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Humor, relationships and cajoling

John Digney

To ‘encourage or persuade by effort; to coax’., can on occasion be part of all of our lives, particularly when we are living our lives with young people in the care systems. Previously, I wrote (Digney, 2005. p.14) that when ‘young people are being non-cooperative or acting out it is often possible to re-engage with them through the mechanism of humour’. For cajoling to be effective we must turn it into an art form. This paper shall explore that notion a little more deeply.

I think it is useful to pause a moment to briefly consider the use of words and cultural convention. Prior to starting this paper I believed that this notion of using humour to ‘cajole’ young people would be uncomplicated to convey. However, as I began to write I soon came to realize that my personal definition of the word ‘cajole’ differed somewhat from many dictionary definitions. This Inter-Cultural phenomenon is an issue that often exists and tends to cause some confusion. Ferdinand de Saussure the Swiss linguist spoke of language as being an ordered system of signs with culturally assigned meaning – he referred to this as a ‘cultural convention’. This notion speaks to the idea of arbitrariness of the sign, i.e. there is no particular reason that a specific word is used in any given situation other than the fact that there is an accepted understanding of what is being conveyed by the speaker to the listener. This holds well until you are communicating with people who do not share the same convention. It is on this issue that I need to ensure some clarity around my usage of the word ‘cajole’.

Many of the definitions of ‘cajole’ that I came across spoke of the use of ‘flattery’, ‘sweet-talk’ and ‘soft soaping’. These terms in my mind make use of insincerity or artificiality; cajoling to me does not pertain to either of these. I have intentionally used a published definition that uses none of these terms, however, I believe this referenced definition provides a limited explanation of my usage of this, now complex, term.

When I speak of cajoling, I refer to the idea of convincing someone to see a different point of view, coaxing them or as my mother would say, ‘jollying them along’. It is about gentle, affirmative persuasion and must have no allusion to false flattery or minimizing of someone else’s view. In the work that we do we seek to gain trust from the kids and we cannot achieve this if we are in anyway false, insincere, or critical of their situation or minimizing of their crisis.

Defiance or reluctance
The young people with whom we spend our hours, as Krueger (1988, p.2) reminds us ‘generally have not experienced the same quality and quantity of care and learning in relationships with adults and peers as other youths their age’. We also know that, ‘reaching kids in pain takes special skill’ (Brendtro & Du Toit, 2005. p53). This is even more pertinent when a young person is an all too common moment. Below is a list of ‘symptoms’, a list of behaviours, that we deal with. Think of a young person you know and see if he/she ticks any of the boxes:

The website providing this list suggests that a pattern of negative behaviour lasting over 6 months, where 4 or more of these behaviours are present, can lead to a diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) (Doermann, n.d.). Of course I’m not getting into that debate and suffice to say I do not subscribe to the idea of labeling kids. I am merely pointing out a list of behaviours which we need to help young people work through. Hewitt (1999) describes ODD as ‘autonomy carried to its extreme’ and tells us that ‘adults often get locked in conflict cycles with such students’ (p30).

To help a young person in moments of extreme crisis, the times that they are most likely to become ‘oppositional’ or uncooperative, we must not allow ourselves enter the potentially negative (tit for tat) cycle, but use the mechanisms at work in our relationship to reconnect and engage with a young person and help them (and often ourselves) out of a difficult situation. That is to say, we approach negative situations in a positive, unthreatening and friendly manner.

Cajoling: Humour as an antidote
It is possible to ‘defuse’ a potentially difficult or dangerous situation by cajoling a young person through playing to their sense of humour (Digney, 2005). One of the factors at play in these times of crisis is distress. Any apparently benign situation may create excess amounts of distress for a young person, and owing to this they may become uncooperative and difficult. In these situations a gentle urging is much more effective than tackling a young person full on. We can try to remove some of stress by encouraging them to laugh or by reframing the situation in a respectful way.

Stress relief
Sultanoff (1995) tells us that, during a crisis the people closest to it are most likely to integrate the crisis into their internal emotional being. That is to say, psychologically, they join the stressful experience with their own inner emotional state. If we can reduce this felt difficulty, we will make cajoling the young person more effective.

Cajoling through humour can be a very effective way of reducing stress. One of the fundamental beliefs of Buddhism is that pain and pleasure are flip sides of the same coin. Taking this on board, it is reasonable to explore the notion that all negative situations have a positive opposite side, if viewed differently or managed appropriately. Most stress really comes from how we interpret, label and judge the world. Loretta LaRoche (1998, p. 19-20) tells us that any situation can be judged as good, bad, painful, or pleasant. This is because ‘each of us has the power to decide how to interpret stressful events’ and this is dependent on our own inner criteria. Humour and laughter can adjust these inner criteria and serve to foster a positive and hopeful attitude.

Chinery (2007), speaking in her paper on alleviating stress through humour, tells us that humour is a way of ‘mastering the horror, when we feel helpless and know there is nothing we can do to change the situation…it is a healthy denial of reality – lightening up the heaviness related to crisis, tragedy or death’ (p.178). She also states that we are less likely to succumb to feelings of depression and helplessness if we are able to laugh at what is troubling us. She quote Wooten (1996) as saying that ‘humour gives a sense of perspective on our problems and an opportunity for release of uncomfortable emotions that ‘if held inside, may create biochemical changes that may be harmful to the body’, (p. 177). Care must be taken however, for, as Sultanoff (1995) points out, when using humor in a time of stress or crisis situation individuals sharing the same crisis are likely to react differently depending on meaning each one places on the emotional experience of the crisis. This reinforces the point that humour might be helpful to one individual and harmful to another. Those immersed in the crisis may experience humour aimed at the crisis as directed at themselves and therefore, as insensitive. With the passing of time from the stressful event distance is achieved and those who were once close to the crisis may be aided by humour. As Sultanoff says, we have often heard the expression, ‘it wasn’t funny at the time!’

Humour, reframing and cajoling
‘It is in the stepping out of the reality of a situation and carefully restructuring a different reality (momentarily) that it is possible to break with the learned social norms and create a briefly disarming effect’ (Digney, 2005, p14).

We can use humour to provide perspective and to help ourselves and others deal with the emotional turmoil being experienced by young people in crisis through creating a ‘break’ in the present giving time to allow a reframing and providing of perspective. Demaray (1987) quoting Gerald Piaget, says that ‘humo(u)r that exposes the incongruities of life can provide safety valves for conflict’ (p27) and that ‘the safety valve of laughter has a way of releasing us to gladness and restoring normalcy’ (p28).

Tony was volatile at the best of times, this kid really hurt. He had been in care from the age of seven and had had dozens of foster and residential placements. He was now 14 years old, had entered the justice system and was living in a court ordered placement. As often happened at bedtime some of the kids were reluctant to leave the television room and Tony was in a particularly aggressive mood. Upon being asked to get ready for be for the umpteenth time he jumped out of the couch he was sitting on, upturned it and assumed a fighting stance, ‘come on you bastards make me go to bed’. At this the other lads in the room decided that things were going to get bad and left quietly and strolled off the bed (not the usual response, but very much appreciated).

I was left with him, trying to calm him, trying to talk to him. The other staff seen that there was no direct threat ‘at this moment’ and went with the others to make sure they got to bed. I tried to reason with Tony, ‘come on now, there’s no need for this’, ‘sit down and tell me what’s up’, this isn’t gonna end well’, were the phrases I heard myself saying. All to no avail, Tony held his stance, repeatedly telling me to ‘fuck off’ and that he wasn’t going without a fight. ‘Another long night’, I thought. He didn’t want to talk, he probably wasn’t even sure what to say even if he calmed, so what were the options? Restraint? This was always the last resort and given that he wasn’t creating an imminent danger to himself or others, there needed to be another way.

The door opened and in ran four of my colleagues (2 had come from the other units on ‘back-up’). They ran towards the upturned couch, singing loudly, ‘da da da da dadadada da da…dad a dada’ to the theme of The Simpsons, plopped themselves on the upside down couch and shuffled around a bit. Mark, with a smile on his face, looked at Tony and said, ‘you want to be Maggie or Santa’s Little Helper?’ After a couple of, ‘well which do you want to be’s’, Tony suggested that we were all quite mad. Mark said, ‘what do you think we do when the kids go to bed? We come in here and replay the opening of The Simpsons from the night before, so do you wanna join in?’ After a few moments he said, ‘OK, but I’m not Maggie. I wanna be Bart’.

Tony sat between two of the staff; I went for the camera and took a couple of pictures. We then talked about some of the funny scenes in The Simpsons before suggesting it was late, that Tony should head for bed and that we’d be in to have a chat about what was bothering him. Off he went and after a minute or two of laughing about this in the office, myself and Mark went down to his room for a chat.

In this example we see how the humorous approach created a break in reality, causing a disarming of stress and tension and it also allowed a way out for Tony without loosing face. The environment was kept safe and good humoured and this allowed us to coax or gently persuade Tony to cease his ‘disruptive behaviour’ and make his way to bed safely.

It is also sometimes useful to use humour in certain situations to make the point that the trigger for conflict is sometimes absurd. Using humour in this way to cajole a young person requires tact, skill and relationship. It is not about telling the young person they are being absurd, it is about using the mechanics of humour to allow the young person to discover this for themselves in a safe and controlled way.

Trotter (2004) mentions the work of Pollio (1995) where he states, ‘humour can be used to break an impasse…and humanize situations…encourage the use of humour where the client can understand the humour, where it suits the style of the worker and where it is appropriate to the situation’ (p28). That said, he also points out, on the same page, that if used incorrectly that it can, ‘be demeaning and cause the client to become angry’.

Gavin was a kid like Tony, he too had a long care history and found many situations difficult and stressful. One evening after dinner he was bringing his empty plate to the kitchen when it dropped from his hands. The plate broke and Gavin became annoyed (and possibly a bit embarrassed as the other kids laughed). I was in the kitchen and heard the breaking plate, the laughter and Gavin’s angry outburst. ‘It’s ok’, said one of the staff, ‘just clean it up and don’t worry’. This caused him to become more annoyed and threatening to the staff. I thought if I made a witty remark this might alleviate things and cajole him into complying with what he had been asked before we had a situation. I popped my head around the door and said, ‘looks like we need to hire a new juggler, Gavin, you’re fired.’

This (what I thought to be a witty comment) had the opposite effect to that anticipated. Instead of persuading (or cajoling) him to calm down, it infuriated him. ‘Think you’re a funny fucker, do you’, I heard him shout as he lunged at me…

Gavin had thought that I was making a fool out of him, he was already annoyed with himself, a bit frustrated and embarrassed in front of his peers, and the other staff. Having not been in the room as the plate had fallen and as Gavin became annoyed had not been in my favour. He had indeed thought I was demeaning towards him and his had fuelled his anger. I learned a lesson that day.

Cajoling and humour – the conflict
I have provided a brief insight into some of the processes at work in any given situation when a young person is being non-cooperative, e.g. stress, learned behaviour, excessive autonomy. I have also mentioned that these behaviours often lead to young people being labeled. That being said, these are the kids with whom we live and work, these are the kids for who we care. We know that there will be difficult times and we know we must help them along, to cajole them. Humour can be a great tool when wishing to cajole but it can also bring about chaos.

Some of the questions we must ask ourselves at all times when considering using humour to cajole in any situation where we are in conflict with the young person are:

This is not an exhaustive list of questions, but indicates the importance of reflection, not just ‘before’ this intervention, but also ‘during’ and indeed ‘after’.

We need to be creative, we need to think on our feet and we need to be reflective, using our relationships and ourselves. The situations we find ourselves in can be potentially dangerous, not just physically, but there is also a danger we can make kids’ lives worse, reinforcing their self-doubt. But we must get through the days, the situations, the crises. We can beg, we can plead, to get kids to move forward, to try to defuse – though these techniques are flawed. As stated by Garfat (2003), ‘the goal of our work is not to be a therapy but to be therapeutic’ (p13). Can humour as a way of cajoling a young person out of a crisis be therapeutic? Is the use of humour worth the gamble? This is often our conflict in these situations. If we can answer yes to the questions above (and a dozen more besides), there is no gamble. If we have this ability, belief and insight humour can be one of the best ways to move a situation on and is also a great skill to pass on to the young people for whom we care.


Brendtro, L., and Du Toit, L. (2005). Response Ability Pathways – Restoring Bonds of Respect. Cape Town. Pretext.

Chinery, W., (2007). Alleviating stress with humour: a literature review. Journal of Perioperative Practice, 17. pp. 172-182.

Demaray, D.E. (1987). Laughter, Joy and Healing. Grand Rapids. Bake Book House.

Doermann, D.J. (n.d.). Retrieved 31st May 2008.

Digney, J. (2005). Towards a comprehension of the therapeutic use of humor in Child and Youth Care. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, 18, 4. pp. 9-15.

Garfat, T. (2003). A Child and Youth Care Approach to Working with Families. Binghampton. Haworth Press.

Greenwald, H. (1975). Humour in Psychotherapy. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 7. pp. 113-116.

Hewitt, M. B. (1999). The Control Game: Exploring Oppositional Behaviour. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 8, 1. pp. 30-33.

Krueger, M. (1988). Intervention Techniques for Child/Youth Care Worker. Washington. Child Welfare League of America.

La Roche, L. (1998) Relax – you may only have a few minutes left; Using the power of humour to overcome stress in your life and work. New York. Villard Books.

Pollio, D.E. (1995). Use of Humour in Crisis Intervention. Families in Society, 76, 6. pp. 376-384.

Sultanoff, S. (1995). Exploring the land of mirth and funny: A voyage through the interrelationships of wit, mirth and laughter. Therapeutic Humour. July/August.

Trotter, C. (2004). Working with Involuntary Clients. London. Sage Publications Ltd.

Wooten, P. (1996). Humour: an antidote for stress. Holistic Nursing Practice, 10, 2. pp. 49-56.