Top Ten Interpersonal Skills – 9 – Keep Your Wits About You

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on August 24, 2009

Number 9 I’m blogging about the Top Ten Interpersonal Communication Skills. This is #9 in the series.

Today’s lesson:

Keep Your Wits About You (Have a sense of humor!)

I find it funny that I am about to tell you why having a light hearted approach is such a great persuasive communication and life skill. It just seems so obvious.

After all, humor speaks in universal truths about human existence, and invites people to laugh at themselves and even laugh with others at themselves. Or laugh at others in blissful ignorance that the joke is really about themselves.  Humor breaks down the barriers that keep us divided and polarized. Humor builds bridges to bring us together. Humor attracts interest, puts people on common footing, and creates an atmosphere of goodwill that is conducive to meaningful communication. Humor discharges resistance, overcomes stubbornness, and creates opportunity for dialog. Humor has such a positive impact on people that more and more businesses (not the dead-serious ones though!) use it to train and retain employees.  I use it to great advantage in my coaching work, speaking and training work.

Humor is a powerful tool for the person serious about creating positive change. Why? Well, in case I haven’t made the point, not because I say so. It’s a fact. Humor is persuasive.

But seriously.  Let’s be honest.

Not all humor is equally funny. In fact, bad humor is also one of the fastest ways to put people in a bad mood, undermine relationships, create hard feelings, offend sensibilities, poison an atmosphere and destroy what could have been a great event, project, team, business, or community.  And I’d say that it is safe to say that not all funny is funny to all. In-jokes are usually only funny to the people in on the joke, the people who shared the experience with you. They tend to leave everyone else drawing a blank. But sometimes, you tell an in-joke, the people who are in start laughing, and the people who aren’t in on the joke start laughing too! All the while, they are wondering, and maybe even saying, “What’s so funny?” because they want to know why they are laughing.

Still, you just can’t please all the people all the time. I tell people that if it is tasteless, spare us.  Unless you know us and know that our taste runs all the way to tasteless.  And really, the only way to know what is and isn’t funny is to know as much as you can about who you are talking to and find out what you can about what they find funny.

So just how do we use our wits to keep our wits about us? How do we use humor in our communications in order to foster goodwill, camaraderie and common ground? How do we persuade with humor?

For starters, be non-verbal! No, no, I don’t mean don’t say anything! Although there are people who, without saying a word, can make people laugh, and even change people’s minds, because they’re funny to watch. Just as there are people who provoke laughter in others by acting funny, looking funny, and sounding funny, regardless of what they say. But I’ll say this about the way people look and sound. Nonverbal humor makes verbal humor funnier. And a nonverbal lack of humor can make verbal humor as flat as a pancake, flat as a board, as flat as a tropical ocean on a hot windless day when the sweat pouring from your skin is hot enough to make tea but you have no water to drink because someone convinced you that taking a walk under the cloud cover that is now gone would be great exercise, and you find yourself shouting to the heavens ‘THIS IS A VACATION????? DEAR LORD, WHY DO YOU WANT ME TO DIE?????” and your anguished cry has no echo and falls flat and the silence makes the heat seem even hotter than had you said nothing at all. But I digress.

The point I’m trying to make is that verbal humor, without nonverbal humor to support it, can be risky business, like writing that previous sentence. It was really funny when I was saying it, but you couldn’t see me. I could. Trust me, it was VERY funny. But all you have are the words. In fact, one of the un-funniest things you can try to do with words is write about what is funny. It’s painful! But the good news is, pain is funny. Keep laughing at me or with me and I’ll explain in a moment.

While there are inherently funny words, (newcular instead of nuclear, for example) you will find more funny in a facial expression, a playful voice tone, and an exaggerated gesture.

If you want to know more, pay attention. Because funny happens all the time. And a quick post-mortem after the fact just may reveal how a deadpan affect worked, or how a joke killed an audience. But no matter what you do, when you finish this article, you should walk, don’t run, to your own happy place, find some funny and have a great laugh at my expense.  I’m going to go play with words, because that’s what I like to do when I’m not playing with them here.

Be well,


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