Laugh responsibly – Coaching with the character strength of humour

Takeaways from an IPPC Enrichment Series Workshop delivered by Silvia King and Jannie Stricker

With positive psychology coaching (PPC) as with so many other things, the proof is in the pudding. It is easy for us to say that we can use humour in coaching, after all there is plenty of positive psychology (PP) research that speaks to the many wellbeing benefits of the character strength of humour. But can we really?

Understanding humour

When you have two coaches like the authors who have humour as one of their signature strengths, this is a tricky question. After all, we are likely to use humour without thinking which could be a problem. And even for coaches who may be on the more serious side but want to use a strengths-based approach with their clients, this becomes a question. What if your client has humour as a top strength and you don’t?

To use the character strength of humour responsibly in coaching, it helps to clearly understand what it is and isn’t, how it “works” and where the potential pitfalls are. This is what the IPPC Enrichment Series workshop delivered by the authors set out to do, beginning with the three components of character strength of humour has three components (Niemiec, 2018; Ruch, 2008):

  1. humour (typically associated with jokes),
  2. playfulness (play with words and ideas) and
  3. laughter (the consequence of humour; non-verbal communication).

What can we use humour for?

Research has shown that this strength can be a good tool for, among other, building relationships, getting creative, problem-solving and resilience (e.g., Gash, 2017; Turner & Norris, 2022; Wheeler, 2020). However, humour isn’t always “fun” (e.g., mockery, sneering or sarcasm; Ruch et al., 2018) and doesn’t always translate into other languages, cultures and contexts (e.g., Joshanloo et al., 2014). As with every character strength, there is the potential for over- or underuse too. With all that said, we can say that using humour, playfulness and laughter can have benefits in PPC, but that we need to use it carefully and responsibly.

Having created an awareness for the ins and outs of humour, we went on to find ways to use this strength more purposefully in daily coaching practice and workshops. In this Enrichment Series workshop for the IPPC, we shared for the first time our recommendations for using humour in coaching to achieve two key goals: building the coaching alliance and facilitating solution finding. In two breakout sessions, participants practised the use of humour, playfulness and laughter for those purposes.

Can we really use humour in coaching?

Discussing the humorous coaching challenges we had set the participants, the answer to this question seems a definite yes. In fact, where we asked participants not to use humour or smiles, coaches found it really difficult, for some it felt inauthentic and building rapport seemed more of a challenge.

When we introduced a very short, humorous story to use in their breakout coaching sessions, participants felt it was easy to integrate and generate metaphors and creativity. Especially the humorous aspect of the stories gave “permission to go out of our own way” and enabled “light-heartedness” in the coaching conversations. Rather than being silly, the humour was felt to “serve a purpose”.

When we asked how participants might use humour more purposefully and responsibly in their future PPC practice, an astonishing range of suggestions came to light. Uses stretched from enabling a change in perspective and thinking differently to diffusing the seriousness of a challenge or lowering coachee anxiety when exploring worst case scenarios. Humour was also seen as a tool for self-reflective practice.

However, coaches also wanted to use time in the discovery part of the session to help calibrate the use of humour. One person said: “We need to be aware of the responsibility we have for another person when we introduce humour in coaching”. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

If you want to see the full workshop and get ideas how to use humour responsibly in your PPC practice, the recording is available here.


Gash, J. (2017). Coaching Creativity: Transforming your Practice. Routledge.

Joshanloo, M., Lepshokova, Z. K., Panyusheva, T., Natalia, A., Poon, W. C., Yeung, V. W. lan, Sundaram, S., Achoui, M., Asano, R., Igarashi, T., Tsukamoto, S., Rizwan, M., Khilji, I. A., Ferreira, M. C., Pang, J. S., Ho, L. S., Han, G., Bae, J., & Jiang, D. Y. (2014). Cross-cultural validation of Fear of Happiness Scale across 14 national groups. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 45(2), 246–264.

Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character Strengths Interventions: A field guide for practitioners. Hogrefe Publishing.

Ruch, W. (2008). The Psychology of Humor. In V. Raskin & W. Ruch (Eds.), The Primer of Humor Research (pp. 17–100). Mouton de Gruyter.

Ruch, W., Heintz, S., Platt, T., Wagner, L., & Proyer, R. T. (2018). Broadening humor: Comic styles differentially tap into temperament, character, and ability. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(6), 1–18.

Turner, A. F., & Norris, L. J. (2022). Humour and playfulness and their practical use in the advancement of coaching psychology and practice. The Coaching Psychologist, 18(2), 30–41.

Wheeler, S. (2020). An exploration of playfulness in coaching. International Coaching Psychology Review, 15(1), 44–58.