Humor Improves Communication

“Have I reached the person to whom I am speaking?” (Lily Tomlin, on the original Saturday Night Live, as Ernestine)

No matter what kind of job you have, communication will always be an important aspect of your work, whether it’s in meetings, phone conversations with clients or discussions between managers and other employees. Many professional organizations (e.g., the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants) now emphasize the development of good “people skills,” and communication skills are generally at the top of the list. Unfortunately, good communication is often complicated by the fact that people are stressed out and overloaded with work. You have to earn attention and interest, both in your written and oral communications.

A poll reported by Newsweek a few years ago indicated that the biggest work-related complaint that employees had was poor communication with management, with 64% claiming that this impeded their work.  Part of the value of humor on the job lies in its ability to lubricate the channels of communication, assuring that it occurs more smoothly and effectively. In this and the article to follow on “Humor in the Workplace,” we’ll look at some of the ways humor contributes to effective communication on the job.

Removal of Barriers between Management and Non-Management Staff

As long as distinctions are made between management and non-management, there will always be barriers to good communication. Some managers have a style which discourages open communication. When a manager uses humor (especially occasional self-directed humor), however, it says to everyone on the team that s/he’s a regular person—s/he’s one of us. To function as a team, you need openness and comfort in bringing up difficult issues, and shared positive humor is a powerful means of achieving that. Any organization that wants or needs the full commitment of its employees to work as a team needs to establish a relaxed and open work atmosphere. A manager who shows that s/he has a good sense of humor goes a long way in establishing this atmosphere.

In many organizations, people with opposing views don’t express them, out of fear of reprisal. But it’s essential that employees feel comfortable expressing concerns and doubts about any decision that’s made—especially in the midst of change. Humor creates an environment in which opposing views are more likely to be expressed.

Trust is important here. There’s always an element of risk in proposing new ideas, which could either succeed or fail, if implemented. They also could be rejected or ridiculed. A history of shared positive humor helps create a sense of trust which enables employees to open up and express ideas freely without fear of ridicule or rejection.

Emotional Tone of Communication

Our daily communications on the job consist of much more than the information we give and receive. Their emotional tone is just as important. Think back to conversations you’ve had with people you’ve met in the past. Chances are you remember your emotional reaction to that person and the general feeling of the conversation much better than you remember what was said. Shared amusement and laughter help assure that both participants in the conversation will remember the good feeling they had long after the content is forgotten.

If you’re talking, you’re communicating.

This is especially important in situations where the initial mood of the conversation is hostile or confrontational. Research has shown that humor in this situation helps reduce hostile feelings among co-workers. The better mood that shared laughter provides puts you in a better position to resolve the conflict and get on with your job. It is the fact that humor and laughter are incompatible with anger and other negative emotions that makes humor such a great tool for conflict management. Since conflict and stress are so common in the workplace these days, the savvy manager will cultivate appropriately-timed humor as a means of keeping tensions, frustration and upset from escalating.

Awkward Communications

A lighter approach is also an effective tool for easing into sensitive or awkward topics. Like sticking your toe in the water before jumping in, the reaction of the other person tells you whether it’s safe to proceed with a more serious statement about the sensitive issue.

“If you’re going to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh. Otherwise, they’ll kill you.” (George Bernard Shaw)

Humor can be used to get a negative message across in an inoffensive way. Instead of complaining about a less than full glass of orange juice you’re served at a restaurant, you might say to the manager, “You know, I can help you sell 30% more orange juice than you’re now selling.” When the manger says, “Great, how?” you say, “Just fill up the glass.” You will have made your point without attacking the manager—and you may even get more orange juice the next time!

Using Humor in Meetings

A young and an older mid-level corporate manager have offices right across from each other. Each one spends about half of his time each day in meetings. At the end of the day, the older manager always looks fresh and alert, while the young manager is always exhausted and emotionally drained. Finally, one day following four consecutive meetings, the young guy says to the older, “I don’t get it. How do you manage to get through all these meetings and still look energetic at the end of the day? These meetings just wipe me out.” The older manager says, “So who listens?”

An employee at a major photocopy company told me that 2/3 of the meetings he attends are ineffective. We’ve all been in meetings like this. They drain our energy, or bore us to tears. Using humor at appropriate times keeps people engaged and helps assure the success of the meeting.

It’s no coincidence that Toastmasters International clubs always have humorous speech contests. They recognize that humor is one of the most important skills to master in delivering any kind of speech. But I remember seeing many speakers when I was a member of Toastmasters years ago delivering a fine speech in a style that looked perfectly natural—until the humor came. The jokes or funny stories seemed tacked on, because the speaker hadn’t cultivated a humorous style of presentation.

[Note: If you click on “Developing Humor Coping Skills” at this web site in the months ahead, you’ll find a series of articles on how to improve your humor skills. By going through the 7 Humor Habits Program discussed there, and presented in Humor as Survival Training for a Stressed-Out World, you’ll discover your own style. Any joke, story or funny action that you insert into your talk will flow more naturally, because it will be a natural part of who you are.  If you’re specifically interested in the use of jokes and stories in meetings, read the basic list of do’s and don’ts in connection with joke/story telling. In addition to that list, make it a point to follow these two general rules in using humor in talks or meetings.]