How to Make Difficult Business Challenges Easier

My friend Bernard opened a furniture shop shortly after he immigrated to Boca Raton, Florida from Manchester, England in the early 1980s. That’s when I met him. I was shopping for an armoire for our bedroom. Most of the nice ones I’d seen were priced above $500. He had a half dozen of the same quality for only $195. I asked him how he was able to do it. With a twinkle in his eye, he said, “It’s not that my prices are good. It’s the other prices that are bad.”

Since then I’ve bought at least $50,000 worth of furniture from him. And I’ve seen his business grow from a single shop to a network of wholesale, retail, and manufacturing facilities from here to China.

He was one of the first people in the furniture business to take advantage of the cheap labor in China. In a future issue of ETR, our managing editor, Jason Holland, will interview him about that experience and prod him to reveal to us all the secrets of buying and reselling cheap products made in Asia.

But today, I want to focus on a technique he uses that has allowed him to become very successful and, at the same time, very well liked in a competitive industry where people are knocking off one another (and suing one another) as commonly as they sneeze.

The Awesome Power of a Light Touch

Bernard is an affable guy. He always seems happy to see you. He asks about your family, business, and friends. He is happy to talk about his life too, if you ask him. And when he does, it is always positive and amusing.

Bernard has a wonderful sense of humor. He is always lighthearted. He is never mean — more Jerry Seinfeld than Larry David. And, like Jerry Seinfeld, he makes you feel that you are in on his joke.

This combination of congeniality and wit is used to make quick friends with customers, employees, and colleagues. The unsaid theme of his humor is that the business you are doing with him is not all that serious. “Let’s make a deal,” he seems to be saying, “but let’s make it fun.”

If you tell Bernard you think the price of a particular antique table is high, he won’t argue the point, he’ll make a joke of it. “For a person of your wealth,” he might say, “it is chicken feed!”

If you ask him if he can deliver it on Friday, he’ll say, “Friday of what month?” In doing business with Bernard, you can never forget that fighting or fretting about most things simply doesn’t make sense.

Bernard has even used this skill to do something I wouldn’t think could be done in business.

It took place in High Point, North Carolina, at the annual trade show for furniture wholesalers. A colleague of his who had made a fortune selling designer-brand tables and chairs was furious when he saw that Bernard was selling what appeared to be the very same designer products at a fraction of the price.

When he stormed into Bernard’s office to accuse him of knocking him off, Bernard smiled and acknowledged that he had been doing just that. He pointed out that he had done it legally. And then he suggested to the irate wholesaler that he start buying his furniture from Bernard.

“I don’t know how he did it,” the wholesaler told me, “but he made me feel that what he had done wasn’t such a bad thing after all. And somehow he got me laughing. I realized that I wanted to be able to enjoy business the way Bernard does. So I forgave him on the spot, and we have been doing business with one another ever since.”

I do not have the skill that Bernard has, but I have been studying his technique for many years. Here are some of the things I’ve noticed:

  • He greets you with a smile.
  • He insists on personal chitchat before talking business.
  • He never seems to care whether he makes a deal or not.
  • He doesn’t bargain.
  • He doesn’t push.
  • He doesn’t lie.

It is that last one that I find particularly remarkable. In a business that is as competitive as furniture sales, fabricating stories about the value of goods is as common as discount tags.

But Bernard never tells you anything but the truth about his products, how he has them made, what he pays for them, and so on. He is confident that he provides very good value because, coming from Asia as they do, his goods are always priced below the competition. But if you prefer to buy from his competitors, he doesn’t seem to mind in the least.

And when Bernard has a tough message to deliver (if, for example, he is dissatisfied with the performance of a vendor or an employee), he doesn’t sugarcoat the truth. Instead of shying away from difficult discussions, he seeks them out. He seems to know that he has the power to straighten out problems quickly using his finely tuned sense of humor.

He does what George Bernard Shaw said he always tried to do: Take the trouble to think of the right thing to say, and then say it “with the utmost levity.”

This is very powerful, when you think about. When confronted with a difficult or awkward business situation, we usually feel that the prudent thing to do is to say nothing. But saying nothing conveys nothing. The fraud is not unmasked. The foolishness is not sanctioned. The reprobate is not reproached.

Bernard’s way of communicating — his wit and lightheartedness — is not something one would normally think of as having anything to do with business, wealth building, or personal achievement.

But Bernard uses it every day to handle all sorts of problems and accomplish his objectives.

When it comes to interpersonal communications, Bernard’s approach can work wonders for you, too. It can:

  • Dismantle tension
  • Create intimacy
  • Defuse anger
  • Eviscerate quibbling differences
  • Aid in the formation of trust, and
  • Help form deep and lasting relationships

How to Use Humor in Business

The ability to tell jokes is often thought to be a useful business skill. In actuality, it demonstrates nothing except that you have the capacity to be trivial — to memorize a remark or anecdote and retell it for the amusement of others.

And if joking is bad, punning is worse. A punster’s only attribute is a remarkable lack of embarrassment. He is willing to verbalize inanities that others have the sense to keep to themselves.

By contrast, true humor involves wit, requires intelligence, and draws from an appreciation of the absurdity and pathos of life.

Humor is funny. Joking is, at best, amusing. And punning? Spare me.

Leo C. Rosten was speaking about wit when he said that humor is “the subtlest and chanciest of literary forms. It is not accidental that there are a thousand novelists, essayists, poets, or journalists for each humorist. It is a long, long time between James Thurbers.”

If you are interested in these distinctions between wit, joking, and punning, I can recommend a great movie to you. It is titled Ridicule.

It is a French film about a rural doctor who goes to Paris to raise money for his practice during the reign of Louis XVI. But to get the ear of the king, he must first educate himself in the many levels of humor that were popular in France at the time.

At the climactic moment, he is in the king’s garden, hoping the king might pass by. Sure enough, the king and his secretary come along. The king greets him, and the doctor replies with a witticism.

The king looks perplexed. He turns to his advisor and asks, “Was that a jeu de mot or a double entendre?” The advisor considers it carefully and says, “It was a jeu de mot.”

The king laughs loudly and the audience sighs in relief, knowing our hero has just accomplished his mission.

Enjoy Your Work, Including the Bumps

If you don’t right now have the power to put people at ease with humor, you can develop it by doing as my friend Bernard does: Greet each person with a smile. Ask about something personal before discussing business. And try to maintain a lighthearted attitude — especially if the conversation is difficult.

With practice, Bernard’s technique will eventually become second nature to you. That may take some time. (I am still practicing after many years.) But along the way, you will find that you will be able to do business with less stress and more enjoyment.

Humorless businesspeople inevitably become upset when they encounter obstacles or setbacks. They are like wagons without springs, as Henry Ward Beecher said, “jolted by every pebble in the road.” What’s worse, they are often unhappy even after they achieve their goals.

But with lightheartedness and humor, you can deal with disappointments and surprises with equanimity and even optimism.

“I can imagine no more comfortable frame of mind for the conduct of life,” W. Somerset Maugham said, “than a humorous resignation.”

[Ed. Note: Using humor to cement business deals and charm colleagues and competitors alike is just one element of How to Think Like a Multimillionaire, Michael Masterson’s latest book-in-progress. In this book, Michael outlines the traits, techniques, and tricks that “natural” wealth builders use to make their fortunes. And he shows how anybody can emulate what they do to improve their own businesses and careers, without sacrificing quality of life.

This philosophy is also a central theme of ETR’s monthly Liberty Street League newsletter. It focuses on wealth building away from the financial titans on Wall Street and the prying eyes of the government, which don’t have the interests of the average investor at heart.

Real estate, options, precious metals, penny stocks, offshore banking, retirement havens, financial privacy, Internet side businesses… it’s all covered by the Liberty Street League.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]