Online Edition - January 2000
Highlight - Y2K,
Humor=Positive Workplace Humor
--"As human beings," says Izzy Gesell, Head Honcho of Wide Angled Humor in Northampton, Mass., "We exist on four levels: mental, physical, emotional and spiritual. Humor inspires all four areas." Humor?
--Gesell is the expert on this topic.
--These days, he chuckles, "Everybody calls me a 'self-proclaimed humorologist.'" The study of humor isn't an accepted academic discipline, but if it were, Gesell would be the dean of the college. Getting to be an expert on humor has been a lifelong path for Gesell, who says he was a smart kid who ended up in teaching. He spent 15 years as a special education teacher, studying the craft of being a comic on the side.
--In the 1980s he was teaching other special education teachers at Hunter College. "They were asking me questions like, 'How do I deal with the kids? How do I keep the material fresh?' I realized their questions were the same ones I had asked when I was studying comedy." He began to show teachers that they could do better if they saw their profession as a performing art: getting an audience's attention, holding their interest, dealing with people with different levels of interest.
-- Before long, he found that humor and comedy had other applications. He was teaching a college course about comedy writing and performing that started to attract some students who didn't want to be comics. "Into the class came business people who wanted to learn about humor." Gesell dug more deeply and saw how relevant the topic could be.
-- "How humor works is what I've chosen to study," he says. Now he makes his living with training, consulting and coaching, using his understanding of humor as the core of his lesson. "Humor is much more than proficiency at joke-telling. It's a way of looking at the world," Gesell says.
-- "Humor is looking at the world and being able to see alternative possibilities. In other words, humor is always about multiple points of view. That's why it's a good stress management tool. When you laugh at something, you diffuse the tension. The essence of humor is being able to look at life and being able to see an inconsistency or incongruity."
-- "Positive humor is the key," he says, comparing it to a thermostat in the workplace, "controlling the climate within the environment. It is a key component of the ambiance that greets and surrounds everyone. Simply put, positive humor fosters a warm and inviting feeling. Negative, divisive humor makes a place seem cold and aloof."
-- "Humor works in an organization the way lighting works in a theater," he continues. "It fills the space between people. It's energy. As a management tool, humor is about developing an attitude, atmosphere and approach that makes the workplace enjoyable to work in."
--Humor in the workplace enables a high level of truth and cooperation. "You know that if you and I are in a relationship and every once in a while we've laughed together-in other words, if we've had balance-then I'll be able to take negative information from you in a way that you can kid me, without being overly sensitive."
--"For example," he says, "keeping your high school graduation picture conspicuously on your desk is a great way to have people enjoy being around you. Humor is about vulnerability. The more vulnerable you are, the more people are attracted to you, the more they see you as human. It's important to be able to laugh about yourself in a self-effacing, not self-derogatory way. Self-effacing is non-threatening to others.
--To succeed with humor, he maintains, managers and team leaders have to see it as a habit. "Comedians don't sit down and it springs full-blown from their heads. It's a lot of work. You see things. You take notes. You write things down. You collect humor as it comes to you. And then you organize it. And then you use it. On purpose."
--Some people are afraid to use humor. Gesell says that's natural. He once asked his comedy teacher, "How do you overcome your fear of getting up onstage?" The answer surprised him: "He told me you don't overcome your fear. You bring your fear up onstage. You show your fear to people. That's what they're interested in." It makes you more human.
-- Having a sense of humor makes you more approachable. "Lightening up on yourself is really the first step," he says. "When I work with individuals, I'm either helping them learn to loosen up and take risks or how to incorporate humor, where to place it." He says you have to plan carefully to avoid being seen as sexist, racist or a homophobe.
--It's not that hard to determine when a joke might offend. "That's about knowing who the victim is in the joke, because humor is always about a victim. Certain victims are almost universally allowed: politicians and celebrities, for example, are the people with power in our society. When you make fun of someone with more status and power than you, you are seen as an underdog, someone trying to topple the gods. When you make fun of someone who has less, you are a bully, because you are making fun of someone who can't fight back."
--"Humor is an interesting subject because people think they are looking for laughter, but it's really the heart, a spiritual approach. How do you find joy and connection and love in a world that's random and frustrating? We're never taught that."
--Used positively, humor can create a sense of community. "Think about the position people take when they laugh. We're leaning forward. We're nodding. We're going, 'Yeah. I get it. I'm with you. I understand.' As human beings, we're born alone and we die alone. What makes life on earth valuable is that feeling of love and connection. When you're laughing with someone, you feel very, very connected to them because you're not alone."
--That is Izzy Gesell's bottom line. He has a bumper sticker on his car that sums it up: "Shared laughter is love made audible."