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Using humour to get through the daily grind

It’s as much about making connections as it is about the jokes
By Geoff Kirbyson
January 30 2015 issue


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What do you have when 100 lawyers are buried up to their necks in sand? Not enough sand.

Ba-dum-bum. We’re here all week, try the veal.

Ah, lawyer jokes, they’ve been around for decades. Some are clever, while a good many are, well, less so. But just because legal professionals have been punchlines for so long doesn’t mean they can’t use humour to their advantage to break the ice with clients, reduce the tension in a courtroom, or even kibitz with a judge.

Steve Prentice, a partner at The Bristall Group, a Toronto-based professional development and education firm, says humour can be a great tool to put clients, often in a lawyer’s office for a multitude of bad reasons, at ease.

“Anything that can break the ice, (reduce) their fear and help move into productive conversations and relationships (is positive). Humour is a universal common ground. People from any part of the world, even if they don’t speak the same language, a smile or laughter or something that’s funny can bridge the gap,” he says.

Many times, lawyers can distinguish themselves from their colleagues with a joke or amusing anecdote or comment.

“Humour isn’t expected in conservative professions like law or accounting. People expect them to be serious, studious and respectful. So, it’s unusual to find a lawyer who is naturally going to use humour, but that lawyer is more likely to put their clients at ease and move the situation forward,” Prentice says.

Tsufit, a former lawyer and now an entertainer and lawyer coach based in Thornhill, Ont., says it’s important to work humour into everything you do.

“It’s disarming, it creates intimacy and it makes (work) easier to do,” she says.

“It’s not about telling jokes but having a sensibility about how you approach the day. Humour is alertness and readiness and not taking yourself so seriously,” she says.

Using humour to deal with the daily grind helps create a commonality with others. It can be “amazing” for marketing and it can also come in handy when managing conflict, negotiating settlements or doing collaborative law, she says.

“The more you can bring humour into those discussions, it not only relaxes you but it helps other people put their guard down. It makes you more accessible to them,” she says.

Having a good sense of humour can even help you move along your career path, says Mark MacNeill, Toronto-based partner at personal injury firm Brauti Thorning Zibarras.

“People like to be around likeable people. There is a time and a place for jocularity. People who have a sense of humour and navigate troubled waters will be more successful. They have another tool in their arsenal,” he says.

Being able to do legal work is one thing, but managing and addressing clients requires a different set of skills, he says.

“Being able to use humour to get (clients) to focus or listen to you can be really helpful, especially in a tense environment. If you can get them laughing, it’s harder for them to get back on a negative track,” he says.

Using self-deprecating humour can also make lawyers appear more human to clients. MacNeill had a nervous client in his office recently but he was able to disarm him, even while wearing a three-piece suit.

“I said, ‘I put this suit on just to listen to you.’ Then I showed him my wool socks,” he says.

Even if you have no inner Jerry Seinfeld, you can still use your smile and “warm body language techniques” to attain virtually the same effect with others, says Prentice.

“When you’re dealing with serious issues you don’t want to spend the entire time being a joker, but the warmth of your smile and eye contact demonstrates empathy to the cause. That’s humour-like,” he says.

“The single universal language on the planet is a smile. If you practise how to smile as genuinely as possible, a warm empathetic smile to the most desperate of clients will provide the same kinds of therapeutic benefits that a large belly laugh would, just in a lighter form.”

Humour can also be good exercise for your brain, says Scott Weems, a cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Maryland and author of Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why. He compares it to a good physical workout for your body. For example, the release in tension will lead to more pliable blood vessels and improve your blood pressure. There are also cognitive benefits to humour, he adds.

“If you show somebody a comedy routine, they will perform better on creativity and intelligence tests than if they were watching a drama or a documentary. (Humour) is essentially warming up the brain,” he says.

But there are limits to the number of knee-slappers and zingers that you can use. Jokes about race, gender or personal issues are strictly off limits, Prentice says.

“A badly-timed joke can do worse than fall flat. It can do great damage,” he says.

Much of the time, you have to read the situation and make a split-second decision whether a joke is appropriate. If you’re not sure, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution.

“If you’re in the courtroom and a catering person walks in by mistake, you could either be angry at that or use it as an opportunity to laugh or break up the momentum and keep moving forward in a positive way. It’s a contextual choice,” he says.

All of these cautions go double for e-mail, where humour very rarely comes across as intended.

“Anything that is typed, such as e-mail, texting or tweeting has to be done extremely carefully, if at all,” he says.

Weems says using humour in an opening statement or a cross-examination generally plays well but cruel humour simply won’t work.

He points to numerous studies that show when people engaged in debate used non-threatening humour, others agreed with their messages — but if they used humour to insult their opponents, it backfired.

“In law, it can be really useful as long as it’s used properly,” he says.

Anita Lerek, president and general counsel at Advocate Placement, a Toronto-based legal career brokerage, takes things one step further and says a little humour can go a long way to saving the lost art of the conversation.

“You have to set the stage for inclusive and not hurtful humour. A decent conversation can lead to alignments between people, finding things in common, sparking ideas or opportunities and breaking down barriers,” she says.

Today’s workforce is full of information traffickers who are obsessed with getting ahead, she says. The ultimate aim, however, should be to be open, relaxed and productive at work.

“The most feasible way of doing that is the art of conversation. If you can have a decent conversation, you have a hope of being human and letting go in the workplace,” she says.

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