This is No Joking Matter

While I love to run workshops, it’s even more fun learning from wise colleagues and teachers. Moshe Lang is one of these, a highly experienced psychologist with a strong interest in humour. Moshe is also one of Australia’s leading family therapists. Last weekend I attended a workshop he conducted on the use of humour by psychologists. While the room was hot and stuffy, (the air conditioning in the building was turned off) I can only describe my experience as a breath of fresh air.

Moshe used stories and personal anecdotes, lots of them, to make his points. Many of these were humorous, like his first ever patient, a young boy who ran off and climbed a tree in the garden of the clinic. Not knowing what to do, Moshe followed the boy and conducted his inaugural therapy session at the top of the tree. I found myself recounting these stories to my wife that evening, reminding me of the value stories have as a teaching tool.

Illustration of Man climbing in a tree

So why did I attend this workshop? The truth is, while I have been blessed with a quirky sense of humour, it sometimes gets me into trouble. You may yourself have experienced how a strength can become a weakness if overused or applied inappropriately. One of the key messages from the workshop was that humour has great power to lighten a tense situation, stimulate a fresh perspective, or bond people together, such as when we share a joke. But it can also cause harm or damage a relationship, such as in the case of sarcastic humour, or when we laugh at, rather than with, others.

Losing face

I was once teaching coaching skills to a group of 90 franchisor executives and asked everyone to pair up and face each other so they could practise their coaching skills. I emphasised that the person doing the coaching should be facing the screen, as they would be reading some coaching questions, and the other person should have their back to the screen. Everyone quickly positioned themselves, ready for my next direction. As I scanned the room I noticed two people toward the back who had misunderstood my initial instructions.

While one was facing the screen and the other had her back to the screen, they were sitting with their backs to each other. I found this funny and made a light-hearted wisecrack about how some people listen better than others to instructions. We all laughed. Well not everyone. Because when I reviewed the feedback forms at the end of the workshop, there were two people who were not happy. They commented that I had embarrassed them and had broken my promise of creating a safe learning environment. I had indeed done the wrong thing in getting a laugh at their expense.

Here’s the point. Jokes, witty comments and ironic observations can be powerful tools for relationship building. But we need to ensure the humour is not at the expense of others. Or as Moshe Lang says, laugh with, not at, others. There is perhaps an exception to this rule. Many families and friends do indeed laugh at each other and it’s fine. This is because there is a high level of trust in the relationship. So a guide for when to use humour in your dealings with others would be to assess the level of trust in the relationship. Would the other person or group believe you definitely have their best interests at heart? If so, you can probably relax and turn up the humour with there being little risk of harming the relationship. Providing your intention is indeed not to undermine them.

A mentor once said to me, the measure of a good meeting is whether or not people have laughed together. I like that.


Greg Nathan is a psychologist, author and an international expert on the franchise relationship. Connect with him on Google+ or Linkedin.

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