Saturday, 19 May 2012

Humour - when it isn't very funny.

This week I've been thinking about humour.  For the first time in my life, I experienced humour in a negative way and gained a different perspective.

From my perspective, I've always thought that a sense of humour is as necessary to sustaining life as a heart and lungs.  I even remember ending a relationship because it became apparent that the man in question had no sense of humour.  It was worse than a physical disability.  I see the funny side of life and like to laugh, so was confronted when I had a participant in a program I was facilitating who used it to deflect responsibility.

The man was in a group of senior leaders in a significant organisation.  As it turned out, several of the other participants were led by him.  Very early in the course, he started to drop one-liners in response to anything anyone said.  There's nothing wrong with making people laugh.  What I noticed was that the response to his interventions was at best, lukewarm, polite chuckling.  And still they kept coming.  Any time this man was challenged or confronted he used humour to deflect responsibility and to dilute the confrontation.

This can be a really useful skill if you find yourself under attack.  Distracting the attacker and making them laugh at themselves is a way of ensuring safety.

The program I was facilitating was in the realm of leadership development and by it's nature is confronting.  My role as a facilitator is to "turn up the heat" and challenge participants to explore unfamiliar territory and think and act differently.  I could see that this man needed to take responsibility for the way he was acting and the results he was getting.  His use of humour as a deflection weapon was perfectly designed to distract attention away from his shortcomings.

He was very creative and tried everything to stay "safe": he forged alliances with anyone else struggling with a concept, he argued with me, he blamed me, he complained that a particular task was "hard".  The one thing he failed to do was take responsibility.  He was the king of the "yes, but" response.  He had official status within the group - he was probably one of the most senior leaders in the room - but over the two days of the program his status was diminished.  Through his unwillingness to take responsibility, he made himself less powerful and less relevant.

Truthfully, he was getting on my goat.  I wondered whether this was because he was stealing my spot as the funny person in the room.  I observed myself as carefully as I was observing him in the group.  There were opportunities for humour and I felt myself hesitating to use it (would humour at this point allow the whole group to deflect responsibility?).  I made the choice to be myself and took the opportunity to make the group really laugh.  They did.  Then I wondered whether I was actually being competitive with this man.  I rationalised my behaviour, deciding that we had fundamentally different roles in the room and that no competition existed.  I checked my view of this man with my co-facilitator.  He was thinking the same thing.

So, I challenged this man by asking him what was happening for him.  He opened right up and essentially debunked the organisation's view of leadership and what they are requiring of their leaders.  Ah ha!  He was fighting for air as the tide turned and he had to change or (metaphorically) die.  If he could create the sense that he's a "good bloke" it would be a useful defence to help him retain his job.

By the end of two days, there was a massive shift.  I was facilitating the closing session of the two days and asking participants to share their next steps.  This man waited until last.  He sat in his chair and put his hands on his head, thrust his chest out and spoke so quietly I had to ask him to repeat himself.  He started by saying "if I'm honest, and I suppose I have to be" and then said that he could see that the world had moved on and he had some decisions to make about what he would do.

I was so pleased!  Without this realisation and acceptance, this man would not give himself the opportunity to change.  He would continue on his path and then wonder why he was being moved on.  At least he was now in charge of his decisions.

In a different setting, perhaps I would have found him funny and been happy to laugh along with him.  Even though he was very challenging, I'm thankful that he was in a workshop with me.  He gave me the opportunity to question something fundamental to my way of working - humour.

As the group dispersed, another participant came to say goodbye to me.  He made the point of telling me that he really enjoyed my humour.

What's your relationship with humour?

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