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Using humor to make an emotional connection

John Fraser - conservation psychologist

A lot has been written about how, if you want people to be open to hearing your message, you need to first make a personal and emotional connection with them.  

But what if you are really feeling a sense of tragic loss or despair about the destruction of nature's wonders?  "Come mourn with me" is a stingy invitation that few will accept.  "Let's fight this losing battle together" is not much better.

John Fraser is a psychologist who specialized in the mental health of conservationist, who think about environmental destruction every day.  He is interviewed here about coping with feelings of tragic loss.   Toward the middle, he mentions comedy as an antidote.

Humor, of course, is the classic human stress releaser and emotional coping mechanism when faced with a painful reality beyond one's control.  And shared laughter is often the very best way to make an emotional connection.  Have you ever had the experience of laughing involuntarily at the jokes of somebody who's views you disagree with?  Sometimes, we "just can't help liking the guy," and become at least temporarily a bit more open to listening.  (For more on this, see the accompanying interview with stand-up economist Yoram Bauman.)

Take away:   If we want to make a personal, emotional connection with an audience, we'd better be aware of and honest about our own feelings, and what we are asking people to share.  Humor is often the best way to reach out.

Additional thoughts:  

  • For more on opening up an audience with humor, including a video demonstration, see the accompanying  Yoram Bauman interview on "Making Climate Change Fun and Funny."
  • Why do speakers so often begin with a joke?  Why does it take so little to get an audience to laugh when you first begin to speak?  Because laughter releases tension, and the start of speech is always a tense moment, fraught with potential for very uncomfortable feelings on either side of the podium (embarassment, boredom, anger, frustration and more).  When a new speaker gets up before a hostile group, you can feel the tension rise.  The best way to diffuse that tension and win over a grumpy audience?  You can guess . . . Laughing

Michelle Nuijuis, "Do Environmentalists Need Shrinks?" Grist, June 22, 2011

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