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How can we stay level when we’re doing very serious work?

I’ve been doing diversity work on and off for most of my life. I’ve moderated conversations on elimination of gender-based violence, homelessness, and many other oppressions. These are serious conversations I’m engaging in, and I’ve been talking to anywhere from a thousand to over five thousand people a year for many decades.

How have I not burned out on all this serious and traumatizing material?

There’s a strangely simple answer: I don’t take myself too seriously.

Choose to be human

Moderators, facilitators, group coaches, often set a very formal, serious, calculated and careful tone. The trouble is, that tone is not at all conducive to connection, creativity, and innovation—all the elements you need to have real conversations that find solutions to difficult problems.

I take my work seriously. I take the people I work with seriously. I take our subject matter seriously. But when I enter a new room, when I open the consultation, when I start facilitating the conversation, I do it with lightness. I make sure I set a tone that invites everyone in as full humans.

I show up with humour, with quirks, and acknowledgement of whatever blooper I might make. And that tone relaxes everyone else, lets them drop the professional façade they usually wear and engage authentically and wholeheartedly with the material, however difficult and serious it is. Laughing and joking doesn’t make a conversation more shallow; it does the opposite. The space it creates allows us to go deeper because we’re more relaxed.

Humans are by nature playful creatures, and we’ve been shoehorned into a society that puts play in the “leisure time” category and treats work as a very serious, laugh-free zone. But I’d rather shed the decorum (some might call it “B.S.”) and get to work in a genuine way.

What does laughter look like in a serious setting?

I’m not talking about slapstick routines or one-liners from a Christmas cracker. But from when I first enter a room, I allow space for laughter with every conversation. As someone leads me to the table, I connect with them and maybe make a quick joke about something frivolous, like the weather or parking. If they laugh, we’ve already formed a little human connection. I ask them about themselves, and I’m ready to laugh if they make a joke back.

If, once I’m at the mic, there’s an opportunity to ground everyone in reality, to make a quick humorous remark, I take it. This can mean noticing someone’s spilled their coffee (sometimes it’s me!), the power flickering, a car alarm in the distance. I don’t want to ignore the real world we’re in; I want to acknowledge that we’re in it, that we’re all full humans trying to get this important work done, not computers.

Sometimes in the midst of very difficult conversations, a tension builds that stops up the conversational flow. Being able to pop that tension with a quick quip and get ideas and conversation flowing again is an incredibly important skill as a moderator or a facilitator. So I am always listening in these settings, waiting to hear when the mood has gotten too tense for people to share, and I step in with lightness, ground us again with a bit of humour, and get things moving.

Humour is for Zoomers

Strangely and perhaps fortunately, there’s been a little more room for this kind of humanity in the last year. As we all rapidly switched to using Zoom for business, technical difficulties abounded, and the most successful meetings I’ve been in have allowed space and laughter for these difficulties. How many times is Jan going to start talking while muted? Who is going to wander through Marc’s background this time?

It’s been good practise for us to see into each other’s homes and lives a bit more readily. My favourite moment was when a boss in her chique black blazer slowly lifted a leg to display her plaid pyjama bottoms. It was a brief and easy moment of humanity that allowed everyone to take a deep breath, relax, and come back to our difficult conversation about mental health with clarity and calm.

When there’s no time for jokes

Not taking myself too seriously doesn’t always mean I always have time to actually joke around. Recently I moderated a conversation that was supposed to be an hour, got compressed to 45 minutes, and needed to include 15 minutes for audience participation. I was juggling five panelists in a half hour! With no time for small talk, I had to make my questions do double duty. I tried to ask questions with lightness, passion, and interest. I made sure to use each panelist’s name (pronounced correctly), and when I stumbled once or twice, I laughed and apologized rather than ignoring my mistakes.

I set a tone that allowed each panelist to relax and be themselves, to be passionate and interested, to stumble and laugh about it. The conversation was fast but fantastic. The dynamic we sustained was very genuine and human, and all the more fascinating and engaging because of that.

Not everyone loves to laugh

I have to say that overwhelmingly, people respond positively to my shifting between serious conversations and lightness and humour. But of course, it’s not for everyone. Some people—particularly people with more power—get annoyed with me for laughing at things that seem silly.

Part of my approach is accepting that not everyone will like me, and it’s because I’m being genuine all the time. No B.S. means I’m not going to go along with things that are ridiculous, or ignore the emperor without clothes. As someone outside an organization, I’m often able to come in and laugh at the emperor, ask him to acknowledge his humanity. And some emperors just don’t respond well to the suggestion that they’ve been walking around naked!

It’s still worth it

To me, it’s worth the risk that someone might not like me. Staying real, staying funny, staying sharp—that’s part of how I stay afloat. This work would be impossible if I had to remain solemn at all times. Instead, I get to connect in a real, genuine way with thousands and thousands of people all over the world, from North America to the Ivory Coast, Sri Lanka to Barbados. There are people everywhere who respond to lightness and humanity.

We discuss the big stuff together; we work toward solving huge problems in workplaces, lives, and society as a whole.

And we do it all with laughter, playfulness, and genuine connections.

Is there room for laughter in your work? Have you tried letting lightness in even the heaviest topics you cover? I’d love to hear if laughter works for you.

If you’re seeking moderation, facilitation, and coaching that tackles big conversation with room for whole humans, playfulness and all, get in touch.