Example One Humor Can be Used to Disarm Tension and Hostility

In an inner-city school, the decision is made to start a group in order to address the rising tensions between students and their teachers. The student population is composed of minority youths from low-income families; the school staff is nearly entirely Caucasian and from the middle class. At the start of the group, angry students are hatching a plan to harass a teacher and disrupt his class.

STUDENT: He hates us. He's evil. LEADER: How do you know he's evil?

'What's So Funny?" The Group Leader's Use of Humor in Adolescent Groups 89

STUDENT: Because he is white.

LEADER: Oh, I know what you mean. My father was a white man.

STUDENT: So are you.

LEADER: Only on the outside.

STUDENT: You aren't black.

LEADER: You haven't seen my soul (laughter).

The students are perplexed. An adult joking while they lecture? As the banter continues some students begin to laugh along with the leader. The permissive atmosphere that ensues invites them all to talk and to put into words their feelings about racial and cultural differences.

The subject of racism is not an easy one. Without humor, serous tensions may have escalated and spilled out of the group into the school. Had this happened, the group may have done more harm than good.

The therapist's use of humor also helped the students to arrive at an important discovery: racial differences could be addressed in the school in a productive and non-threatening way.

Example Two: Remain Unflappable

Humor is also the ideal way for a therapist to cope with personal attacks. Every group leader is subject to verbal abuse and this is certainly true when you lead adolescent groups. You cannot possibly be popular with every teenager and many will transfer all their rage toward their parents or other adults onto you. When you are verbally attacked, never counterattack. Take it in stride; remain unflappable. In this way, you are modeling for the group members how they themselves can cope with hostility without becoming reactive.

In the following example, a group of teenagers addresses another loaded subject—homosexuality. Here the therapist uses humor to make it possible for the group members to discuss this taboo topic.

STUDENT: Are you gay or straight? LEADER: I like to keep all my options open. STUDENT: Well, are you? LEADER: Am I what?

STUDENT: Gay or straight?

LEADER: I certainly could be.

STUDENT (exasperated): Why are you so strange?

LEADER: Why are you so normal?

STUDENT: I'm not normal!

LEADER: Finally something we can agree upon.

The student laughs and soon the group is on the way to a lively discussion, talking with much energy about a subject they previously approached in hushed tones or did not talk about at all.

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