No Laughing Matter

By Greg Nathan posted December 23, 2022

If you are a Boomer or Gen Xer you probably remember the movie, Patch Adams. It's the inspirational true story of physician, Hunter Adams, (played by Robin Williams) who sets out on a journey to introduce greater empathy into the practice of medicine by using humour. Adams is widely acknowledged as the first Clown Doctor.

Today Clown Doctors are professional performers, selected for their empathy and improvisation skills. They work in hospital wards using creativity and humour to cheer people up and distract children during scary and painful medical procedures.

This year I had the pleasure of inviting a Clown Doctor into our business to share his insights with our team on collaboration, performance skills and humour. When Robbie O'Brien (aka Dr Robbie O'Dear) appeared in our Zoom team meeting with his big blue eyes, disarming smile and self-effacing manner, he quickly had us relaxed and giggling.

But it also soon became apparent that behind that innocent face was a repository of wisdom and pathos, honed from years of working with sick children in truly heartbreaking situations. Robbie also has a Masters Degree in collaboration and creativity in the workplace. Here's a few insights I took from these fascinating sessions.

Dribbly beginnings are okay

When you start working with a group, it's okay to be a little awkward as you connect with each other. Robbie called these "dibbly beginnings". He pointed out that trying to put on a false sense of confidence and efficiency can make people feel tense. "The more relaxed and comfortable you are in yourself, the more others will warm to you and be open to what you have to say."

Robbie also explained that our brains tend to speed up when we are in front of an audience. We can then start to panic, thinking we are losing them, when in reality they are just catching up with what we are saying. "It's okay to take a moment to observe the room and sit with silence. Not only will others be okay with this, they may lean in a bit more as they will be interested in what you are about to say."

If you want to be interesting, be interested

This really hit home. If you are not really interested in what you are presenting, others are more likely to lose interest. Robbie reminded us that when we talk about things we are passionate about, our eyes light up, we have more energy and we naturally become more interesting to others. And when we are naturally interested in other people, we naturally move into the right behaviours and give out the right signals.

He also made the important point that being interested is a skill we can practice. We can consciously be interested in what people are telling us, and we can be interested in what people are experiencing and how they are responding to our material. He also suggested that if the interest fades, it's okay to acknowledge this and move on to another topic, or change what you are doing.

Moving from self-consciousness to self-awareness

Robbie's third point was how being self-conscious causes us to be self-critical. It's like our brain floats out into the audience and sits out there creating judgmental thoughts like "They hate me". This self-absorption causes us to disconnect from the audience.

On the other hand, self-awareness is objective, where we are more grounded, observing and taking in information from the inside. Robbie also gave some advice on what to do if we make a mistake or things are not going well.

"The best thing to do when things are not working is to pause and acknowledge it. Just state what’s true, because people know this anyway, and they are more likely to laugh and be more empathetic. Have confidence that things will be okay, and this will help you to move from self-consciousness to self-awareness."

Keep it clear and simple

Robbie also explained how the process of communicating with others is very physical, involving the movement of muscles and air to produce sound. He showed us through some fun exercises how tension in the throat and mouth muffles our sound, whereas a more relaxed jaw, throat and shoulders creates a warmer sound, more resonance and clearer articulation. This makes it easier and more pleasant for people to connect with us.

Finally he pointed out that many people trail off at the end of their sentences because they have finished with the thought internally. He recommended finishing each sentence strongly by going up a little at the end. "This lets people know you have more to say and will help to retain their attention." I really enjoyed these sessions and hope you also found these insights from this enthusiastic young Clown Doctor useful.

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