One of the most powerful tools in any orator’s utility belt is humor. A well delivered humorous anecdote or a pithy one liner can alter the mood of nearly any situation. Humor has the unique ability to calm people down, improve their mood, and even turn an adversary into a friend when used correctly. That is why I use humor throughout my Roll Models workshops and talks, not merely to get a laugh, but to settle your mind so that you can best hear my message and mentally go where I want you to go. I have always had a dry, quick wit that could make people laugh, but I really learned how powerful that skill could be when I was about 13 years old and moving to middle school.
The transition from elementary school to middle school is a big step for most kids. You are going from the safe, nurturing environment of grade school to the scary, unknown of middle school. You now have to worry about locker combinations, passing periods, multiple teachers with multiple classrooms, and on top of all that, you are a big cocktail of raging hormones that just wants to “fit in” with your peers. In addition to all of that pressure, I had another major hurdle to overcome due to my disability. I had to get 7 teachers that had never met me up to speed on what I was and was not able to do, so that the classroom would run as smoothly as possible. This normally would have been simple, just sit down and have a “Scott Drotar meet and greet” with my teachers, but unfortunately this was not the case.
The situation was complicated, because for some reason that I’ve never figured out, the teachers had built up a lot of apprehension and anxiety about my coming to their classrooms. I do not know how this started, but they were nervous. It seemed like they had this vision of me as some fragile invalid that would require constant monitoring, care, and assistance, and who at any moment could spontaneously combust. Ok, maybe that is a bit much, but that is the image they were projecting. Regardless of how it started, it was the reality, and I knew that it was merely a reaction based on an ignorance of my condition and fear of the unknown. I decided I was going to use humor to break through that barrier of fear to facilitate telling them about my situation.
Over my youth, I had developed a unique “skill”. I had taught myself how to fake a seizure. Imagine that this skin and bones kid, who is in a wheelchair, comes near you and starts convulsing wildly. I mean eyes rolling back, foam around the mouth, fish out of water type seizing. You would freak out, right? Of course you would, and so would I, because we are good people. So, I decided to let the middle school teachers catch wind that I had this “skill” and was going to use it to freak them out. Just bringing up this humorous little plan was enough to move them from a place of fear to a place where they could start to see me as I was, a mischievous preteen like all of their other students. By showing them that I did not think my disability was a big deal, I disarmed their anxiety and made them see me as a person, as opposed to a disabled person, and made effective communication possible.
This story always reminds me of how powerful humor can be in difficult situations. Usually, people try to use logic and reason to combat feelings of fear, anger, or anxiety, but this will typically get you no where. You need to reach people emotionally, be it through humor, empathy, or some other emotion, in order to pave the way for rational thought and dialogue. One way this idea was presented to me was “You need to motivate the elephant (their emotional thinking) before you direct the rider (their rational thinking) where to go.” This imagery makes the point clearly, since no matter how much the rider wants the elephant he is riding to go a certain direction, if the elephant is not sufficiently motivated to move, there isn’t much the rider can do. Similarly, until you motivate someone through their emotions, their rational mind is going no where. So, the next time you feel like you are beating your head against the wall (or trying to move an elephant) arguing your point, think about me flopping around in my wheelchair like a tuna, remember to reach their “elephant” before their “rider”, and that you can accomplish all of this with a little humor.