Nothing adds life to your conversations, presentations, and relationships like laughter. But humor can backfire. Here’s what to do and what to avoid.
Once, when I was about 13, I was trapped in the crossfire between my arguing parents. We were driving; I was in the front seat between them when the shouting started. I tried to shrink myself deeper and deeper into the seat cushions as their yelling got louder and more intense over my head. Soon, it turned into personal insults. My dad yelled “Bitch!” and I did the only thing I could think of to divert attention: I laughed.
It was a quiet, shaky, nervous laugh. I could barely make any sound. It worked — they stopped yelling at each other. My dad began rambling on another topic while my mom looked out the window in stony silence. It worked… but I felt absolutely SLIMY. I felt like I’d thrown my mom under the bus and fraudulently purchased an uneasy “peace.” The memory still makes my stomach turn.
Of course, laughter and humor can be wonderful. Laughter reduces stress and improves health. It can form bonds and relieve tension. It adds life to conversations and presentations, making them more memorable and meaningful. Learning to use humor effectively is a great communication tool. Yet not all humor is helpful or appropriate. How can you tell when and whether to use humor? Here’s a rule of thumb: use humor when it contributes to your message or your audience (whether that’s one person or a thousand); do not use humor when it creates barriers or distractions. Here are some specific tips:
Yes! Use Humor To:
Engage the Brain.
Humor can get and keep attention, pique interest, increase energy, and help your audience remember your point. Facts, frankly, are not enough. As Randy Olson said in his book, Don’t be Such a Scientist, “No one cares about facts.” Perhaps you’ve noticed this recently? People notice and remember how you make them feel. When you make them laugh, your impression lasts much longer. Just be sure that humor is not a distraction from your point, but a link to it.
Getting people to laugh can form a group — in fact, any time you can get a bunch of people doing the same thing at the same time, it will help form the group. And with humor, not only are people laughing in unison, but they are breathing together, too. Even better! Whether in a group or one-on-one, humor usually stems from shared experience AND creates a new shared experience. It’s like a 2-for-1. The keyword here is “shared.” Humor does this when it brings people together.
When you’re working hard or diving into complex content or discussing an emotionally charged topic, a well-timed joke can diffuse tension, relax others, and provide the brain with a break. This only works if the humor demonstrates that you’re all on the same side. After the laughter, follow-up with a serious point — now that they’ve had a break, your listeners’ brains are ready to pay attention. (And as a presenter and an audience member, there’s no better feeling than going from gut-splitting laughter straight to mind-blowing truth.)
Avoid These Types of Humor:
Don’t Demean Yourself.
Self-deprecating humor is fine — good, in fact — in small doses. By all means, laugh at your quirks and your mistakes. Share an embarrassing story. Especially when you are in a leadership or teaching position, this humanizes you and shows that you don’t take yourself too seriously. Good stuff! That kind of self-deprecating humor belongs up above in the “Create Connection” category. The goal is to make others feel safe and comfortable in your presence, not to demean yourself.
But too often “self-deprecating” humor stems from a lack of confidence and either communicates a false attention-seeking humility or a need for approval and praise. (And really, those are two sides of the same coin, aren’t they?) Terrific humor creates a bridge, not a barrier. If you can only ever speak of yourself in negative terms, you’re using humor to push people away.
Don’t Demean Others.
Humor that makes fun of others is never a good idea. Okay, “never” is too strong a word — my best friend and I make fun of each other all the time. For years, we’ve heard each other’s self-deprecating humor and join right in. I can make fun of how bossy she is and she can make fun of how ditzy I am. But along with all the teasing, we have just as much history building each other up. It’s not demeaning, it reinforces connection.
There is a LOT of humor out there, though, that puts down others and creates a “them” and “us” dynamic — the most prevalent examples being race, gender, and politics; but you can demean others for anything that’s different. Interestingly, there’s a correlation between engaging in demeaning humor and depression (you can even take a quiz to find if this is your humor style here). Don’t do it! It hurts people, including you.
Humor can be used as a softener. There’s a difference between using it to diffuse tension so that you can directly address the real issue versus using it to distract attention away from the real issue. Don’t hide behind humor. State your opinions, experience, feelings, and expectations clearly. And it’s not just potential conflict that you might cover up with humor. People make jokes out of “I love you” and “I need help” and “Thanks, that meant a lot,” too. You feel vulnerable, so you pick up humor like a shield. It takes courage and grounded confidence to own and express your thoughts and feelings honestly. You can build those communication “muscles” with practice.
Don’t Use Humor as a Defense Mechanism.
Humor can be a great coping mechanism — a way to alleviate stress during trying times. A defense mechanism, however, is an automatic, unconscious behavior that provides a wall between you and an unpleasant situation or feeling. My nervous laugh in the car at age 13 was a defense mechanism. Laughter when someone puts you down, or sexually harasses you, or you hear terrible news — that’s a defense mechanism.
It’s a way of saying, “This isn’t a big deal. I don’t care. This can’t hurt me.” In the face of little annoyances, by all means, laugh them off. But pretending that something is okay when it isn’t — when you’re angry or hurt or scared — can lead to depression and isolation. Be sure to address those true emotions at some point, even if it doesn’t feel safe to do so in the moment.
To quote my favorite fictional character, “I dearly love a laugh.” I love to laugh. I love making people laugh. I love people who make me laugh. I do believe laughter is medicine. When used appropriately, it makes your brain better, your body better, and your relationships better. If you want to add more humor to your communication, use it to build up people and the bridges between them.
Change your communication, change your life.
I’m Rachel Beohm, a writer, speaker, and coach. Through nonverbal communication, I empower clients to show up as their biggest, boldest selves.
If you’d like practical tips on how to communicate leadership and increase your presence, get the FREE leadership presence guide I created to help you change your communication and your life.
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