Tip #333: It Helps to Lighten Up: How Humor Can Enrich Any Learning Situation

“The human race has only one effective weapon and that is laughter. The moment it arises, all your irritations go away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.” Mark Twain

It might surprise you to learn that there is an actual Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. It certainly surprised me! According to their website, therapeutic humor is: “Any intervention that promotes health and wellness by stimulating a playful discovery, expression or appreciation of the absurdity or incongruity of life’s situations.”

I have found that humor is a vital training tool.

Humor can help individuals feel more comfortable participating in different learning activities. For example, when the assignment is to answer a questionnaire, I offer the participants a choice. They can either work alone or in a group. I warn them, however, that I will be calling on individuals to give an answer. If the person worked alone and gives an incorrect answer, there is no one else to blame. However, if the person worked with a group, it is possible to blame the group for an incorrect answer. In that event I will offer (tongue in cheek) to move the person to a smarter table. This adds humor and provides a safe way for individuals to save face if they do not have the correct answer.

I also try to include at least one humorous statement on the questionnaire, to further relax the participants so that they will respond to the statements in a more complete and honest manner. For example, a questionnaire about different aspects of conducting performance evaluations may include the statement: “Performance evaluation is a royal waste of time!” I always know when I hear their laughter that they have reached that part of the questionnaire. it also gives them the freedom to voice their real concerns in a lighter context.

I use humor to prompt participant responses when no one volunteers to answer a question that I’ve posed. Sometimes, they really don’t realize that I would like them to respond. I’ll say:”I’m sorry, perhaps you thought that was a rhetorical question. Let me explain our process- I ask a question and then you answer it!” We all can laugh about that and then they will start answering my questions.

When I want to get participants in a more creative frame of mind for a brainstorming activity, I will start them off by posing a humorous question. For example, “How is coaching like a water sprinkler?” Because it is unexpected and unusual, the question generally elicits both funny and wise responses. This experience primes them to brainstorm more effectively about a more serious question.

The idea of a role-playing activity always tends to worry and even frighten some participants. If they voice an objection to role-playing an issue of concern to themselves, I merely ask them to help other participants with their issue by assuming the role of the other individual in the role-play. In this case, I give them instructions to be as extreme as possible in their responses, in order to give the person who is working through the issue sufficient opportunity to practice their new skills. They usually have so much fun playing the extreme role that they relax and volunteer to work through their own issue.

When you are giving a lecturette or providing instructions for an activity, it helps to have a sense of humor when you forget what you were about to say. At one time or another, trainers will get distracted and lose their train of thought. We have a choice- to get upset, which will further disrupt our thought process- or to laugh at ourselves. I prefer to laugh at myself, because it gives the participants permission to relax and laugh along with me. I will ask if anyone was listening to me, because I wasn’t- or say that I’m going to go out of the room and then start again when I come back in.

All of this does not mean that you should run out and buy a joke book or schedule an operation to graft on a funny bone. Just keep in mind that humor can be a very effective approach to training- and lighten up!

How do you use humor to enrich learning in your training programs? Please write in with your own methods of using humor and I’ll print them in the next Tip.

May your learning be sweet.


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