Interpersonal Edge: Humor dispels fear

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

By Dr. Daneen Skube

Q: Even though the pandemic is better, everyone in my workplace seems more anxious than ever. The economy and general uncertainty are creating a super tense workplace. Is there anything you find helps teams when anxiety is high?

A: Yes, validating anxieties and using a gentle sense of humor lightens the mood during tense meetings. I tell clients that an anxiety you identify and discuss is an anxiety that won’t control you. Humor that’s effective is humble, full of common sense, and reminds us of our common humanity. Some people think that talking about a fear makes the fear worse. The opposite is actually true. If you talk about a fear, you shrink it down to a smaller size. Decades of research tells us anxiety literally makes us stupid. The more scared we are, the less we can invent solutions to manage what we fear.

Effective humor reminds people that we’re actually in many of these problems together. Worrying alone is terrible for our mental health. When we use humor well, we acknowledge our common vulnerabilities. We also cannot laugh and be scared at the same time. When we laugh our fear recedes, and our ability to problem-solve comes back on line.

A wise journalist, Clive James, observed that, “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.” As James pointed out, skillful humor comforts us by reminding us that the human condition involves lots of adversities and mistakes.

When we’re scared, we most need our own self-love and patience for our less-than-optimal selves. Ironically, when we’re scared we’re most prone to being self-critical and demanding perfection at a time when we’re most likely to make mistakes.

Effective humor pokes fun at ourselves, our common struggles, and our weaknesses without shame. We tend to relax when we laugh, forgive our-selves of our vulnerabilities, and have more energy to tackle problems.

I personally enjoy searching through collective quote internet sites like Pinterest as I always chuckle through the humor. Popular quotes include, “Before I had kids I knew I was going to run a right ship. After kids: And…the ship is on fire!” As a parent of many kids, I know the futility of perfection. I laugh out loud and return to the chaos of parenting in a less stressed way.

I keep mentioning effective humor because you do not want to use jokes to be passive aggressive, to shame team members, or indirectly express conflict. Good humor is self-deprecating, acknowledges our vulnerabilities, and reminds us to hold onto fears lightly.

If you’re not sure how to use humor at work, watch comedians who are good at humble humor. Comedians like Ellen DeGeneres is a master at the funny monologue. She’s also great at poking fun at our common human condition.

There are people who think laughter truly is the best medicine. Bernie Siegel, author and physician, even believed that laughter promotes powerful healing for serious medical conditions.

On Monday, acknowledge the things that may be making your co-workers anxious, and let humor dance through your next meeting. Your new approach will benefit both your productivity and your team’s physical and emotional health!

Daneen Skube, Ph.D., executive coach, trainer, therapist and speaker, also appears as the FOX Channel’s “Workplace Guru” each Monday morning. She’s the author of “Interpersonal Edge: Breakthrough Tools for Talking to Anyone, Anywhere, About Anything” (Hay House, 2006). You can contact Dr. Skube at or 1420 NW Gilman Blvd., #2845, Issaquah, WA 98027. Sorry, no personal replies.