Team Training: The Right Kind of Funny

Team Training: The Right Kind of Funny
by Moshe Cohen ©2016

A few weeks ago, the New York Times magazine published an article about what Google learned from its quest— code-named Project Aristotle— to build the perfect team. As a consulting team trainer at one of Silicon Valley’s major companies the past 8 months, I have immersed myself in this quest. Google’s research findings have me particularly enthused as they confirm that my interactive mindfulness trainings are on the right track.

Some of Google’s conclusions:

“what distinguished the ‘‘good’’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another…. good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.”

Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, defined as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.

Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

In my  line of work, high social sensitivity and the ability to create an atmosphere of psychological safety are prerequisites. Awareness, listening and strong non-verbal communication skills are what we develop through methodologies I have used in the health care world. According to Google’s research, these skills are exactly what’s needed for effective team work. However Google, and many other corporate entities, might be challenged by the current negativity surrounding my field…which is…Clowning.

If scary images of overly made-up, obnoxiously loud, insensitive, immature characters come to mind, please travel further back in time than the media maelstrom of the past 50 years—which has popularized a very stereotyped and mostly negative image of clown. Blame it on Ronald McDonald, John Wayne Gacy, Stephen King’s It and any other hosts of contenders. The majority of the world has forgotten that clowning is about the funny, that there is a finer, more subtle and smart version of clown circulating in the corridors of the theater, one who has audiences laughing night after night.

Clown is unique in the performing arts in that audience interaction is part of the game, and their level of enjoyment often determines the performer’s next steps. If something that’s usually funny isn’t getting any laughs, the good clown will move on rather than dig a hole in the ground. Thus the clown’s eyes, ears, and all their senses are listening for the subtlest of cues. These clowns have great capacity for non-verbal communication. Most having spent years training in physical/ movement/gestural theater, in voice, mime, tai chi…in my case butoh dance….

One thing that may surprise the reader is that these clowns are all about mindfulness—yes, it’s a hot topic these days. Clowns have a somewhat different version of mindfulness as their awareness is more focused on being present with others, on their outward interactions rather than inner navel gazing. This is especially true of the thousands of healthcare clowns around the world, who work in children’s wards and elder homes, where the main game is often personal interaction in intimate settings rather than full view on stage.

Perhaps Interactive Mindfulness is a good term. Whereas many mindfulness practices are centered around meditation with objectives of stress reduction, resilience, self-inquiry; here the objectives are on presence, social sensitivity and authentic interaction. In this context, humor acts as a facilitator, lubricant and communicator for mutual understanding.

Can humor be a useful tool for teams seeking to create an atmosphere of ‘interpersonal trust, mutual respect in which people are comfortable with themselves’ ?? If the humor is kind, well meaning, and looking to uplift the group, It certainly can. Perhaps it’s helpful to think in terms of constructive (vs destructive) humor.  So far, my team training results definitely point in that direction. I certainly wouldn’t be crafting these words if I didn’t think so.

Given  traditional hierarchical management structures, if one wishes for a culture where people feel comfortable being themselves, the structure they work in, the upper management and corporate culture need to be fully supportive. There has to be a very strong wish for employees to feel comfortable being themselves, to remove the pressures causing people to put on a ‘work’’ mask to protect themselves.

One must also factor in cultures and upbringing where ‘just being themselves’ at work is not initially perceived as an option. Early on in our training sessions in Silicon Valley, I was informed by one of our Indian participants that in India, showing emotions of any kind at work was not considered professional.

As I continue to develop team training methods, I  occasionally glance over to the mindfulness movement to see what approaches they might be taking.

Here is a paragraph from the latest program offering, Engage, from Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, of one of leaders in corporate mindfulness training:

Mindfulness-based emotional intelligence practices help individuals increase well-being, decrease stress and become more resilient. Through mindful communication practices, individuals can improve how they relate and collaborate with one another, the result being more enjoyable and effective teamwork.

Wonderful to read, several things caught my eye:
-One is the use of the word enjoyable connected to effective teamwork.
-Another is the phrase mindful communication.
A third is the word practices.

Starting backwards, the word practices is vital for teams, as in something one practices on a regular basis, to ensure ongoing collaboration  requires ongoing training.

How does one communicate mindfully?  It’s a hot topic. Being fully present with each other, AND really hearing what the other is saying.  Hard not to start formulating words/responses in one’s brain—which would remove one from being fully present.

I have practiced council, where the group sits together in a circle, passes a talking stick. The instructions are to speak  (and listen) from the heart, and only the person with the stick speaks. It’s a most wonderful way for a group to communicate deeply. For a time-stressed engineering team, this might not be the best option. What happens in a more spontaneous, and busy, environment?

After all, speaking from the heart may also not be exactly what the software engineers signed up for.

As the NY Times points out:
But the kinds of people who work at Google are often the ones who became software engineers because they wanted to avoid talking about feelings in the first place.

Yet even without meditation,  the ability to place their awareness outwards is important for collaboration. As mentioned earlier on, developing the capacity to be present—without an engaged thinking mind—does require practice, something akin to the Zen practice Menmitsu. With my team, we use juggling as an active form of mindfulness. No, it doesn’t take you to the same place as meditation, but that is another story.

From my perspective, that of clown and physical theater, the answer to mindful communication is obvious: remove words from the equation. Develop non-verbal expressiveness, and bring lightness to the table. Devise methods/structures/exercises for co-workers develop common non-verbal language, infused with humor and good will.

Expressiveness is explored at various ‘volumes’, from great exaggeration to light subtlety, I think you can guess which is ultimately the most useful tool. One of the major side-benefits for the team members are their interaction skills outside the immediate work environment, at conferences; as well as devising and offering public presentations.Create methods to enjoy resolving tensions. There is far more to say here but I have been going on for  a while now…

Before I go let me tie up one loose end, about that first point of linking enjoyment and effectiveness.  I have found that physical theater and clowning is both fun and offers great expressive tools to use in the workplace, pathways that ease rather than exacerbate tensions. I have also found that teams having fun together tend to like being around each other more.

For example, in the training, the team members have loud and spirited arguments without saying a word, and having great fun doing it. Having fun being angry with each other?? Could that possibly decrease tensions, stress, and result in a more enjoyable and effective teamwork? Yes!  By focusing on the funny, the arguers discover their ability to enjoy the disagreement,   to not take themselves too seriously and develop skills in listening, in awareness, in expression, and in positive connection to their co-workers.

A few years ago, I was teaching a workshop at the Tassajara Mountain Zen Center.  In the closing circle, one of the participants, a business consultant, expressed his amazement at how much humor he could convey with just a look. I smiled in recognition at his truth.


The Horizontal approach: In Argentina, Clowns in Children’s hospitals is a law.

Yes it’s a law in Argentina that Children’s Hospitals must employ clowns. I’m posting here to link the reader to this great article (on the Next City website written by M. Sophia Newman. It’s  about the clowns in South America and their impact on public health. What piqued my interest is the point of view offered by Alfonso Silva-Santisteban, a doctor with personal clowning experiences with BolaRoja, the Peruvian hospital clown organization.  He talks about the impact of reaching people through a horizontal approach, how to engage with the public where they are at in the moment.

In terms of clowning, you might describe that as a quieter, European approach-improvising injecting humor into what is happening as opposed to a larger than life, loud, potentially obnoxious approach that imposes ones idea of fun, funny animated entertainment approach….not that hospital clowns are always quiet, just that they are very sensitive to what makes sense in their environment at the moment—something truly required in a hospital setting…and a quality that by and large tends to bring deeper laughter to the table.

Here’s a quote from the article:

What does clowning add to the workshops?
The philosophy of clowning or one of the main things you should do when you are clowning is that, first, you are who you are, and you are there to offer what you have. And then you lose fear … of ridicule, and then you always establish a horizontal link to whoever you have in front, right? You always start from where the people [are]. You read your audience. And that is how you engage with a community, especially if they are disenfranchised, especially if you don’t know them, especially if you are foreign and you want to do some work.

So for me, it makes a lot of sense to use those values, besides using them when doing clowning, to use them in the work of public health. One of the things you always see is this kind of vertical, hierarchical imposition, programs that sometimes look like charity, that have very short-minded goals, you know? And then people say, this hasn’t worked as we want it to. In this case, it’s more of a process-type perspective, engaging with people with whom you want to establish common goals. So clowning is a very good facilitator of that type of relationship.

Clown + Zen. Listening and Connection. Conversations with Egyoku.

This conversation with Roshi Egyoku took place during my six weeks (Jan-Feb 2007) as an artist in residence at the Zen center of Los Angeles. A few times a week, we would sit down for a half hour chat to examine the relationship of Clowning and Zen.

Egyoku questioning

Listening, a clown’s perspective.

Performing as clown involves listening to the whole that binds the stage/performer(s) and the audience, with all ones senses. Each performer plays this in his/her own way, but the general rule is that one plays in relationship to the audience’s response, expanding moments where the audience is responding strongly. Performers will share their listening to different degrees with the audience. ‘The fourth wall is broken down’ is often how clown is differentiated from traditional theater; the fourth wall referring to the imaginary wall between the stage and the audience. How a performer plays this differs greatly, ranging from direct conversation and looks/playing with the audience, to much more subtle and semi hidden reaction to audience response.
The degree of listening complexities is one of the aspects of clown that appears attractive to Zen practitioners. One person on stage will be listening to what he/her is doing, what impulses are being generated and suggesting responses, and to how the audience is reacting to his/her actions. If the number of performers is two three or more, the degree of listening increases in reference to the number of permutations of relationships that are possible in that situation. Often the performer is listening to two or three variables while trying not to allow the brain to interfere with one’s intuitive humoristic responses and impulses.

Dialogue about Listening and Zen

Egyoku: You want me to say about listening, what’s there to say?
Listening would imply a subject and an object, I’m listening to your breath, to a sound , to a voice, to another person’s ideas. I think in Zen listening we would take it even a step further, in that we become what we are listening to, you would call it deep listening, so that you are listening from a place where there is no separation at all, it’s more of an embodied place than ‘I am listening to you” kind of thing. So in terms of the three tenets, that would be the bearing witness place, where we are completely identified, or at one with, whatever is manifesting.

Moshe: To be at one with, so when I recall the Auschwitz (5 day bearing witness retreat) experience, that everything is one, so that you are part of that, not separate from that.

E: Yeah, that you are that. In these brief moments, that is what we are , completely. So I guess you could say that there are different degrees of listening, so that would, in a way, be the most profound listening, where the self and other disappears completely. In a so called relative world, how we function normally, I am listening to you, I am hearing the sound, I am whatever, aware of how you might be feeling, that is a different kind of listening, an emotional listening maybe, kind of a sensitivity which has to do our awareness, but also our capacity to be impermeable, like we are a membrane.

M: In clown we don’t just listen with our ears, we listen with our whole body..

E: Yeah

M: Theoretically you can say ears and eyes, but beyond that there is just a sense, you can feel what is going on, an awareness, and that is a kind of listening too.

E: So that is the whole body, the engagement of the entire body, we say a thousand hands and eyes. Is an expression, all over the body, hands and eyes.

M: that is a Buddhist expression?

E: We have a koan like that.

M: Interesting, I immediately draw a parallel to Ohno sensei, Kazuo Ohno, the great butoh dancer that I studied with. One of his exercises was just that, imagining that you have eyes everywhere on your body, and that they are all seeing, because…

E: Because you do. Oh so that we say deep listening is, is the awakening your eyes throughout the body.

M: Nice.

E; You were saying about butoh?

M: One of the aspects of butoh is the connectivity with space. You don’t cut through space, you move space, you are part of the space, you are not separate from the space. The space being the stage, the image the audience sees, you are part of that, intimately and intensely part of that.

There are different exercises one works with: one is to be conscious of every body action and make sure that you are moving space, connected to the space, not cutting through the space. Another is using your eyes, so seeing everything, 360°, and never losing any of that focus. Ohno sensei worked with the concept that you had eyes everywhere on your body, alive and seeing, so that one is conscious of every minute body movement.

E: That would be a great way to teach meditation.

A parallel to listening is to consider being connected, in the case of clown, with one’s audience.

Egyoku, speaking about the role of the clown:

A vehicle of …, channeling…. bringing forth life. Breaking out, relationship of life, sometimes it is a hidden relationship, sometimes it is the most obvious relationship. This is how I feel when I watch you work-you are connected and you are connecting in many different ways-you are connecting with the person or the circumstance, and you are also connecting people (the audience) with the circumstance, and you are also connecting people with each other, a unifying force. You are connecting the audience with the ‘where’, of certain aspects of life, sometimes it’s the absurdity of it, sometimes there is a sweetness of it, sometimes the tenderness of it, sometimes the beauty of it. It just depends on what your particular thing is, but I think that often times we are just going through life, we are not aware of these things, and suddenly there it is. You are opening up our awareness.

M: A parable that I offer students in clown workshops is :The more connected you are inside, the more connected you are outside.
Is there a parallel in Zen?

E: Oh absolutely, that is what meditation is about, and just the subtle levels of life.

Egyoku on Sacred Clown. JUST Human!

The deeper I delve into clown from the teaching side, the greater the desire to put a finger on this word clown, what and all it represents. This has led me to explore the traditions of the sacred clowns amongst many of the indigenous tribes here in North America.
Their function in their communities depends on the tribe. They have different social and ceremonial roles that they play, yet invariably there is laughter involved.
For example, one thing the Hopi clowns do, is to clown problems that exist in their society ( such as obesity, diabetes, alcoholism) allowing people to laugh around the problems. Another aspect of sacred clown has deeper meaning. I offer up a paragraph from Joseph Eppes Browns’ book “Teaching Spirits”, this is the beginning of 4 pages of the book that discuss clowning:

Breaking Through with Laughter. The Lakota Heyhokas

That these are serious, sacred rites doesn’t mean that the rites do not contain some humor. Very often, right in the middle of a sacred ritual such as the opening of a sacred bundle, people may start telling funny stories. Suddenly, in this most serious context, people are laughing and holding their sides. Their laughter may seem to ridicule the rite, thus destroying it, but it does this so that the deeper truths contained within the rite can come forth and reveal themselves. Among many tribes on the Northwest coast, certain rites and ceremonies cannot be started until the guests who have been invited to participate start to laugh. Once they are laughing, the ground is prepared for a real quality of participation.
In many traditional societies, the clown is the first one to break through the solemnity of a ceremony…Hoxua offering their dance

In December of 2006, I was invited to perform at the Anjos Do Picadeiro festival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Anjos do Picadeiro means Angels of the (Circus) Ring. What a nice way to refer to clowns. One of the extraordinary things about the festival was the presence of the Hotxua, the sacred clowns of the Kraho tribe in the Amazon. I had wonderful encounters with them, backstage at a documentary film shoot in the Hotel Gloria, and at various moments of the festival. They came to my show, loved it. I went to a demonstration of their rituals, more than loved it. There is a whole story about their rituals to be written, sometime soon

In the meantime, here is an extract from a discussion with the Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, at the Zen Center in Los Angeles. I find her observations most illuminating on the nature of sacred clown. I showed her some photos of the Hotxua, and then read to her the translation of a conversation that I had with Liberto Kraho. Here is the discussion with the Roshi that followed:

Moshe: So the words spirit or spiritual don’t really apply in Zen, I am wondering about the word ‘sacred’. What does that mean for you? I had certain expectations about Sacred clown, yet when I saw the Hotxua play, they were so human…

Egyoku: Well yes, that’s the key in Zen, IT IS so Human. So (the words) sacred and secular is just another dichotomy.

Moshe: So sacred for you it just means being human?

Egyoku: Yes, but not just being human, but JUST being human-so fully human!!! There is no notion of sacred, secular, spiritual, not spiritual, you are just so fully embodied, which sounds like what they (the Hotxua) are doing, their completely embodied activity of human life. This complete embodiment is a very Zen thing: you are completely poured into it, and it’s poured into you; it goes both ways. There is no gap between anything really. That sounds like what they are doing. They are IT. They are playing, they are fighting, singing, dancing. They’re celebrating all these facets of life.liberto and moshe

I love also what he says (Liberto), we don’t put anything on, we take it all off. We strip down to being human.
(Egyoku is reflecting on Liberto’s earlier comments about how they don’t wear any costumes or big shoes, but just shorts. )

What to say about all this? Perhaps that as clowns, here in this increasingly complex modern world, we can remind people what it is to be truly human, and to laugh about it all. Could this be our role as ‘sacred’ clowns ?

Is Humor the Essence (tial) of Clown

2016. January 2nd. A new year begins, and the morning web readings have led, through Google’s word alert for the word ‘clown’, to a Indiegogo page for a performance entitled “Meet the Clown – A Performance by Riham Isaac.” Bethlehem, Palestine.

Included on the fundraising page is a great 4 minute video which promises performance excellence from this young Palestinian trio on many levels, theatrical, musical, visual richness of the trio’s performance. Riham’s thoughtful and soulful description of her project: “to spot the light on the honest and transparent human inside the depth of our souls” is indeed the heart of the clown’s journey.

Yet as I peruse the page and gain perspective on the project, certain questions come up for me.  Clown, just what is this? Riham states at the top of the page that she is a sad clown. Does that mean that the show will be sad? I started writing this to get at the one thing that strikes me about this project: the words humor, fun, funny, joyful are not mentioned as far as I can tell, nowhere it is suggested that laughter is part of the project.

What is “Clown” is certainly an over-labored question, one whose answer is as vast as the human experience.

Is being funny, sharing laughter, audiences having fun,  even sometimes delight and joy, a required intention of the clown. Is being funny the true vehicular essence of the journey, and that all truths are revealed through the lens of the ridiculous and the absurd?  My personal experience, coming from the entertainment vector, certainly is.  Is the Poetic Clown’s intention to uplift, to bring laughter? Does the Sad Clown use their sadness to allow the audience to laugh and let go, a bit, of their own?  I wonder how those reading these words feel about this role of humor in clown?

 “Is there humor in the truth, and truth in the humor?”

If one ventures into  sacred  clowning territory—the first nations’ clowns—laughter is the essence that opens the doors of perception (if you are not familiar with Sacred Clown, there is quite a movement that stretches human history-more here.)  Humor is certainly essential to their task of opening a  common ground  where the  “audience” (community) can laugh about and  share deeper issues and truths.

I’m guessing that Riham’s intentions  include fun and funny as part of the equation. The page states: “Riham believes each one of us has their inner clown who has this kind of spontaneity and playfulness which we usually cover with masks we put on each morning to face the surrounding world.”

The project promises an interactive theatrical experience as  the audience :  “since the moment of their arrival by putting them into certain situations and allow them to start the journey of the clown with different art disciplines; live music and sounds, videos and visuals like installation.”

I’m guessing that humor and fun is bound to come into any spontaneous interaction involving clowns. I’m certainly going to support her journey, and invite you to join me. I haven’t been there but from all that I have read, surely a performance that invites the audience into spontaneity and playfulness will bring many blessings to the land.

To support the project “Meet the Clown,” click here.

Positive Humor Helps !