Interview with Lynn Johnson, Ph.D.
Changing a habit is not inherently hilarious.
Far from it, says Dr. Lynn Johnson, Ph.D., who’s seen his fair share of the pain that accompanies change over the course of his coaching career. As health coaches, “you’re asking people to make some big changes,” he says. “The two main interventions, diet and exercise—neither is easy to change. Anything you can do to alleviate the pain makes it better.” And one of his favorite—and most powerful—ways to make it better: make ‘em laugh.
People change for two reasons, Johnson says. “One is pain, the other is hope.” Clients often seek out coaches because they’re already feeling some kind of pain. “I like to lighten things up, so that people aren’t in as much pain,” he says. “If you can see something humorous and comment on it, it can temporarily relieve pain, and that sense of relief can help open things up.” Using humor as a pain-relieving maneuver makes people feel friendlier and can lead to more productive sessions.
So, how do you do it?
- Normalize their challenge by providing context that they may be missing when they’re “in the moment.” If a client wants to get in shape for a 5K race, Johnson suggests humanizing the challenge by saying, “That’s great. I think running is highly overrated.” “What do you mean?” the client may ask. Johnson says he’d respond: “If running made us fat and old before our time, then no one would do it.”
- Normalize their feelings by reminding clients that it’s okay to experience the pain of change. “No normal human being ever wanted to run just for the joy and fun of it,” he says, “because it hurts. Tell the client ‘you’re a normal human being if you don’t want to run.’” Saying something surprising is key, he says. “It’s a cheap and easy step toward humor.” This can lighten things up and put a positive spin on the challenge.
Johnson says it’s become natural for him to use humor in his practice. “I have sort of a twisted outlook on life. I make up jokes,” he says, rolling right into one: Why can’t god laugh at his own jokes? He knows all the punchlines!
“Humor is my way of connecting with people, but others have different, excellent methods that are wonderful,” he says. What’s important is discovering what works for you.
Wondering how to find your own way of connecting with clients as you start out as a professional coach? It helps to ask for feedback, says Johnson.
As you build your relationship with your client, you’re working to create a strong alliance. If your alliance is strong, people won’t get as discouraged as they work to change their behavior. This strong alliance can help people “feel like you care about them, that they can trust you, that you know things that they want to know,” says Johnson. “Then, it’s more like a heart-to-heart connection rather than a head-to-head connection.” And heart-to-heart connections, high-alliance connections, can have higher impact.
To see how your connection is progressing, Johnson recommends:
- Touching base with a client right after your session by using a brief checklist that lets them tell you how they thought the session, and your methods, went.
- One way to do this: develop an alliance measure that provides you with instant feedback. Johnson’s alliance measure is a list of seven questions, asking clients to rate their agreement with various statements about their session on a scale of one to four. For example: “I felt accepted and liked by my counselor,” and “We worked on my goals; my goals were important.”
- Once you know what worked and what didn’t, keep what’s working and change what’s not. “Stick to the baseball rule,” Johnson says. “Never change a winning game, always change a losing one.” If something didn’t work in the session, think about how you can do things differently next time.
If you’re not using some sort of feedback mechanism with clients, you’re “missing out on a tremendously useful tool,” he says. “We know from a variety of research that people who start using feedback will improve outcomes by about a third. It’s beautiful.”
Client feedback will help you refine your methods of connecting, whatever methods you use. “Humor is one avenue to the heart,” says Johnsons, “but there are lots of avenues to the heart, and everybody has their own.”