From the August 2001 issue of Entrepreneur

Have you heard the one about the successful entrepreneur? Turns out his secret to success was a great sense of humor. It wasn't that he could tell great jokes (though he did share a few good ones). And it wasn't that he was always funny (he took his business very seriously). No-it was that he had the ability to infuse a little levity into tense situations to make everybody feel more comfortable.

Everybody knows establishing relationships with others is vital to business success. Humor just happens to be one of the most powerful ways to build those bonds. This doesn't mean you have to be a stand-up comedian; it simply means you have to know what's funny and how to use it to your advantage.

Humor Me

Situations that start to spiral downward can often be saved by a good laugh. Here's an example:

Hoping to close a sale at a large company, I met with a key executive. Before the meeting, I learned that he and his wife were expecting a baby. So I went into the meeting, and we started talking. But, for some reason, we just weren't connecting. Finally, I said, "I hear you're going to be a father. That must be exciting."

"Yes," he replied. "We're having twins."

That's what he said. What I thought he said was, "We have twins."

So I asked, "Boys or girls?"

He answered, "One is a boy, but we're not sure about the other one."

"Excuse me?" I queried. "Why is that?"

"Well, they just can't see it," he responded.

Utterly confused, I quickly changed the subject and continued with the meeting, but I left feeling it was the worst meeting I'd ever had.

The next day, I called the executive's assistant to set up another appointment. She told me he wasn't in the office; he was at the hospital.

"I hope it's nothing serious," I said.

"Oh, no," she replied. "He's just gone with his wife for a sonogram. The babies are due very soon."

The babies are due? That's when I realized my mistake and explained the story to her. As she laughed, I asked her not to repeat it to her boss.

At my next appointment, I told him about my misunderstanding. And as soon as we both had a good laugh over it, our bad chemistry disappeared. Then we were able to do business in a more relaxed, friendly manner.

That situation taught me a lesson: Humor can break down a lot of barriers between people. Yes, listening is very important, and I have to admit that I missed the difference between "have" and "having." But sometimes humor can give you even more leverage than good ears. People connect with you better when you're not just a robot trying to make a sale.

When All Else Fails

It's always fortunate when you can make an unintentionally funny situation work for you. There will be times, however, when you might need to intentionally use humor-especially when nothing else has worked.

Try a different approach when you need a return call from people who are very difficult to reach. If you've left countless messages, sent numerous faxes and even mailed relevant materials to no avail, tell the prospect's assistant to relay this message: "Every night before I go to sleep, I talk to God. Why can't I talk to you?" When I tried it, I got a call back in 15 minutes.

Remember: As the late Victor Borge once said, "Laughter is the shortest distance between two people."