Let’s Not Take it too Seriously:
How to use Humour to Defuse Stress
David Granirer MA, North America’s Psychotherapist/Stand-up Comic
Your six-year-old chooses this morning to decide he isn’t going to school. The 45 minutes it takes to cajole and threaten him with time-outs and loss of TV privileges means you miss that project meeting you spent months setting up. Finally you get to work prepared to crank out some apologetic e-mails and your computer crashes, taking your last three weeks of work with it. Trembling with righteous indignation, you prepare to reach for the phone and scream at the tech support people.
Just then, a co-worker wearing Groucho Marx glasses and a clown wig pokes her head into your cubicle, tosses a rubber chicken into your lap, and hands you a bag of Hershey’s Kisses. In spite of yourself, you feel a smile coming on, toss the rubber chicken back, and have a laugh as you munch the chocolates. Five minutes later, the world is once again a beautiful place.
The above intervention is an example of diversionary humour, one of the most effective ways of defusing stress. Diversionary humour involves doing things that create humorous distractions during times of high stress, thus giving people a break from the situation and a chance to cool down.
The logic here is that when we’re under stress, physiological arousal occurs in the body, making it hard for us to think clearly or rationally. We also tend to regress into unproductive behaviours like sulking, blaming, or running up a huge Visa bill.
Having a laugh interrupts this physiological cycle of arousal, restoring our sense of perspective and ability to think clearly. And science has proven that when we’re happy, the body recovers more quickly from the biological arousal of upsetting emotions.
Because of their ability to provide a quick laugh, props play an important role in diversionary humour. When I worked at the Vancouver Crisis Centre, we had baskets containing psychedelic plastic slinkies, koosh balls, play dough, and other toys in our phone room for the volunteers to use after a tough call. Diversionary humour involving props was promoted as part of our organizational culture, because we realized it was one of the quickest, most effective ways we had to reduce stress.
Establishing Humour Precedents
I realize all this sounds great, but you may be wondering, how do you actually get people to use humour in these situations? The answer lies in establishing precedents.
No matter how you look at it, humour is a risk. People don’t take risks unless they feel safe, and safety comes from being able to cite examples of a particular strategy or behaviour working or being accepted. Here are four tips for establishing precedents:
1. Start slow. Bring in props like Groucho glasses and give some to your co-workers. Doing so will start some good-natured bantering and clowning.
2. Casually ask your co-workers “What could we do with these?” Typically people will come up with suggestions like putting them on at a staff meeting, or wearing them to the cafeteria at lunch. If possible, give a prize for the best suggestion. The point is to get people thinking about the possibilities of using humour. Thinking and talking about something is a first step to actually doing it.
3. Pick one of your co-worker’s suggestions and carry it out. Now you have a precedent!
4. Since props lose their surprise value with repeated use, it’s important to bring in new ones from time to time. Put the old ones in a centrally located prop basket. Encourage people to use them. After a while, the old props will take on new life.
Why Props Make Sense
On describing to a client this strategy of using props, she commented that it seemed corny and infantile. She may be right, but the bottom line is that props work. I’ve taken my rubber chickens across North America, for use in presentations with bankers, loggers, accountants, health care professionals, teachers, senior executives, parole officers, etc., and they’ve never failed to get a laugh.
There’s something absurd about props that overcomes our rational adult programming and brings out the desire to laugh and play. It’s as if their presence gives us permission to slip out of our grown-up personas and experience an irrational moment or two of joy.
That’s another reason it’s important to have props in a workplace. They remind us of our joyful side. As adults, we know we’re supposed to slow down, enjoy life, and take things less seriously. But often we forget, especially at work. Having a clown mask or a rubber chicken in the office serves as a constant reminder of this, and in a stressful work environment we need all the playful reminders we can get.
A comprehensive stress-management program involves a lot of different tools, like effective planning, positive thinking, and self-management. Diversionary humour is another tool to add to your toolbox. And like any new technique, it needs to be adapted to each individual and her environment. So take this basic principle and see how it fits in your workplace, or what you have to do to customize it. Also realize that like any new skill, it takes time to master, and that it’s okay to make mistakes along the way.
David Granirer gives laughter in the workplace presentations for hundreds of organizations throughout North America. For more information go to http://www.psychocomic.com