Could Humor Be the Dentists Secret Weapon in Boosting Patient and Staff Relationships?

Humor isn't only good medicine, it's also good for business. But what role does humor have in dentistry and how can you properly harness its power for success?

By Genni Burkhart

Humor is a powerful tool for professionals – and yes, that applies to dentistry as well.

We’ve all heard that “laughter is good medicine,” but did you know there’s actually evidence that documents the positive effects laughter has on our minds and our bodies? As it turns out, humor and laughter researchers at the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor (AATH) study why humor helps us and how to apply it in healthcare settings where patients are sick, hurt, and vulnerable.

Along with reviewing the benefits of humor and the pitfalls to avoid when using it, this article offers real-world strategies for oral healthcare professionals in clinical settings. Delivered properly, humor has the power to improve relationships with patients, earn respect and trust from coworkers, and drive positive human interactions at times of happiness and sorrow.

Why is Humor So Good for Us?

According to the AATH, humor and laughter decreases levels of stress hormones, lowers blood pressure, strengthens the immune system, and decreases pain and inflammation. As their president Paul Osincup states: “Laughter is an excellent addition to treating almost any condition – with the exception, perhaps, of urinary incontinence.”

The benefits of humor are most documented in pediatric patients, but the positive effects span generations. When we think about dental patients, humor is a useful tool in relieving nerves and in assimilating to something unexpected, such as temperature, a needle, or a drill.  

According to research, when we laugh our brains release endorphins that trigger social bonding and feelings of trust with others. While laughter is primarily a social signal, laughter can help create a meaningful connection between the patient and the dentist. The act of laughing exposes people and makes them vulnerable to each other. Think of laughter as the great equalizer – a place for common ground. When two people laugh together vulnerability is exposed and trust is developed. Think back to when someone last made you laugh – did a connection occur?

How to Incorporate Humor in the Workplace

In the book Humor, Seriously by Dr. Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, (both teach a class called “Humor: Serious Business” at the Stanford Graduate School of Business) the duo gathers their combined findings from top comedians, behavioral scientists, and business leaders to unravel why humor works and how anyone can use it to their advantage. 

Dr. Aaker and Bagdonas have a lot to unpack in regard to the appropriate application of humor in business. Their book offers advice on how to sort through your own life for material, what constitutes “funny,” and how to discover your own individual style of humor.

In doing so, humor can add confidence, show competence and authenticity, and encourage comradery and creativity. The authors recognize this can be uncharted territory for some, and that the task of “being funny” can be overwhelming and uncomfortable. However, they recommend shifting the focus away from telling jokes and “trying to be funny” toward making human connections in the everyday moments life offers. Here are a few of their tips:

  • Communicate With Levity: The words we choose (written or spoken) have a significant impact on our behavior and emotions. And the less we interact with others face-to-face the more work our written words have to do– so choose wisely, but by no means does that warrant absolute seriousness. One place we can offer levity is in emails and professional biographies used for print and digital content. Avoid talking like a robot and write as you are –human. Get rid of the buttoned-up and formal “Kind regards,” email signatures. Instead, go for humorous sign-offs that fit the tone of the email. Examples from the book include:
    • When asking for a favor: With fingers and toes crossed,
    • In reference to a phone call with a dog barking in the background: Still wondering who let the dogs out,
  • Navigating Difficult Moments: It’s at these times, contrary to what you might think, that humor offers a viable path through stressful situations. When addressing issues in the workplace ­–from personnel concerns to diffusing awkward situations –lightning the mood with (appropriate) humor can help. Humor can be used in acknowledging your own mistakes, choosing “tough love” moments over the humiliation of coworkers, and used to facilitate a proper goodbye. The book does point out that making light of every issue is not always appropriate, (we’ll further dive into this below) but can lighten the blow when giving difficult feedback and constructive criticism.
  • Foster Creativity with Your Team: The book provides an example from Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots. Teller asked his diverse team of entrepreneurs and inventors to come up with bad ideas by brainstorming “the silliest, stupidest ideas.” His creative team was thereby freed from the pressure of perfection and ended up finding renewed creativity to solve some of the world’s toughest problems through humor.

How Not to Use Humor: Risk vs. Reward

We’ve reviewed how humor can build trust with patients, but it’s important to also recognize the pitfalls associated with humor. Humor can certainly lead to higher patient satisfaction and those all too important online reviews, but not all your patients are open to it.

This is why as a dentist, the most important thing you can do is listen to your patients. In connecting with them individually, you’ll get to know them. As suggested by the AATH, clinicians can avoid humor mistakes by taking the focus off the patient and their situation. Instead, start with yourself and share your own experiences. However, don’t overdo the self-deprecating jokes, especially when it comes to your skills or experience. A patient who’s already anxious and vulnerable isn’t going to find humor in you pointing out how clumsy or unsure you are. They give a great example: “The last thing a patient wants is to picture their clumsy clinician not being able to hold a jelly donut right before their vasectomy.”

As well as being tactful, it’s also important to keep your humor positive and inclusive. Always avoid humor that’s targeted toward specific people or groups of people. If there is even the slightest chance you’ll offend someone, the risk of telling that joke isn’t worth the reward ­– from a moral and ethical level. If you’re in doubt, then leave it OUT.

The AATH gives sound advice: start with the lowest risk strategies you’re most comfortable with. This way your humor reflects your personality and how you’re most comfortable engaging with others ­– patients and coworkers. Don’t force funny, instead learn to recognize appropriate daily life situations where it can help you better connect with others.

Dr. Aker and Bagdonas offer a theory when deciding the risk vs. reward of humor in their book. The theory, derived by their friend Ann Libera, director at The Second City theater and a professor at Columbia College in Chicago, overseeing the first B.A. degree in Comedy Writing and Performance in the United States, sheds light on the grey areas of comedy. This theory states that there’s three “key components” of comedy: truth, pain, and distance.

  • Truth: The source of great comedy, truth is at the heart of laughter. However, combined with pain and not enough distance from that pain (think event or situation) it can come across as mean, insensitive, and offensive.
  • Pain: Pain is both physical and emotional, and it spans from mild humiliation to severe trauma and tragedy (think spilling coffee all over your shirt to being the victim of a terrifying event).
  • Distance: Asking, “Is it too soon?” is an example of how far an individual or group is from the subject of your humor. Distance from the joke can be time, geography, or psychology, such as how relevant a situation is to personal experience (think culture or sexual orientation).

These three areas should operate in unison with each other. If done correctly they’re the source of brilliant humor. If not, they’ll offend and distance people. 

In Conclusion

It turns out humor is a great tool for dentists when used wisely, some even branding their practice with it as a secret weapon. While you don’t need to be the next Tina Fey or Richard Pryor, adding levity to your communication with coworkers and lightheartedness to patient care shows leadership and understanding. Humor can foster stronger relationships with staff members, break the ice in uncomfortable situations, and provide documented health benefits to patients, especially those needing extra comfort and compassion during stressful situations.

While the task of ‘being funny’ can seem impossible, shift the focus instead to connecting with each person you communicate with, that can be written or verbal, remote or in person. Each interaction is an opportunity to lighten the worries of the world through effectively delivered laughter – the best medicine.


Author: With over 12 years as a published journalist, editor, and writer Genni Burkhart’s career has spanned politics, healthcare, law, business, finance, technology, and news. She resides on the western shores of the idyllic Puget Sound where she works as the Editor in Chief for the Incisor at DOCS Education out of Seattle, WA.

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