Humor Softens the Agony of a Bitter Truth

Wish you could find a way to soften the agony of a bitter truth you are required to tell someone? Then imagine the anguish a competition judge feels when they must deliver devastating news to impassioned contestants and watch while the contestants’ raw emotion pours out over their hopeful aspirations.

Perhaps it’s fitting that those who must convey a bitter truth feel anguished, because it reminds them to relate with empathy, unless you are American Idol’s Simon Cowell. When he blurts out one of his notorious harsh denouncements, the stabbing pain Simon inflicts on the contestant penetrates the chest of those watching, too.

The bitter truth hurts, literally, from all perspectives. The restless torment you put yourself through when deciding how to disclose a bitter truth to someone. The despair you feel while you grapple with accepting a bitter truth that someone let slip. The misery of no escape and the discomfort of witnessing the hostility between once close friends after one tells the other a bitter truth.

Considering the painful emotions that surround bitter truths, it makes sense why people feel uncomfortable or put off communicating truthfully about sensitive subjects. The truth about bitter truths? It’s not the shock of learning about the bitter truth that mortifies. The bitter truth is most often your worst fear come true and it hurts too much to accept it.

Humor provides an opportunity to communicate a truthful message about a sensitive subject without causing offense. Ellen DeGeneres, Idol’s newest judge, demonstrates how effectively humor can be used to communicate candidly without causing offense. During the auditions, Ellen’s droopy, drowsy body language, followed by a yawn spoke loud and clear even before she said, “That performance almost put me out.” She cracked jokes about another beat boxer’s audition, imitating the singer’s choppy start and stop sound, “Something..seemed.. wrong.. with.. his.. microphone.”

Notice how Ellen’s humor communicated her dislike of the singers’ auditions without personally attacking the singers? (drowsy affect the audition had on Ellen, malfunction of the microphone)

The other benefits Ellen’s humor provided: Since humor requires the full attention of the brain to process, the singers had to temporarily dismiss their anxiety to process the meaning of Ellen’s humorous remarks. (release of tension – temporary distraction from the anxiety of the moment) While the contestants were still processing, the audience, now a step ahead of the contestants, understood Ellen’s message and felt like they were in on the jokes. They joined Ellen waiting for the contestants to “get it.” When the contestants finally “got it” the audience burst into hilarious laughter. (superiority theory) Caught off guard by Ellen’s humorous comments, the contestants seemed slightly amused, definitely puzzled, but not offended by the laughter. (incongruity theory)

Ellen’s humor clearly and candidly communicated her opinions that neither contestant showed talent. She softened the agony of a bitter truth for the contestants and invited the audience to join in her playfulness, bypassing the need for awkward or disparaging critiques.

Wish you could find a way to soften the agony of a bitter truth you are required to tell someone? One of the best ways to learn how to use humor in highly emotional situations is by watching a master in action. Even if you are not an American Idol fan, it’s worth your time to tune in to watch how Ellen DeGeneres uses playful humor to communicate and critique contestants.

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