Humor in the Workplace – Lessons learned from taking humor to cancer patients

Carolina Health and Humor Laugh-mobile

Martin Brossman with the Carolina Health and Humor Laugh-mobile – 2001

Humor in the Workplace 

By Martin Brossman
©2017 Martin Brossman & Associates LLC

Humor to me is much more than telling a silly joke.  It’s about a state of being, an attitude of looking for humor and joy in things.  It’s about realizing that you can create humor and joy in just about any context.  

I learned this empirically during the years I volunteered at Duke Hospital taking a humor cart around to cancer patients. At first a volunteer with Carolina Health and Humor, I expanded my own humor horizon over several years as a volunteer trainer and certified humor presenter, grateful for the honor of receiving the Volunteer of the Year award from Governor Hunt in 2000.  These years taught me that humor goes way beyond making someone laugh.  

One particular afternoon when I was first volunteering, I had taught a workshop for a group of very stressed-out corporate employees before heading to my volunteer shift.  It was especially obvious to me that evening that most of the patients in the hospital beds were more alive and courageous than many of the people who had sat in the classroom with me earlier that day.  There in the oncology ward, I met people who sometimes had very little time left, who were lit up by telling me a joke or wearing a Groucho nose-and-glasses on a head which had lost all its hair.

As my experience grew, I began to teach the new volunteers coming to help out with our cart, The Laugh Mobile, that their job was not to entertain the patients.  Our job was to bring compassionate humor into their rooms, allowing them to experience whatever they needed to experience, in the context of humor and joy.  I created definitions of these concepts for the volunteers:

Joy–a state of serenity that allows us to embrace whatever experience we are having in a constructive way.

Compassionate humor–humor which creates a joyful environment that allows a person to have a greater sense of being accepted.

But it was the individuals who taught me the far-reaching effects of even small doses of joy and compassionate humor.  One particular woman needed a multiple organ transplants due to cancer.  I made a balloon dog for her, telling her it knew two tricks, how to lay down and STAY when I taped it to the wall. She said, “ Maybe the dog could look out for organs for me.”  I said, “ Great idea, let’s hang it up here on the wall so it can get a good view,” and attached the little blue balloon dog so that it overlooked the room.  I enjoyed listening to her stories of her grandkids and then moved on to the next room, wearing my red clown nose; I announced myself at each room by knocking on the door and saying, “Can I come in?  They just let me out.”

When I returned two weeks later, I noticed she was gone. I was concerned about what happened to her, but the hospital could not tell us anything about the patients.  During my rounds.  I visited a man’s room and there on the wall was a slightly shrunken version of that blue balloon dog I had made two weeks before.  I said, “I see you have a pet. I didn’t think they let pets in the hospital.”  He told me that he was waiting for an organ transplant and a woman he met on the ward had gotten word that organs were available for her, so she had given him the watchdog that worked for her. Then he smiled. I realized that my balloon dog was a great example of what I was there for.

Another time I walked into the room of an elderly woman who looked like she had been hit across the face with a baseball bat.  The family was in the room, and you could have cut the sadness with a knife.  Her eyes lit up a little bit when she saw me come in with my clown nose on.  I explained the Laugh Mobile to her, asking if she would like to check out any humorous books and tapes. She saw I was really listening and answered, “I used to enjoy walking here in the halls before they had to remove my teeth due to cancer.  I trusted instinct and said to her, “What are you going to say the next time you walk around the halls?”  It caught her slightly off guard in a good way, and she sat up in bed with a smile and pointed over her shoulder.  She said, “You ought to see the other guy.  It was a heck of a fight!”  The family members also sat up, in a shock at the change in her state.  You see, I was listening for humor and not trying to entertain her.

What does this have to do with humor in the workplace?  Everything.  Because at work we so often become overburdened with significance, losing track of the more important things in life and forgetting that all of that could change in a moment.  Many times I entered the oncology ward tired or in an off mood, but I never left it that way.  It reminded me of the importance and the responsibility I have to bring joy and humor into my own life, versus waiting for someone to entertain me.  For years I used to carry a clown nose in my car and would put it on if someone seemed to be suffering from too much anger.

The Laugh Mobile taught me a few things about humor and the workplace.

1.  The value of listening for humor in other people.  
This doesn’t mean inappropriately laughing at something that is painful to them.  It’s an attitude of looking for opportunities at work and in life to laugh together.  Humor is like a muscle that atrophies if you don’t use it.

2.  The importance of being able to laugh at yourself.
If you haven’t noticed, you are human. We, humans, do silly things with our emotions and biological brains, so you will get over things more quickly if you can laugh at yourself.  

3.  The wisdom of compassionate humor in leadership.  Some people believe that leadership and humor don’t go together.   Yet look at some of the most effective and compassionate leaders you have known in your own life.  I am sure you can recall a time when they were able to laugh at themselves.   And the most memorable leadership quality is a compassionate perspective that permits the type of real unconditional listening that allows talent, contribution—and yes, actual workplace joy—to flourish.

Love to hear your views on humor in the comments below.

Volunteer of the Year Award to Martin Brossman

Volunteer of the Year Award to Martin Brossman for my work with the Laugh Mobile 

Want to bring more humor and joy to your group, association or workplace? Here is Martin’s program on it: Instant Humor Just Add Life:

To connect to Martin Brossman just Google his name!
To schedule time with him contact his assistant Colleen at –
To see more of Martin’s professional talks see:

Learn more about Rog Bates at or call him at 919-604-5488

Going Beyond Conflict Resolution is Embracing Conflict as a Doorway to New Opportunities

Conflict ResolutonThe bottom-line cost to avoiding conflict is tremendous, but few people are taught how to be effective with conflict. My introduction to the subject surfaced just out of college when I discovered I did not have sufficient tools to deal with conflict on the job.   Promoted to manager of a retail store with one of the highest levels of shoplifting in the city, I decided I’d better learn about conflict pronto.

That was the start of my training in the martial art of Aikido, which views physical conflict as a state of imbalance. It teaches that we become stronger in the process of transforming conflict. In Aikido, instead of trying to be stronger than your attacker, you come from a centered place and then meet them, blend with them and ultimately lead them to a place that does little or no harm to the attacker. You are responsible for your own well-being and that of the attacker. When I mapped these principles on to the conflicts that occurred in my retail store, I discovered that I not only resolved the conflicts but also developed more loyal customers and trusted friends.

Later when I joined IBM, I had become so adept at handling conflict that a manager from upstate New York flew in to meet the customer service rep—me– who “liked having people yell at him and could save large contracts.”

So what are the core principles I discovered?

1. Understand their upset.

Treating conflict with calm controlled behavior is like putting gasoline on a fire. If you have ever been really upset and someone kept telling you to calm down, what did it do? Yes, you need to come from a centered, grounded place, but you need to move into their world to understand that their concern is real for them. The quicker you can validate it in an authentic way, the quicker you can move them to a more harmonious win-win solution.

2. Get clear on your commitment.

Are you committed to looking good? Being right? To winning? If so, you are almost guaranteed to lose. More productive commitments might be enhancing the relationship, giving the best service, or finding the gem of value in every criticism. Of course when you’re upset or rattled by a conflict it’s hard to remember what you are committed to. I recommend the Aikido technique of breathing deeply, becoming centered by putting your attention on your center of balance (about 2 inches below the navel).

3. Enter their world.

Next blend with your opponent to see through their eyes and allow yourself to become concerned to approach their concern. You truly validate their issue by understanding it, not justifying or giving “good reasons.” From there, with a clear commitment, work with them to create a new solution that aligns with your commitment and addresses their concern.

4. Assume positive intention.

Stay engaged with them until it is resolved. This requires you to develop the ability to be with other people’s upset and not lose your own commitment.   At IBM there was a client who was so hard to deal with that they passed her on to me. She was a small, aggressive woman with great influence in many departments. When I came in she would meet me part way and start yelling about the current problem. “How can you work for a company that builds junk like this!” I would simply start listening, but really listening like I wanted to be part of the story. One observer said that when she yelled at me she would be shaking up and down and it almost looked like I was doing the same while listening to her. As she continued complaining I would ask if there was anything else–and there always was. Then, surprisingly, after a few minutes of this she would suddenly get quiet, turn her head to the side, and ask cheerfully, “Do you want a Coke?” I would say yes, adding that while she was getting it for me I would start working on the machine. The account was saved and I managed it for several years.

By avoiding dealing with conflict we miss building character. We miss the chance to transform an adversary into a loyal customer. And we miss the deepened relationships that can be found on the other side of a conflict when we choose to do more than manage conflict and actually embrace it. Don’t miss those opportunities!

c2014 –Martin Brossman – (919) 847-4757 – Martin offers professional development training on this and other topics that can be found by going here.