Tip #224: Debunking Myths About Serious Topics

ome trainers believe that programs about serious topics ( you fill in the blank: safety, discrimination, trust, employee benefits, organizational change, a new computer program, employee discipline, etc.) have to be presented in a serious manner. For these folks, even a smile can undermine the seriousness of the issue and destroy the perceived credibility and commitment of the presenter.

However, unrelieved seriousness can be overwhelming and exhausting. Worse yet, it can pound people into a sense of powerlessness and defeat. Sometimes, a presenter’s mere smile can be reassuring that all is not lost and that there are still options available.

Humor or a light touch on a topic can frequently provide needed relief or perspective. As a matter of fact, humor and seriousness are not mutually exclusive- they can co-exist at the very same time.

Many of us have experienced situations where we have laughed through our tears (bereaved family and friends remembering funny incidents in the life of a loved one) or laughed at the humor in a situation while simultaneously feeling the pain of recognition (almost any cartoon or story about work or family).

There is another difficulty with trainers who take themselves too seriously. When a presenter falls into that trap, it is a short step to self-righteousness, rigidity, and closed thinking. A “serious”presenter is going to proclaim and declaim from the lectern. From a transactional analysis standpoint, this immediately places the lecturer in the role of parent and the listening audience in the role of a (naughty) child.

This is not conducive to a positive learning environment, because few of us enjoy being talked down to. We also object to the implication that we are, in some way, at fault. When this happens, we often distance themselves from the issue, denying any involvement or responsibility. Our minds and our curiosity about the subject shut down.

However, our response is very different if the presenter takes a lighter touch, such as telling a story or showing a cartoon that places the serious topic in a human and humorous context. Laughter relaxes us and creates a sense of community. Appropriate humor can also open the door to real soul-searching and sharing.

For example, a funny cartoon about a smaller child’s inability to stand up to a larger school yard bully can tap into the emotional memory of how it feels to be victimized. We may then be more willing to recognize instances where we ourselves have inadvertently turned into a bully, and feel real sympathy for our victims. Rather than foisting guilt and blame, this approach leads us to self discovery and a sincere interest in changing our behavior.

Now, I am absolutely NOT suggesting that it is a good idea to joke throughout a serious presentation. Some jokes are never appropriate (i.e.,racial, ethnic, or sexual slurs, or jokes that have nothing to do with the topic under discussion). There may also be some times when any humor would be entirely inappropriate (for example, while presenting a plan to layoff the employees seated in the audience).

But just because a topic is serious does NOT mean that it must be presented and treated seriously all the time. Without humor, we cannot be creative. Laughter also puts more oxygen into the bloodstream, so the brain is better fueled. We can see the humor in a situation and still be serious about resolving it.

When it comes to effectively dealing with difficult and serious issues, we need all the bright creative problem solving we can spark.

How do you feel about this?

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