Saturday, July 21, 2012

Building Rapport

Through Humor And Laughter...

(I’m going to see Bill Cosby in concert tonight so I thought I’d post these thoughts about humor, rapport and making people laugh.)

I find it easy to get along with and establish rapport with a wide range of people. I have a lot of slack for folks to find their own way, whether or not I agree with where they're going. My fuse is long and I tend to focus on where the connection is, rather than where the obstacles are. 

Funny because really I'm a loner at heart. I've just learned to be socially fluid and get along with all kinds of people. Maybe it was my habit, started when I was 5 or 6, of connecting with people through making them laugh. 

I remember the very first time I did it. It was either kindergarten or first grade and our teacher asked us what the month of March was famous for. For some reason I whispered to the kid next to me, "Blowing hats off." He cracked up and the teacher asked me what I'd said. I think I sheepishly replied "Blowing hats off?" And she said, "Yes! That's exactly right! We think of March as a windy month." So I got a double dose of validation and praise simultaneously and I think it really encouraged me to continue seeing if I could make people laugh. I wasn't exactly the "class clown" but I'm sure I got on a lot of my teacher's nerves over the years.

To really make someone laugh in everyday life, and laugh spontaneously and genuinely, requires getting into their mindset, sensing where their tension is, and where their releases might be. I find I really have to pay attention to other people and get them first, only then can I sense into what will make them laugh. I actually "adopt" their sense of humor. What they think is funny, I start to think is funny. Of course I can't do this with everyone, but I can do it with most people. Where I can't do it is with people whose humor is essentially mean spirited, truly racist or hateful. 

I think this humor-rapport thing has helped me relate to lots of different kinds of people. I have great humor connections with people who would probably be amazed if they overheard me joking with my other friends since the humor I share with each of them is totally different. I'm versatile that way. My own personal sense of humor is kind of silly really and I don't share it with that many people. I love being a humor chameleon though, since I get to enjoy so many ways of seeing humor in life. I'm definitely not faking it, I really see into what others think is funny and end up thinking it's funny too. 

This has really helped me as a T'ai-Chi teacher and enabled me connect with a lot of very different people. I don't think anyone can really know what someone else is experiencing. There's no proven way to literally enter another's experience. However, sharing laughter is one of the fastest and most reliable indicators that my experience and someone else's are at least similar, if not close to identical. 

True laughter is very hard to fake. At least it's hard to fake and get me to buy it. I've met many people who cannot really laugh. They know how to make the "ha ha" sound when something's supposed to be funny, but they don't erupt into genuine spontaneous laughter. They can't let themselves lose that much control. It's like everything has to go by their inner gatekeeper before they can decide if it's funny or not.

To me the beauty of laughter is that I can't have the gatekeeper monitoring my experience if I want to really laugh. I have to have my genuine unforced responses, whether or not they are politically, spiritually or otherwise "correct". Thinking might come later, but I find people who must think before they decide whether to allow themselves to laugh at something to be some of the saddest and least interesting people I know.

Every now and then I take it upon myself to see if I can get something by someone’s inner gatekeeper and make them laugh at something they "don't think is funny". If can do that, if I can touch that part of them which is capable of this simple unforced release, I feel like I'm doing something right. It's not easy though and I don't attempt it often. I much prefer people who have what used to be called a "ready" laugh. Not someone who goes off hysterically at the slightest whiff of a joke, but someone who knows how to let go into laughter and is ready to do so.

This spontaneous quality of true laughter is one of the reasons why being a stand-up comedian is so difficult and why so many of us "funny" people, shy away from even thinking about doing stand-up. If I sing or play guitar badly or in some way don't reach the audience, they can still clap politely to show that they at least appreciate the effort. But with a comedian, there's no polite way to laugh at jokes that don't hit the mark. Even if there was, it would just make it worse for the comedian. He's aiming for a genuine spontaneous response and if he doesn't get it, it's obvious to everyone in the room. There's no saving face when you don't do it right. This is why, comic will say things like "I died out there." In everyday like, if a joke doesn't work, you can shrug it off, or laugh at the joke yourself, or just slip and slide a bit and move on. But on stage? That's a different world. Some comics are very good at recovering from having told a joke that didn't work. In fact some comedians are at their best while doing this. Johnny Carson comes to mind. But for most it's excruciating. Lucky for me, I have no ambitions in this area. I like making people laugh in real life, one on one or in small groups. And I like letting them make me laugh too. I like the rapport we have to develop to do this. And I just like to laugh...

Friday, July 13, 2012


Who needs it? 

Well…everyone, in my opinion. Trees where there is no wind grow up weak. And of course, trees where there in nothing but wind hardly grow up at all. But in between is best, where there is wind but not extreme wind, and wind that only blows hard once and a while. Of course we are not trees but I do think we benefit from other people examining our actions critically, looking, like wind, to stress our weaknesses. I’m talking about fair-minded and directly expressed criticism here, not vindictive or malicious attacks. If it hurts to be negatively criticized in a fair way, it can get easier with repetition. The trick is to let the pain happen without reacting to it. I know, this is very hard to do. But I know from personal experience that it is at least possible to get better at it.

Now sometimes criticism can be justified and backed by truthful observations and sometimes it can be unjustified and backed with biased projections or selectively chosen data. Letting the criticism in does not mean accepting it as truth, it means accepting it as criticism, letting it in as such. Then, later, you can mull it over, test it with your own observations and decide that it doesn’t really resonate with you, or you can decide that it does and make an effort to act differently in some way, or you can just let the rightness of the criticism work its own magic on your actions. But only if you don’t react in defensiveness and closed-mindedness.

I am by no means an expert on this and by no means always successful at not reacting when I’m criticized, but I know one thing for sure, I do take criticism seriously. I don't just obey it or assume it's right, but just about anyone can see some things about me that I cannot. So I do my best to take it in, not assuming the other person is right, wrong, jealous, or whatever. I try to make sure I understand what they're getting at, and then I take it in and see if it feels right or not. I find that very, very seldom does anyone's negative take on me have no basis in fact. Even when they are largely "wrong", they're never completely wrong. There's almost always some truth to what others see or say about me.

I find that if I get similar criticism from several people over time, that there must be something to it and not always the obvious, "They must be right", conclusion. There could be a way in which I am communicating that is being consistently misread. Or out of one kind of fear or another, I might be projecting a small part of me in a way that makes it seem larger than it is. I've made some real adjustments at different times in my life that were based on realizing that how I presented myself was not being read accurately by other people.

You know, it's like when eye contact in one culture is cool, but in another culture it means you want to fight? We have our mini-cultures too and sometimes people, (acutely when it comes to autistic people), have a hard time reading into those signals and need to refine them. I know that's been true with me over the course of my life, and I consider myself mildly autistic. So criticism has helped me refine my ability to perceive how I’m being perceived.

I recommend cultivating friendships with some sharp critically-minded people. People who will not accept whatever you say about yourself at face value. People who are willing to tell you what they see and think about you and who are willing to stick around, hear your side of the story and engage in a kind and honest dialogue if necessary.  And I recommend practicing letting in their criticism too, just not un-critically.