What is So Funny? – August 2018

Frank, a good friend of mine and a retired medical device consultant, was negotiating a contract with a prospective client. As is often the case, the sticking point was his fee. Every time he submitted a budget, the client sent it back with the note, “Can you shrink the budget a little?” Frank trimmed and trimmed, but each submission was met with, “Can you shrink it just a little bit more?” Finally, Frank put the budget through a copy machine and printed it half size. He sent the tiny paper to the client with a note, “This is as small as I can shrink the budget and still be able to read it.” The client got a good laugh, negotiations proceeded, and they reached an agreement.

Laughter is one of the most ignored tools of communication, and it is also the most misunderstood. Because the use of humor is tricky at best, especially given the increasing number of social landmines that must be sidestepped these days, many people choose the safe route of remaining boringly neutral in the workplace. This is a mistake for many reasons. Research in psychology and neuro-science shows that the act of laughter has effects that go beyond it simply being a delightful day-brightener. Before we continue, let me be clear in the distinction between laughter during daily interactions and joke-telling. Telling a joke is okay, but structured humor has less power than laughter that takes place during regular conversation. So, you can skip buying a joke-book. I’m going to ask you to work a little harder, for a better outcome. First, here are just a few benefits of laughter.

Laughter inspires agreement. Although some laughter is used to ridicule those we dislike, the act of laughter is, at its core, a form of social agreement. The majority of laughter is a signal that we are aligned with the speaker’s message. When psychologist, Dr. Robert Provine, conducted nationwide research into the causes of laughter, he discovered that the most common phrases that accompanied a laughter episode were along the lines of “You’ve got that right.” In fact, it is nearly impossible for someone to laugh and disagree with you at the same time.

Laughter increases retention. When we laugh, the subject of our laughter is instantly transferred to long-term memory. Many people try to make their message memorable by adding a sense of importance. While it is true that urgency is a necessary component of memory, the risk is that urgency can often lead to feelings of stress or anxiety, which decreases retention. Laughter is a memory booster without the risk of stress.

Laughter improves brain and body. When we laugh, hand-eye coordination improves (after you are done laughing, of course). Also, laughter causes the highest thinking centers of the brain to activate and cross-connect, and it does so in a way that no other form of human communication can match; improving quick-thinking, problem-solving, and innovation. Psychologically, it is impossible to experience anxiety, sadness, anger, or fear while the body is engaged in a laughter episode. And those unpleasant emotions do not easily return once the laughter subsides.

Given the power that laughter has in influence, communication, leadership, and personal improvement, it stands to reason that laughter should be practiced on par with any other professional skill. The trouble is most people think humor is something you are born with. You either have it, or you don’t. Take it from a comedy professional, nothing could be further from the truth. Humor is a muscle that can be toned, but it does take discipline. Here are a couple of daily routines that anyone can employ.

Pay attention and re-create. The next time you are with friends or colleagues and you get a laugh, remember what you said. Try to remember the wording of your story or comment, the context, every detail. Then re-create the laughter with a different group of people. Humor is less about waiting for an opportunity to inspire laughter as it is re-creating a moment to your advantage. Not only will you hone the ability to insert humor when you most want it, but paying attention to the laughs you get during the day may surprise you. You may not be a professional comedian, but you are likely funnier than you give yourself credit for. Professional comedians rarely sit down and write funny material. They pay close attention to what gets laughs on a daily basis.

Practice when it doesn’t matter. I rarely let an interaction at the bank or grocery store go by without inspiring laughter. When I received a follow-up call from my dentist’s office, the clerk said, “Are there any problems I can help you with?” I replied, “Yes, my teenager thinks my jokes are lame.” The clerk laughed and said she couldn’t help me with teenagers, and we ended the call. I take advantage of these interactions to hone my humor muscle. That way, when an important client meeting or phone call comes up, I can rely on a finely tuned skill, rather than an untested one.

Contrast and incongruity. Humor is about inserting what doesn’t belong. Comedy is saying a silly thing in a serious way, or a serious thing in a silly way. Being silly in a silly situation is not comedy, it is clowning. Likewise, being serious in a serious situation is drama, not comedy. My comment to the dentist’s assistant was out of place, unexpected, for such a call; but entirely welcome.

See failure in the right light. Practice of any kind demands a certain degree of failure. When starting out, be prepared to get more groans than laughs. If you don’t get a good response, try again with a bit of adjustment, but don’t think of a lack of laughter as failure; think of it as building a muscle you have long ignored. And frankly, people are so bored with the same-old, same-old that any attempt at humor is welcome; even if it isn’t a home run.

It is easy to avoid the embarrassment of humor that falls flat by sticking to a stoic approach, but if you remember the edge that laughter can give you, it is worth the work. Remember, if the other guy is more adept at humor than you, you are in a race where he has a motorboat and you have a canoe. So, get out there and practice.

Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.

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