine was struggling for two months to understand what her manager meant by saying that she needs to be “more strategic.” The client was working on delegating routine tasks and taking on big picture challenges, such as restructuring her team and hiring new talent. To some extent it appeared that her manager, for unclear reasons, was weaponizing the vague and overused slogan – “be more strategic” – to stymie her growth in the firm. Her frustration was palpable, and she felt that she was at an impasse. “What kind of strategy does he want? What should I do next?,” she asked me. My reply elicited a bit of a smirk. “How about we strategize on how to strategically communicate to your boss that your strategy is in fact strategic and already being operationalized?,” I asked her. We had a hearty laugh at the buzzword-packed question and she wrote it down verbatim. She then gave it a central role in considering her action plan.

These brief interludes of humor helped to lighten the mood, reduce stress, enhance self-reflection, and solidify the coaching bond. The clients felt understood and empowered, not judged or weakened. This engendered more creative, divergent thinking. Both clients got better at brainstorming and finding viable solutions to their respective challenges. The client who had stuck around for the entire “Four Hands” meeting later told me that he was now proactively using well-placed humor in tense team meetings, with a beneficial effect on team collaboration. He explained that in such meetings he had previously “quelled” difficult conversations; now he “Brendel-ed” them. I was pleased by his demonstration of the technique right before my eyes, which only served to make our coaching relationship more of a delight than ever.

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