May 2012

May 17th, 2012 by Nell Jerram

After just over a month as a Programme Coordinator at Steps, I’m pleased to have been given this opportunity to reflect and comment on some of the things that I’ve learned.

I’ve learned that when a colleague offers you a cream egg on your first day, you don’t pull a face and comment on how sickly they are. First day nerves can make you forget your manners, it seems.

I’ve also learned to be ready for anything, a concept I remember being bandied around at Brownies - before I was told I had the wrong type of shoes on (white pumps), to keep my woolly bobble hat on (even if it was sunny) and to replace any missing items in the little pouch strapped to my belt (in my case, all of them). Steps, in a similar way to the Brownies, is an organisation which encourages you to equip yourself with a range of new skills and to work collaboratively with your team to achieve rewarding results. Apart from a quick lesson in how to use the hot water dispenser at the office, which brought on a worrying flashback to when Brown Owl demonstrated the safest way to bring a pan of water to the boil, that’s probably where the similarities end.

My job is incredibly varied and I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by just how many different projects there are for a Programme Coordinator to get involved in. This month’s blog is a little later than usual due to a sudden flurry of activity this week. Aside from sorting out travel arrangements to Strasbourg, contributing to proposals, researching venues and setting up meetings with clients, I’ve been getting to know some of our great actors and observing the delivery of some of our training programmes.

What’s struck me most, and what’s been a constant throughout all these activities, is the amount of laughter I’m hearing. Whether it’s my own laughter, that of my colleagues, of our actors or our clients, I’m starting to really appreciate the benefits of laughter in a new way. You don’t need a background in drama or theatre to know that laughter is contagious and that, as a shared experience, laughing helps you connect with the people around you. A proper belly laugh, a cackle of surprise or even just a guffaw can also be a great physical work out, especially if you throw your head back and really work the shoulders. Research has also shown that laughter decreases the levels of stress hormones in the body and increases the levels of health enhancing hormones like endorphins. Apparently, it also stimulates the production of antibodies giving a boost to your immune system.

What has been of particular interest to me recently are the emotional benefits of laughter and how it can enhance our learning. My own experience of undergoing a training session on equality and diversity at a previous organisation was quite a negative one. The format was dull, the trainer was patronising and I couldn’t comment on the content as the only thing I remember learning was something about adjusting your handshake depending on someone’s cultural background. The session was a compulsory one and was billed as a ‘great way to connect with people from across the organisation’. Having come from different departments across the country, we were all strangers at the start of the session. As we piled out of the session at the end of the day, we still were. I was so bored I could barely remember my own name, let alone the names of my colleagues.

So how can laughter make serious subject matter more engaging? And is it always appropriate? I’ve been involved in sessions focussing on mental health, probably still one of the most prominent and widespread taboos in society today, and I have often witnessed a roomful of people erupt into laughter when discussing the most difficult and sensitive types of behaviour. Finding the right balance is key and establishing an unspoken rule by setting the right tone is also paramount. The joke isn’t about someone suffering from mental health problems, but rather about what other people’s reactions might be. Laughing at your own awkwardness or insecurities about the topic, and how oddly this might make you feel and behave, is a great way to normalise the situation and to establish camaraderie.

A skilled facilitator will call upon laughter to help lift any tension in the atmosphere and enable people to engage and interact positively and openly. It’s very satisfying to observe the interactive and memorable learning experience that follows a shared burst of laughter.

To this day, I’m sure the only reason I still remember the Brownie Guide Promise is because Tawny Owl would sometimes tell us what we considered to be rather risqué jokes just before the pow wow at the end of the evening…



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