On the Precipice of a Smile: Humor in Facilitation
“I’m not funny, what I am is brave”
— Lucille Ball
The word is out! Books, articles, Ted Talks and LinkedIn Learning courses all agree. Humor in the workplace is described as a superpower, a key to creating psychological safety, an antidote to stress, a path to building trust, and a fuel of innovation. As I studied up on the use of humor at work, I felt a growing sense of unease: bottom line, I am not very funny.
I asked friends, colleagues, kids, even my dog. The answer was consistent: On a scale of 1–5, I fell at 2.5. They were being kind.
But according to Jennifer Aakers and Naomi Bagdonas, there is hope. In their accessible and funny book Humor, Seriously, they assure us that humor can be learned. That we can, with minor adjustments, harness some of the magic humor offers. They promise that even if our humor doesn’t result in belly laughs, just adding a light-hearted tone, or even a smile, are positives.
Debunking the Four Deadly Humor Myths
According to Aakers and Bagdonas, there are four myths that hold people back from using humor at work:
- The Serious Business Myth — the belief that humor has no place in professional interactions. In truth, levity or humor creates balance.
- The Failure Myth — the belief our humor will disastrously fail. But as long as the joke isn’t at anyone’s expense, the joke still works magic, even if no one laughs.
- The Being Funny Myth — the belief that humor is either laugh-out-loud funny, or not. Actually, laughing at others’ jokes, being ready to lighten the mood, and living “on the precipice of a smile” works wonders.
- The Born With It Myth — the idea you’re either born funny, or not. Research shows humor can be learned.
Find Your Humor Style
Aakers and Bagdonas explain that we all have a natural humor style. There are four — The Magnet, The Sweetheart, The Stand-up, and the Sniper. You can find yours here. Your humor style is where you are most easily and naturally funny. Your style might not be what you expect. For example, I thought for sure my humor style would be “The Sweetheart” (earnest and honest). I was surprised when the results came back strongly as “The Magnet” (uplifting).
Simple Techniques to Introduce Humor
Big laughs are great, but even small moments of playfulness can contribute to a culture of levity. Try the following suggestions:
- Be generous with your laughter (laughter has high emotional contagion).
- Notice things that make you smile and share these with others.
- Find moments for your teams to showcase hidden talents, quirks, and personal passions.
- When you sense a smile approaching, invite it in!
When Funny Isn’t Funny
As we all know, humor can be inappropriate, derogatory, hurtful, and offensive. There is no place at work, or anywhere, for humor that is identity based, uses stereotypes, or makes fun of others. When we witness that kind of “humor” it is important to speak up.
While humor has the power to forge a feeling of connection, it can also divide. Does your joke require insider knowledge? Does it rely on cultural references that exclude some from understanding the joke? Avoid humor that comes at someone else’s expense. Sensitivity and empathy are required.
Humor in Practice
I have spent the past few weeks looking for sparks of levity. In meetings, during trainings, chatting with colleagues, even checking out at the grocery store. When I spot one, I approach, add a little kindling in the form of a smile, a chuckle, an appreciative phrase, and gently fan the flames. The results? Many smiles, a couple of chuckles, and once or twice, even during a zoom session, folks have laughed out loud. I’ll call that a win!
Jodi Kline is a Learning Design and Delivery Professional with Workforce Learning and Performance at the Washington State Department of Enterprise Services (DES). She is honored to facilitate leadership development trainings for supervisors and managers across the enterprise.