7 Tips on Using Humor in Conversation
December 1, 2009 9 Comments
An opponent once accused our 16th President, President Abraham Lincoln, of being two-faced. His response: “If I were two-faced . . . would I be wearing this one?” President Lincoln knew how to use humor to endear himself to his listeners and to disarm his opponents. Humor not only makes us feel better, but it also can serve as a social lubricant, smoothing out our interactions with others.
In work situations, humor is the only management tool that can do all of the following (list from “Humor as a Management Tool” by Paul McGhee, PhD, http://www.laughterremedy.com/):
“Strengthen bonds between co-workers, create rapport with customers, get and hold attention, strengthen memory of the points you want to be remembered, persuade others to see (and perhaps adopt) your point of view, make awkward communications less difficult, deflect criticism, reduce tension, frustration and anger, manage conflicts, reduce burnout, remove intimidating barriers between management and non-management employees, bolster eroding trust, boost morale and motivate employees, build resilience, stimulate creative problem solving, sustain a positive attitude on the job, and keep everyday hassles and problems in perspective.”
Humor is an inexpensive yet priceless tool in your relationship tool box. But, it is a tool that needs to be sharpened regularly! Here are 7 tips for sharpening your humor skills:
1. Use humor as a tool, not a weapon. The first rule of relationship-building humor: Do No Harm. Laughter at someone else’s expense ruptures relationships. Sarcasm, ridicule and put-downs are hurtful humor. You can also hurt or offend by making comments on controversial or personal topics such as race, religion, sex, weight, appearance, etc. Even “good-natured” teasing can backfire, if the other person is not receptive. When my husband and I were dating, his efforts to connect with me by affectionately teasing were rewarded with a blank or confused look. My teasing-impaired younger self just didn’t get it.
Don’t laugh at others; laugh with others. Laughing with others brings people together and pokes fun at our common challenges.
2. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at yourself, or leave the job to others. If you can learn to laugh at yourself, you will never be short of humorous material. Self-deprecating humor lowers the walls between yourself and others and can be disarming. Comedian Rodney Dangerfield was best known for his self-deprecating humor in his stand up acts, with his famous line “I get no respect.” Watch modern-day self-deprecator, Tonight Show Host Conan O’Brien, as an example of how to make fun of yourself. Conan frequently makes fun of his own hair, his paleness and even his jokes that flop. Tell funny, self-deprecating stories about yourself. People love stories. And here’s one for the guys: Anthropologist Gil Greengross, who conducted a two-year study into the role of humor in seduction found that self-deprecating humor was the most attractive kind of humor. Here’s a link to the article: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1038970/The-MOST-effective-way-woman-bed-running-say-scientists.html
3. Use humor or laughter to reduce tension. This works especially well combined with #2, laughing at yourself.
As a small child, I learned the power of laughter to reduce tension. One day, when I was 3 or 4, my mother had brought me to work to meet her boss and coworkers. One look at her boss and I was in awe. She was just about the ugliest woman I had ever seen—long pointy chin, hooked nose, dark, bushy eyebrows over beady eyes. I blurted out, “Mommy! She looks like the Wicked Witch of the West!” Suddenly, there was complete silence. My mother turned toward me with a pleading smile and a high, falsely pleasant voice, “Diane, don’t you mean, Glenda the Good Witch?” At that moment, I thought she had lost her mind. We had just watched The Wizard of Oz a week earlier. I looked up at her, incredulously, and said “No. Glenda was pretty!” After a few moments of tense, stony silence, my mother’s boss started laughing. And then everybody laughed. The boss lady’s laughter gave the others permission to laugh and the tension dissipated like fog at sunrise.
4. Use Relevant Humor. We’ve all heard someone tell a joke that was not related to the conversation. It either falls flat, or gets polite laughter and people feel like the joke-teller is just desperate for attention. Don’t let that be you. Make sure that your humor is related to the conversation or the occasion. If you do have a rehearsed story, wait until the conversation leads to a good insertion spot. Of course, you can guide the conversation toward a direction you want to go so that you can insert your funny story, too. For example, let’s say I wanted to tell the “Wicked Witch” story in #3. I might chat with the person about children and then we might talk about kids saying the darndest things, which then would naturally lead to the story.
Another techniques is to have a conversation piece as part of your attire—a piece of jewelry with an interesting back-story, for example. You do the kindness of allowing someone to notice something to talk about and then you can tell the interesting and hopefully humorous story behind the item.
5. Understand Humor Basics. At its heart, humor exists because of contradictions. Humor occurs when our minds are derailed. You are taking your conversation partner or audience on a train ride, leading them where they expect to go and then you derail them. You’ve all heard the classic: “Take my wife…Please!” Why is it funny? What do you expect to come after “Take my wife?” Your mind jumps ahead to what it expects during the set up (“for example”). Then, the punch line, “Please,” is different than what you expected. The classic “Set up” and “punch line” format sets up an expectation and the punch line changes the expectation. Timing does matter. It helps to have a little pause before the punch line to allow the listeners to “fill-in” an expectation. Lincoln’s response to be called two-faced followed the same format. Set up: “If I were two-faced. . .” Punch line: “Would I be wearing this one?” In conversation, the easiest way to insert humor is relevant, self-deprecating comments or stories about yourself.
Another easy route to humor is to take what you have in common—either as human beings in general or as more specifically relates to the immediate situation—and to merely comment on the humorous contradictions. For example, my workout buddy and I often end our oh-so-taxing workouts stretching in a small room. Actually, we stretch about 2 minutes and chat for about 10. Several times, someone has come into the room and made a friendly barb about how “hard” we are working out. We just say that we are doing “lip exercises.” That phrase always gets a chuckle. For some more tips on humor, here is a favorite online resource: http://www.museumofhumor.com/Library.htm
6. Stop the Rain. Soak Up the Sun. Reduce negative input where you can. Don’t watch the news right before bed.. Limit your exposure to negative news and people. As much as possible avoid “Debbie Downers,” people who seem to see the negative in everything. If you do get trapped into a conversation with a negative person, try to interject any positive tidbit about life that you can.
Seek to spend time with life-affirming, positive people. I’ve often heard it said that in 5 years you will be the sum total of the books you read and the people with whom you associate. In this day and age, we’d have to add things like “the internet sites you visit.” Basically, you become like that which you allow to influence you. As motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar says, don’t be SNIOPed— Susceptible to the Negative Influences of Other People. But, it’s OK to laugh at them, just not out loud, of course.
Expose yourself to humor. Watch comedies, read humorous stories. I enjoy Readers Digest with its witty quotes, jokes and stories.
7. Be a Hands-on Student—Learn improv, join Toastmasters. Two things I did that improved my use of humor immensely were: 1. To join Toastmasters http://www.toastmasters.org/ which allowed me to practice observational humor on a regular basis as well as to have to intentionally plan for humor in my speeches, and 2. to take a couple of improv classes which helped me to think more quickly on my feet.
Put your humor tool to work and forge quicker, closer and more fun relationships with others.
“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” (Victor Borge)