What is the power of humour and can it help you?
Humour is one of those brilliant resources that is freely available to everyone, but what exactly is humour and when can it be used? Because after all, what it funny to one person is not necessarily funny to another.
The Oxford dictionary offers two definitions for the noun:
- The quality of being amusing or comic, especially as expressed in literature or speech.
- A mood or state of mind.
Let me set the scene: an AGM was held in an open space with about 140 of the 280 property owners in attendance discussing a variety of communal space projects or activities requiring funding. The meeting opened with board elections and proceeded reasonably uneventfully until the last couple of agenda items. When the issue was outlined, tempers started to flare between four of the attendees. By the time all was said and done, voting tablets had been thrown, insults hurled, and tears spilled. For this first-time attendee, it was quite a shocking sight to witness.
Observing the attendee reactions first-hand, three things emerged during the AGM:
- A single digit number (<3%) of individuals became equally confrontational
- A large proportion (about 90%) of individuals became visibly uncomfortable
- A small proportion (about 5%) of individuals got up and left the meeting
With this backdrop, it had me wondering why more people don’t leverage humour more as a tool to help manage difficult, uncomfortable or stressful situations. Is humour a learned skill or one we naturally have (or don’t have)?
So, both Oxford dictionary definitions are of interest in this BLOG.
Applying humour to defuse tense moments
Let’s first consider the question of humour as a skill. Humour is a learned skill, we know this because as kids we learn about word play, jokes, gags and comedy. Generally, the ability to be funny is a skill honed by learning from others. Often through humourists, comedians and practice (which really means repeated trial and error). Humour, like leadership, is a skill that each of us are capable of learning. So how can humour actually help us?
It is useful in all of the following scenarios:
- Improves team cohesiveness (J. Warren, 2006 Journal of Neuroscience)
- Builds confidence in abilities (Fabio Sala, 2003 Harvard Business Review)
- Gets people to listen (David Stauffer, 1999 Harvard Business Review)
- Improved understanding (Mike Kerr, 2014 Inspiring Workplaces)
- Diffuses conflict (Jill Knox, 2013 AATH)
- Helps communicate messages (C. Ellis Campbell, 2012 AATH)
I could list even more benefits, all supported by research. It is a well-documented field of study so there is clearly merit in considering it.
How can we develop humour?
Beyond the obvious practice advice, there are three helpful tips to develop situationally appropriate humour (and this is critical to avoid offending others):
- Understand basic humour techniques
- Use humour with intent and purpose
- Always be on your game
Let’s look at how these elements work in practice. Humour techniques might include slapstick, self-deprecating, dark, put-downs, physical or observational. Awareness of when to use these techniques is essential to achieve the desired effect. For instance, using a put-down technique about someone’s attire in the workplace will do little more than offend and likely lead to a workplace harassment claim. Not a good idea! Whereas, using self-deprecation can help you seem humble, down-to-earth and therefore, approachable. Overuse may create the impression of insecurity or a lack of confidence, so use it sparingly.
Using humour with intent and purpose can be very effective. For example: West Jet (the Canadian airline) uses humour in their announcements which results in passengers listening rather than reading or using headphones. The announcement: “Ladies and Gents, West Jet would like to congratulate a first-time flyer who is celebrating his 100thbirthday. Folks, how about a big round of applause for our captain.” Passengers broke out in laughter, it was effective in making the flight more enjoyable and relaxing. In fact, passengers started speaking to each other – a rarity on some flights!
Lastly, being on your game means using humour by understanding the risk: some may question your professionalism or sincerity. To offset this risk, you may need to ensure that those around you understand what you are doing.
Humour can also be a change agent to build more natural, authentic and engaging workplaces. That in turn, leads to well-adjusted and happy employees and peers, not something to dismiss!
One humour technique for the AGM
Going back to the AGM, an effective technique for observers in that moment could have been to see the exaggerated behaviour of the four individuals and smile at what you observe using this lens. It almost becomes cartoon like to the observer. Observation also means that one does not absorb the negative energy in the room – likely the best outcome in that moment.
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Give it a try!
 Annual General Meeting