By Michele Straube
My mother loved adages and random quotes. One of her favorites was “laughter is the best medicine.” She had a gift for using levity to smooth out awkward social situations and to persuade people to see things her way. English was not her first language, and she used that to her advantage. For instance, Massachusetts became “Massatralala.” Or, she squeezed her thumbs for good luck instead of crossing her fingers. Guaranteed to get a laugh (and break the tension) every time. I think using humor just came naturally to my mom; I don’t think it was an intentional strategy.
When I moved into the professional world, I tried to emulate my mom’s beneficial use of humor. As a lawyer, I gently pointed out the absurdities of my clients’ or opponents’ desired solutions to create breakthrough moments in negotiations. As a professor and trainer, I relished the sound of laughter in the classroom. That meant the students’ minds were open to learning. As an environmental facilitator, I knew that we were making progress when the ranchers and the environmentalists both found one of my wry comments funny, and maybe even incorporated the funny new word into their speech later in the day (I mean who doesn’t love to talk about “dirty dirt”?!).
I wanted to know whether there was an analytical way to identify humor possibilities or a way to learn/teach the appropriate use of humor. I developed a brown bag presentation over a decade ago on humor in facilitation/mediation, but felt I was only scratching at the edges. Now there is a book that does exactly what I was looking for so long ago.
In Humor, Seriously, authors Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas combine a science-based analysis of stand-up comedy with evolving neuroscience, stories and lessons learned from corporate leaders who have leveraged humor as part of their way of doing business to great success. From those “facts,” they’ve developed some principles for incorporating humor into your professional toolkit. While the book seems written for a corporate audience, there is much to inform the use of humor in a mediation or facilitation practice.
Let’s start with the last chapter of the book and the (After)words. [Cue a little laugh, as starting at the end is not what you expect.] For me, these sections succinctly captured the benefits of the appropriate use of humor. The authors relate humor to the drivers of human well-being, the regrets that people express on their deathbeds: boldness, authenticity, presence, joy and love. Not surprisingly, humor and levity enhance our experience of each of these qualities. Humor helps us tackle fear (boldness), provide a different perspective (authenticity), search for hidden truth in each moment (presence), find the joy in the everyday (joy), and cut through tension and divisiveness to help us feel loved. The (After)words by author Michael Lewis clarifies that “being funny” is not the desired outcome of using humor. Rather, it should be a process of “having fun,” with an outcome of improved relationships and enhanced perspective.
Now, let’s go back to the beginning and start with definitions. [Cue another little laugh, because this is where most negotiated agreements start.] The book uses the word “humor” in the title. Throughout the book, though, the word “humor” is used interchangeably with the word “levity.” The authors are clear that the goal of humor is to make difficult situations easier to navigate. “[W]hen we refuse to take ourselves so seriously, we relieve the stress standing in the way of serious work, create more meaningful connections with our colleagues, and open our minds to more innovative solutions.” Just what a mediator or facilitator is tasked to do, right?!
You don’t have to be a stand-up comic to use humor successfully. (Phew!). The authors introduce four humor styles: the stand-up (a natural comedian), the sweetheart (understated humor), the magnet (always cheerful), the sniper (edgy and sarcastic). You can take the full quiz here to identify your personal humor style. As with most style paradigms (think conflict styles), there is no preferred humor style. An individual with any humor style can successfully insert levity into their professional interactions. Indeed, the reader is encouraged to learn to use each style in appropriate situations. The goal of using humor, the authors suggest, is not even to get a big laugh. It’s to create “a moment of connection.” Most important to remember is that “[a] sense of humor is a muscle – it atrophies without regular use.” Think about the last time you really laughed, and you’ll get a sense of how much room you have to grow. Think about how many times you really laughed in a professional setting, and you’ll realize this book was written for you.
Telling jokes is not a required skill. (Phew again!) You don’t even have to think of yourself as “being funny.” The most important component of levity in a professional context is showing vulnerability and a sense of humor, humanizing the professional interaction to allow for real connection and risk-taking. The biggest challenge (and opportunity) for using humor successfully is looking for the moments where laughter is possible. The authors posit two basic principles for finding a humorous moment: truth and misdirection. This involves noticing differences, feelings, thoughts, what makes you cringe and what makes you smile. Once you have your moment of “truth” (teehee), the book explores a variety of ways to “form the funny” using exaggeration, contrast, analogies and more. In my personal experience, if your mind is on the lookout for the moments of “truth,” forming the funny happens organically. As the authors note, it works particularly well if you make the funny comment specific to the group of people you’re with at that moment in time.
One chapter of the book focuses on how humor and levity are an essential part of authentic and effective leadership. Whether or not we overtly acknowledge it, mediators and facilitators are in leadership roles. Using humor and levity in our work gives the stakeholders we’re working with permission to relax their guard a little as we model a more light-hearted way to see our common reality. One example from the book is a leader who asks his employees to brainstorm only the “silliest, stupidest ideas,” a not-so-subtle signal that creativity is welcomed and will not be judged.
I’m very gratitudinous (Michele-speak for “grateful”) for this book, as it introduced me to the “science” of humor and levity, and underscored the value of using humor to solve wicked problems. Read the book to give yourself permission to be funny (have fun) as you mediate and facilitate, and your stakeholders will feel empowered to be their authentic selves in the process. I’m squeezing my thumbs for your success.
Michele Straube is the founding director of the EDR Program. She retired in 2017, giving her the opportunity to pursue a great variety of ways to have fun in life.