Click Here To Listen To The NEGOTIATEx Podcast
Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for joining us on the NEGOTIATEx podcast. Joining us today is Courtney Bickert, a global citizen, leader, management expert, and stand-up comedian. With over 30 years of experience in international development and foreign affairs, she has traveled to over 100 countries.
Additionally, Courtney has a background in stand-up comedy, with training from prestigious institutions like Second City, DC Improv, and the American Comedy Institute. This knowledge led her to create a company called ‘Laughing Matters,’ which assists leaders and organizations in integrating humor into their strategies, communications, and team-building activities.
Now, without further ado, let’s jump right in.
Firstly, Aram prompts Courtney to share her professional journey. Courtney admits she did not have a specific roadmap for her career. Her interest in Russian, stemming from being a Cold War baby, led her to study the language in college, which opened up several opportunities. A series of serendipitous events, including an unexpected translation job due to her Russian language skills, led her to work in international development.
Courtney’s time at the University of Chicago was transformative, and she speaks warmly of an impactful class that led her to China, broadening her perspective on global powers.
She also recounts her unexpected professional stint in Albania, candidly admitting her initial unfamiliarity with the country. However, this experience turned out to be pivotal in her career, dealing with the challenges of significant budget cuts and managing a large team in a post-conflict region.
Her success story in Albania, filled with humor and camaraderie, emphasized the power of team spirit and leadership.
After her tenure in the Hague, Courtney found herself at a crossroads in London. Seizing the opportunity, she explored her interest in acting, leading her to a newfound passion – stand-up comedy. The vibrant pub culture of London, with countless opportunities for amateur comics, allowed Courtney to refine her craft.
Her experience in stand-up led her to draw parallels between comedic performance and business presentations, planting the seeds for her venture, ‘Laughing Matters.’
Aram eloquently ties Courtney’s journey to the word ‘serendipity,’ praising her ability to combine intentional decisions with embracing unexpected opportunities. They briefly discuss the origins of the word, appreciating its relevance to Courtney’s life.
As the conversation unfolds, Courtney discusses the science of laughter and humor, emphasizing their distinctiveness and interconnection. While humor invokes curiosity and the ability to identify incongruities, laughter is an emotional and physiological response.
The science of gelotology, the study of laughter, offers insights into how laughter stimulates various brain regions, promoting creativity and problem-solving. Courtney elaborates that laughing swaps cortisol, a stress hormone, with mood-enhancing chemicals like dopamine and endorphins, reducing anxiety, enhancing learning, and fostering relaxation.
Additionally, she elucidates that humor and laughter cultivate a sense of security and camaraderie. Sharing a laugh or a joke with someone inherently fosters a connection, promoting cooperative problem-solving. Drawing from research, she explains how exposure to humor enhances innovation and creative thinking.
Addressing the universality of humor, Courtney dismisses the myth that some people or cultures lack a sense of humor. While every individual and society possesses humor, the nuances may differ based on cultural backgrounds and personal experiences.
She highlights the potential of humor as a bridge for cross-cultural interactions, fostering understanding and unity. Even if humor doesn’t always translate directly, the act of sharing and explaining jokes provides invaluable insights into various cultures. Although humor can act as a bridge, Courtney cautions about its potential pitfalls, emphasizing the need for thoughtfulness, especially in professional settings.
Aram draws a parallel to Erma Bombeck’s notion that “Laughter is the Best Medicine,” underscoring the therapeutic and bonding effects of humor in daily life. He reminisces about his time in Afghanistan, sharing humorous observations that transcended cultural barriers. Nolan concurs, resonating with Aram’s sentiments about the universal language of humor.
Moving on, Courtney highlights the pivotal importance of the initial moments in a situation, whether that’s a meeting, negotiation, or stand-up comedy session. This “taking the mic” moment sets the energy, builds empathy, and lays the foundation for the interactions that follow.
She emphasizes the need for personal preparation, suggesting ways to prime oneself for a light-hearted mindset. Engaging with comedic content or recalling amusing moments can place an individual in a relaxed and jovial state of mind, fostering a conducive atmosphere for humor-infused discussions. Such preparation ensures that the individual doesn’t just wait for a comedic moment but is also primed to create or recognize one.
However, Courtney suggests that humor doesn’t always need to be premeditated. Organic moments, such as unexpected noises or spontaneous recollections, can serve as opportunities to interject humor. These moments cultivate shared experiences, offering common ground amidst conflicting agendas.
The essence of effective humor lies in authenticity. Courtney underscores the perils of forced humor, suggesting that individuals can easily discern when someone is trying too hard to be comedic. Instead, being genuine and relaxed, not actively seeking to make others laugh, but being open to opportunities, makes for a more natural comedic impact.
Aram puts forth the value of being ‘present’ during interactions, allowing one to discern opportunities for shared humorous moments. An individual’s presence is a powerful tool in noticing and capitalizing on humorous situations, thereby creating a mutual bond with others.
Courtney points out the importance of personal relaxation. It’s not just about making the other party feel comfortable but also about ensuring one’s optimum performance. Tension can cloud judgment, distort perceptions, and hinder clear communication. A relaxed state of mind, on the other hand, promotes authenticity and better decision-making.
According to Courtney, humor doesn’t just make others perceive you as more likable; it also elevates perceptions of competence. She refers to studies that indicate individuals with a sense of humor (which doesn’t necessarily equate to being overly comedic) are viewed as more capable, trustworthy, and self-assured. These traits can significantly bolster one’s position in a negotiation or leadership scenario.
All in all, humor, when used effectively, can be a potent tool in both self-management and influencing others. It assists individuals in navigating stress, fosters positive perceptions, and establishes trust. This dual benefit ensures that one feels empowered personally and positions oneself advantageously in interactions with others.
Thank you for your time!
Nolan Martin : Hello and welcome to the NEGOTIATEx podcast. Really excited about this one today. My name's Nolan Martin. I'm the co-host, co-founder. With me, as always, is Aram Donigian. Aram, you ready to kick this one off?
Aram Donigian : I am Nolan. First, I got to tell you, I met a microbiologist yesterday. She was much taller than I expected.
NM : I knew you were going to come with the dad joke. I didn't know it’d be that one. That was good.
AD : Today is about the funny and how we bring the funny to our negotiations on who better to help us have that conversation folks, than Courtney Bickert, who was a global citizen, leader and management expert, as well as a standup comedian committed to positive social impact around the world through innovation, partnerships, endless curiosity and of course humor.
She has devoted to finding leading edge solutions to the world's challenges. Courtney has proven organizational leadership experience with over 30 years in the field in international development and foreign affairs and has worked in and traveled to over 100 countries. Courtney has led organizational transformations in the development of new revenue models and communications for large international organizations.
As a skilled fundraiser, she has raised millions of dollars for international nonprofits. Courtney is also a standup comedian with significant formal training in the techniques of standup comedy, including Second City, the DC Improv and the American Comedy Institute.
She has turned this knowledge into a company ‘Laughing Matters,’ working with leaders, organizations, universities and teams in ways that bring humor and comedy techniques to build teams, strengthen communications and business pitching skills, inform strategy, manage organizational transformations and change and structure team retreats and meetings.
Courtney has an MBA, MP P from the University of Chicago. Thank you Courtney for joining us today.
Courtney Bickert : Thank you. I loved your opening too.
AD : I need to give credit to my nephew, Isaac. That was his idea. He spent a week with us and we heard joke after joke after joke. So Isaac, thanks for that.
CB : That's fantastic. Well, thank you for that intro and thank you for inviting me to do this. I'm really excited and I think that, humor and laughter, I could talk about it for hours and it is critical for leadership and for negotiations, very helpful. So I'm really looking forward to this conversation. You kind of already got us on the path. One of the things I like to start with in workshops and conversations is just sharing with each other something that we found funny in the last couple days or this morning or that we laughed at, giggled at, or that just made us think, oh, that's curious. I wonder why that's happening. That gets us into the spirit end of thinking about humor and it also gets our brains already benefiting from the wonderful things that we'll talk about later that humor and laughter do for our brain.
AD : I got a couple I'll share then I'll see what Nolan's got since you're teaming it up. So the home thing that I just heard was that Mr. Rogers, Little Red Trolley traveled 5,000 miles annually. Isn't that interesting? 5,000 miles annually is how many miles he put on that little trolley.
NM : It's impressive.
AD : I know. I mean oil changes. I don't know what you have to do for that thing. What my funny is, end of the summer, although we really didn't feel like we had much of a summer, just felt like it rained the entire summer. But end of summer, my wife is buying the kids bathing suits for next year and my youngest, my five-year-old Katie, was very excited by her new bathing suit and came up to me and said, dad, you got to see my new zucchini.
And in New Hampshire we grow zucchinis, like we grow rocks. So I thought maybe she had really had a zucchini. I just didn't understand why she was so excited. But of course it was a little bikini.
NM : Well, I found some corny dad jokes. I'd love to share. Yeah, please. Really. I think Aram's going to be all over this, so.
AD : I’ll take notes.
NM : Alright, great. So Aram, I'm afraid for the calendar, its days are numbered. And I got one more. All right. My wife said I should do lunges to stay in shape. That would be a big step forward. Alright, those are two that I found.
CB : Okay. Mine is so bad, but I have two cats and I find it really funny when cats do stupid stuff. And so my cat took a header this morning as she was leaping for the window sill. She was prepping and she jumped and hit the wall instead. And then of course she's a cat, so she was like nothing to be seen here and walked away tail and head high. That always makes me giggle.
The reason I like to start with that, as I mentioned, is as you notice, one, we're laughing and laughter we get into later has a lot of really positive effects on the way we think, our motivation, our mood, our creativity, etc. And it also sets us off into a relaxed and trusting environment. So that's why I like to start with that. So thank you for participating and making me laugh.
AD : That's beautiful. And we want to get into some of those points now, Courtney, let’s go through your bio. You've done amazing things over the past 30 years. Did you always see yourself kind of where you are today or has the journey provided some surprises, maybe in some funny moments? And as you kind of think back, I mean what or who were some of the most influential people or moments that affected the nature of the work you're involved with today?
CB : Thanks for asking and of course I did not see myself where I am today. I imagine that's true for you all as well. There wasn't a roadmap. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes of Lily Tomlin where she says, “I always knew I wanted to be somebody. Only now I realize I should have been more specific.” Anyway, no, I didn't have a roadmap. I didn't know where I would end up. I think it's a combination of some intention, a lot of serendipity, a lot of the right people at the right time, tremendous amount of curiosity. And I also think asking for help and asking people to provide advice and connections and help.
So when I was little, speaking of no map, my mom and dad would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up and I would always say I wanted to be either the first female president of the United States or the cashier at the grocery store, the cashier at the grocery store. That's when they had those big machines with all of the colored buttons that you could punch, which I thought was really fun.
So no, I had no map. I actually somewhat fell into international development work. I decided to study Russian when I went to college and I did that I think because I was a Cold War baby and I was fascinated by the Soviet Union. And yes, I went to high school in the days when we would do the bomb practices where you'd hide under your desk to protect yourself from a nuclear bomb, those kinds of things.
So, I was fascinated by the Soviet Union. So I decided I would take Russian when I went to college and I happened to have an amazing, amazing Russian professor and Professor Erwin Weill. And that got me to Leningrad. And I spent a year in Leningrad. The last year that it was Leningrad. I left a week before the coup, not knowing anything about the coup coming, but spent a year there and started learning Russian and landed after that at Brown University because one of the professors I met in Leningrad was going to Brown to be a visiting professor.
And there I happened to be sitting at my day job and the phone rang and I picked it up and Professor Sheldon Levy asked, “I know this is a random question, but I'm calling this foreign affairs office because I'm wondering if anybody there speaks Russian.” I said, well, I speak Russian. And Dr. Levy was a professor at the Brown University School of Medicine and Family Medicine and was doing a project at Moscow Medical Academy and he needed someone to translate for a dinner that night with its guests.
And that started a very long relationship where I worked with him and on that project and went back to Moscow with his help and did an internship in family planning at a clinic in Moscow, which then got me my job with the US AID contractor that was doing some of the first work in the former Soviet Union funded by the US government on reproductive health. And so I spent my first four years in international development running around the former Soviet Union, crazy wild West in many places, pedaling condoms and contraceptives and, that was, I mean, so many amazing experiences. I can't even tell them all. And some really, really funny experiences.
One that I do want to tell is, I was very young, I was in my twenties and my boss, Nadine Burton, one of the amazing mentor, and I'm so thankful for her, said, “do you want to do the condom training?” We were in Siberia and we were training pharmacists on basic contraceptive sciences and how to teach clients how to use them, etc. And so she was going to let me do the condom training, and this was my first time ever leading a training. And I looked at her at lunch and I was like, “oh, Nadine, I forgot to pack the condoms.”
And she was like, well, I guess you're going to the pharmacy. So I went down to the corner pharmacy and I was rushed. So I just pointed to the box and I said, I'll take 200 of those. And the pharmacist knows the Siberian pharmacist with the chef hat and looking at me. And she just said, those not about the number, just those. And I said Yes. And I walked out with my 200 condoms and I went to the training and I'm standing in front of 200 Siberian pharmacists all looking at me.
And I unwrapped that I have the bananas for the demonstration and I unwrapped the first condom foil and I had just bought 200 condoms with pink and purple ticklers on them, very decorative and not serious at all. And my boss, I looked over and she was just doubled over laughing. Keep going with it.
AD : My question is though, did you get a volume discount on those condoms?
CB : I did not. I did not. But speaking to the power of humor, what was so interesting about my little SNAFU was it actually loosened up the entire room. It had been very stern, it was very stayed and serious, and by the end of the session, these pharmacists were making balloons and batting them around the tub. And so it really opened things up. It was great. So I had many experiences there. And then from there I decided to go to grad school. And I never thought in a million years that I would go to business school.
I was a nonprofiter or human rights advocate, those kinds of things. And when I was working with pharmacists and in healthcare, I really realized, well, there's a huge business component to all of this, and if we don't understand that as development people, how can we be really helping in these situations?
And so I landed at the University of Chicago, they let me in. Which, I hadn't done a lot in the math area. So I went there and also did the master's in public policy. And that was fantastic. And one of the moments there was, I decided to go to China while I was there and studied Chinese. And I would never have thought of going to China except there was a class led by Professor Zonas where you studied an economy of a country and then you went there for three weeks with a team and I fell in love with China. And so that got me working in Asia a bit and a whole new perspective on China and a key power in our world.
So I'll just fast forward one last thing. Well, I guess there's a couple more. I also never in a million years would have dreamed I would spend three years of my life in Albania. I have to say, when I applied for the job, I had decided I wanted to go overseas and I was looking Balkans, Caucasus, and I saw it on a website portal, job portal, and I applied, regional director of the Balkans based in Albania. And I have to say, I don't know if I could have pointed Albania out on a map when I sent him my, I don't know, a lot of people can, we just know they're always the criminal and weird TV shows. But so I actually got it. My boss, the CEO of S&B International development organization at the time, took a chance on me and hired me to run this program.
And it was a crazy time because the Dutch government was phasing out our subsidy there. We were in 5 countries, 11 offices, 200 staff, and 95% of our budget was going away in three years. And they brought in this young American to work in the Balkans post-conflict area for Dutch organization. So in of itself is humorous, and that was an amazing experience and I have to say, we as a leadership team and an organization had a lot of laughs. That would've been a really tough three years, but it was a successful reorganization and we were sustainable at the end.
After I left there, I went to the head office in the Hague, and after I left there, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. And I landed in London and I was basically staying at my friend's house trying to figure out was I staying in Europe? What was I going to do next? And I thought, well, I might as well take some acting classes and stuff. I'm in London, so I signed up for some acting classes and then I signed up for the standup comedy class at the London Comedy Institute. And I fell in love and it was so much fun. And London is a fantastic place for a new comic because the pub culture is a performing culture.
Open mics for newbie and virgin comics, it's what they call them. They are everywhere. So I was able to do a lot of open mics there and started really thinking about, God, all these things, what they're teaching me here are so relevant to how to be a presenter, how to make a business pitch, how to lead a meeting, all these different things. So that's sort of what started me thinking about laughing matters. So none of these things did I expect. I think a lot of it is just being open to what the world puts in front of you and seeing what you can do with it.
AD : Well, it's a wonderful description of the word serendipity that you used earlier. I love that word, and I love that you combine it with some intentionality and then a lot of serendipity. And the place that we live at in New Hampshire, the previous owners named it Serendipity, which my wife and I fell in love with, and we looked it up just as another little odd fact. That's a term that was coined not until 1754 by Horace Wallace, and it was suggested by a fairytale called the Three Princes of Serendip, who keep making discoveries by accident. Not what they were out looking for, but all these wonderful little discoveries along the way. So it's just a wonderful word and I love how your life really embodies it,
CB : Kind of like discovery of America, right?
AD : That's right.
NM : Thank you, Courtney, so much for sharing all that. So you're a comedian who has worked in everything from foreign affairs to organizational change to assisting nonprofits. Why do you think humor and laughter are such effective tools for problem solving? And are these tools really universal in leading to more creative and successful outcomes regardless of where In the world someone finds themselves negotiating?
CB : So I will attempt to answer both of those. So from a perspective of problem solving, what we know actually scientifically, there is an actual study of laughter called Gelotology, which I think is kind of an apt name for it. But it's important to note that laughter and humor are different things though obviously closely related. Laughter is a physiological emotional response, and humor, It doesn't always cause laughter. It can and is the source for laughter, but it also is about finding the incongruous, finding the odd, exploring curiosity.
So when we talk about a sense of humor, it's not always the person who makes everybody laugh out loud or is the class clown, it's somebody who's curious and observing things and making different kinds of connections. But both of them scientifically are known to enhance creativity and problem solving. And why is that? Most of our emotional responses actually trigger or activate one part of our brain. And what's unique about laughter is it actually activates multiple parts of our brain. So when you think of somebody as left brain, right brain. When you're laughing, you're actually using both. So you're automatically, your brain is physiologically thinking and working in a different way when you laugh. And also physiologically, when we laugh, our body swaps cortisol in our bloodstream and replaces it with things like dopamine, which is a transmitter that enhances learning, motivation, mood, those kinds of things. Endorphins, which we know from exercise, those also are the same thing. And by swapping out the cortisol, it actually decreases anxiety and causes a relaxing effect.
So those are things that are happening just in your body that are going to naturally make you more creative and help you problem solve. We also know that laughter is a, because it's relaxing, it also creates, as does humor as well, a sense of safety and a sense of calm. So when you're feeling safe and secure, and it also creates a bond with the other person. So when you laugh together or share a sense of humor or share a joke, you are automatically creating a bond with that person. And that also enables problem solving, joint problem solving.
So all of this together you can imagine is kind of a secrets office for innovation. And it's really, it's been proven, there've been several studies where at different universities, including MIT and others, I think Northeastern, where they took students or professors and they put them in two groups and gave one group a piece of comedy or a funny movie to watch and the other's nothing. And they put them in the room with the same set of questions. And those that had watched something funny beforehand came up with 30% more answers and what was judged to be like 38% more innovative or creative. So it's proven to have a difference.
To your point, is it universal? In fact, it is. So it is a myth when somebody says, “oh, he doesn't have a sense of humor.” Actually we do. We all have a sense of humor and humor and laughter are actually found in all societies and have been forever that we can find in science. And they're also found in apes, and some scientists believe in rats. And there's a lot of study also that laughter itself has an evolutionary role to play in species, which I find very interesting. So is it universal? Yes, we all have it. Does it mean that we all share the same sense of humor or that we get each other's jokes? Of course not. We even coming from similar backgrounds have often different senses of humor or we have different experiences that we're pulling on when we come from different cultures, we have different things that we find relatable or they're funny because they played a certain role in our shared experiences in the past.
But that doesn't mean you can't appreciate and share each other's sense of humor. And in fact, there's been a lot of work done on using humor for cross-cultural studies and engagement because it opens the door for a lot of really interesting questions in a very safe way. So if you don't get somebody's joke, you can say, I don't get it. Why is that funny? And they can say, well, because in my country, when you're growing up, the ads always does ‘XYZ’, and so we find it funny. And so then you are getting insight into different cultures and different people in ways that you might not otherwise.
And it is also because of the bonding nature of laughter and of humor, you're creating bonds across individuals through humor and laughter that you may not be able to create easily in other ways because of cultural differences. Of course, there are risks and so when using humor professionally especially, but in general socially as well, of course in other cultures or other situations, it's important to be thoughtful.
AD : Yeah, as you're talking, I kind of had two thoughts. One is, it reminded me of Erma Bombeck’s book or work ‘Laughter is the Best Medicine’, which my folks always loved. And I was like, oh, it's so helpful on a daily basis just to get through. And the other piece you talk cross-culturally, and I was going to say, Nolan, do you have some of these memories too?
I have some wonderful memories of times in Afghanistan working with Afghan counterparts, interpreters colleagues, and crossing that cultural divide through just good nature humor. And again, not necessarily joke telling, but just funny observations.
NM : Absolutely. Yep. Same experiences.
AD : So Courtney, given your expertise and experience, how does one know when and how to interject humor into a conflict situation? And are there any specific scenarios or moments that you've seen that are like humor can be particularly advantageous?
CB : Yeah, I would say there isn't necessarily a science behind when to use humor, when is the right moment, what is the right way? There are some tools to use. One is your opening moment is whether, it's how you enter the room, how you take the podium, how you sit at the table. In stand up, that's called taking the mic. And what you're taught is that you have those first few seconds to control the energy in the room and to create empathy with the audience because generally they want you to succeed. And that's true in going into a negotiation or a meeting. Everybody generally wants each other to succeed. You may have different agendas and different goals, but it's a real opportunity to do that and create empathy and set the mood.
And one of my favorite stories is the CEO of Korn Ferry, Gary Burnison. He was called in to intervene in a negotiation that was going particularly badly and tough for a couple of their senior leaders. And he tells a story of walking into the meeting and just saying, “welcome to the detente. And they all apparently bust out laughing. And he said, instead of a battle, we got to brainstorm. And so I think that opening moment is often a time, and you can be coming in with a story of your morning or it's a really easy moment to set the mood. It's also helpful to prep yourself to be more lighthearted before you go in and whether that's doing for yourself, like what you did in preparation for this podcast interview, which is think of something funny that made you laugh or think aha or watch something for a few minutes or read a couple funny jokes or anything that would put you yourself in a lighter mood because that's the mood you're going to go in with and that's probably the mood you're going to sustain and share with the others around the table.
It also opens you up for being ready when the moments do arise where humor can fit in. So that can be anything from a funny noise that happens outside and that provides an opportunity to ask a silly question about it. And that automatically creates then a shared experience that you're laughing about or you all think is kind of odd or curious. Or if somebody brings up something, reminds you of a silly or quirky story, that's an opportunity to throw that in to make things more human. So there really isn't a science to it. I think one of the key things is your own frame of mind, being honest and being natural and true to yourself. It's not something you're trying to force on people or force, I'm going to try to make these people laugh because they're going to write through that. So it's just being at ease and looking for the opportunities.
AD : I love how you laid that out. It really means I'm present in the moment because if you're not present in the moment, if we're not present here, then I'm not going to pick up on those observances, those opportunities for a shared experience, which can be so important. I also really like, and you talked about one of the benefits earlier, you were talking about how it has this relaxing effect.
And initially as you were talking about that, I thought about, oh, that's a relaxing effect of Courtney and I are negotiating and kind of putting her at ease. And I know that's part of that bond and everything else. It's also about myself. We hear from clients, from colleagues, from students negotiating, dealing with conflict.
Man, it really tenses us up and we don't show up as well as we might want to, as authentically as we would like to when kind of coming in that way. So if I heard you right there, sounds like there's also this piece about self-management.
CB : Yes. I think that's a lot of it is putting yourself in the right frame of mind before you go into something like that. And exactly that coming into it, having had a little bit of a laugh because then you'll also be relaxed. The other thing that we know about humor, and there's been tons of studies on this, not only does it make people feel safe, makes people feel relaxed, it also instills confidence in you and makes you seem more competent.
So they've done a lot of studies, and this is really important for leadership as well as negotiation, but people who are seen as having a sense of humor, and again, that's not being the class clown necessarily, are seen as more competent, more trustworthy, and confident. And so if you think about putting others at ease in that negotiation, having those characteristics is important, but also being in a strong position at the negotiating table, those are very important as well.
NM : Hey everyone, Nolan here. I have to jump in and end today's podcast for part A of the show. Be sure to rate, review and subscribe to the NEGOTIATEx podcast if you haven't already. And also join us next week for part B of this awesome interview.
It is our promise that we will deliver massive value to your inbox in the form of new content notifications, exclusive content and more. Join the team today.