Harnessing the Power of Humour

How to Use Laughs to Strengthen Relationships

Harnessing the Power of Humour
Harnessing the Power of Humour

How to Use Laughs to Strengthen Relationships

As a lifelong comedy nerd and sometimes stand-up comic, I learned firsthand the incredible power of humour. Though I loved comedy for comedy's sake, I also realized it could foster profound human connections. Laughter opened doors to friendship that might have otherwise remained closed. Jokes diffused tense situations and created camaraderie, even among strangers. And self-deprecating punchlines, carefully deployed, won me points for being down-to-earth.

In other words, I witnessed humour's ability to disarm and delight—to build rapport quickly and authentically.

These lessons shaped my perspectives on workplace relationships as much as friendships. Whether we realize it or not, humour permeates our daily interactions, offering opportunities to better understand colleagues and reduce friction. Shared laughter relieves stress, boosts morale, and increases productivity. 

However, humour also holds the power to offend, ostracize, and inflict damage when used carelessly—context matters. Audiences differ. Perceptions vary. Navigating humour in professional settings requires thoughtfulness about whether we should make a joke but what type and to whom.

This article can guide harnessing humour's relationship-building power appropriately and effectively while avoiding common pitfalls.

The Key Humor Styles

Humor encompasses a spectrum of styles, something that became apparent during my stand-up career. I crafted different jokes for different audiences based on what made them laugh the hardest. However, in most non-comedy settings, certain humour types connect more effectively than others.

Observational Humour

It is based on noticing amusing aspects of everyday life, such as "Why do we park on driveways and drive on parkways?" It relies on shared frames of reference.

Anecdotal Humour 

Humorous stories, especially those involving one's own embarrassing or silly experiences, allow people to lower their guard and build affinity. But don't overshare at work!


Puns, verbal irony, incongruous meanings. Fun if not overused, but better for informal occasions.

Situational Humour

Making the best of awkward or absurd situations. It brings levity when things don't go as planned.

Self-Deprecating Humour

Gentle jokes at one's own expense illustrate the ability not to take oneself too seriously. When used astutely, they endear you to others.

Know Your Audience

The cardinal rule before attempting humour: deeply consider those who will hear or read your quip. What fires up one group may flop or offend elsewhere. 

When using humour to build rapport with new acquaintances, read the room first. Is the setting formal or casual? What humour styles might they best relate to? Dropping a pun into a tense business meeting differs from making an observational joke to your carpool. 

Likewise, grasp how factors like cultural background, age, authority status, or previous experiences colour humour perceptions. Err toward more benign observational statements with unfamiliar audiences.

And understand that no one finds the same things amusing all the time. Monitor reactions and adjust accordingly.

Comedic Timing is Vital 

Even the funniest material won't land without perfect timing. Unfortunately, no formula or equation governs the ideal moment for any given joke. It's a nuanced judgment call. 

Still, some general timing tenets apply. Make sure you have people's attention before starting a humorous riff. Inject humour when conversations lapse instead of interrupting an engaging discussion. And when defusing tense situations, respond quickly before negativity spirals.

Equally important is giving people time to react once you deliver the punchline. Nothing falls flatter than resuming business as usual while everyone else is still processing that hilarious observational aside someone made five seconds ago. 

And if no one laughs, accept that you missed the mark. Don't overexplain the joke, as it rarely helps and can make things painfully awkward. Timing improves with practice, so keep honing your comedic instincts.

Funny Ha-ha vs Funny Strange

Humour thrives on surprise and contradiction. But realize that "funny" material can mean vastly different things to different people. Before making a joke, consider whether it could come across as odd or inappropriate instead of amusing. This ties back to knowing your audience.

Likewise, reflect carefully on your intentions and motivations before trying to be funny, especially with gentle, roasted-style jokes about colleagues and friends. Are you coming from a place of affection and respect? Or veiled hostility? Wield humour to build others up, not tear them down.

Landmines to Avoid

While humour can strengthen workplace relationships, certain topics are best left untouched. As a broad rule of thumb, avoid jokes involving politics, religion, race, gender, sexuality, or other sensitive societal issues unless you have an extremely high degree of confidence they will be well received. 

Likewise, it's rarely advisable to make someone the direct butt of a harsh joke without their explicit consent. Teasing about personal appearance, intelligence, quirks and the like often backfires. 

Use Self-Deprecating Humour Carefully

Making gentle fun of yourself can ease social lubrication in professional settings thanks to that “down-to-earth” factor. Occasional flattering vulnerabilities also show you don't take yourself too seriously. 

However, frequent self-deprecating jokes might give the impression you lack self-confidence and struggle with self-esteem issues, which can undermine perceptions of competence. Don't take the habit too far.

And know what you look like through your colleagues' eyes. For example, repeatedly poking fun at your disorganization might read quite differently coming from an administrative assistant vs. the CEO. Consider context. 

Humour for Building Rapport 

Now that we've explored some key guidelines let's discuss specific applications for using humour to build rapport.

Finding Common Ground 

Observational humour offers an excellent avenue for establishing mutual understanding. Bringing up amusing shared experiences through your humor style choice provides that delightful spark of "You too?! I thought I was the only one!" 

For example, during a coffee break conversation with new colleagues, I might muse on society's apparent quest to abbreviate every word:

"OMG, it's getting so I can't even recognize texts from my BFFs anymore with all the letter combos. Pretty soon, we'll just grunt at each other in emojis."  

Everyone laughs, nods, and soon shares their own annoyances with abbreviation overload. Thanks to one gentle observational joke, common frustrations are uncovered, and rapport is strengthened. 

Self-Deprecating Humour

Earlier, I cautioned about overusing self-directed humour. However, new acquaintances will likely appreciate some mild and good-natured chuckling at your quirks or mistakes. 

Done without flagellating or fishing for compliments, funny anecdotes highlighting your setbacks show a willingness to let your guard down. They also indirectly illustrate how you handle stress with grace and perspective. 

For example, say you're on a team of new hires learning the ropes from a company's long-tenured operations manager. Before bombarding him with questions, you might poke fun at your inexperience: 

"Well, Pete, we appreciate your patience with us newcomers this week. I think I've asked about a hundred clueless questions so far, but in my defence, most of my work experience comes from a lemonade stand I ran when I was twelve, so..." 

Pete and other team members will likely chuckle at your humour and deflection of any annoyance people might feel at repeated questions from the new folks. 

Humour for Defusing Tension

Sometimes, humour resolves tension and conflict even better than direct discussion. In strained or awkward situations, a well-timed quip reframes negativity and offers a new lens for moving forward.

Breaking the Ice 

Wendy heads into Monday's update meeting, dreading the mood. Last week's numbers were dismal, and she anticipates heavy criticism from Paul, the regional director with an imposing management style. Sure enough, Paul launches into a discussion of responsibility and accountability the moment he opens his folder. 

As the lambasting continues, Wendy notices several colleagues squirming uncomfortably in their seats. She braces, expecting her turn next. But when Paul finally pauses, Wendy seizes the moment. "Well, on the bright side, these numbers can only go up from here..." she says wryly.

The room fills with surprised laughter, and even Paul joins in, effectively easing the pressure valve. Wendy didn't deny the problems or failures, but her self-deprecating humour offered a constructive perspective going forward.

Shift the Frame

Other times, humour simply illuminates alternate viewpoints. Your office friends commiserate over their ridiculous workloads due to staffing changes. Everyone vents frustrations. 

Rather than denying their struggles, you quip: "Wow, so I guess our new motto around here is 'adding more value with less bodies?'" People chuckle, the mood lifts slightly, and the group moves toward problem-solving instead of circular complaining.

However, use discretion when tempering tense moments with humour. Truly toxic environments or inappropriate behaviour should be addressed through proper channels, not glossed over with jokes. Read situations thoughtfully.

Go Forth and Get Funny 

Adding appropriate humour to your workplace communications toolkit helps form deeper connections that facilitate collaboration, idea exchange, and understanding. But like any powerful tool, humour should be handled consciously and respectfully. 

Keep honing your funny instincts through regular practice. Expand your joke repertoire to include various humour styles. Take mental notes on which approaches resonate with different audiences. And don't quit your day job if the laughs don't come instantly! 

With ongoing care and effort, humour might become your most valued relationship-building asset.

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