It's easy to make big mistakes when the thinking parts of our brains are no longer in charge. When things get tense, or when fear or anger take over, people are more likely to say things or do things that harm relationships, or careers, or even the enterprise. We need ways to climb down from those dangerous places, back to where we can think clearly again. Humor can help.
I'm not thinking of long, funny stories, or canned jokes. Quips are more like it — quips that somehow connect to the situation.
There's a story floating around the Internet about a San Francisco woman police officer responding to a domestic disturbance call. These calls are dangerous because emotions run high. Approaching the house, she hears a man shouting angrily. Then a television crashes through a second-story window, and smashes at her feet. With her firearm still holstered, she knocks at the door. The angry voice booms, "Who is it?" She replies, "TV repair…!" A pause. Then, from inside, laughter. The man inside opens the door. She enters and pacifies the situation.
That's a quip ("TV repair"), connected to the situation, and undeniably funny. If the story isn't true, it could be. It's plausible. We can easily imagine why the quip worked.
But humor doesn't always work in tense situations.
In criminal jury trials in the United States, after the jurors are selected, the prosecution and defense each make opening statements. In the trial of George Zimmerman, who had been charged in the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, the defense counsel, Don West, told a joke during his opening statement:
George Zimmerman who?
Ah, good. You're on the jury.
The joke landed with a thud heard round the world. (Watch the video) Mr. West later apologized for his choice, claiming that the problem was not the joke, but the delivery. He was, I believe, mistaken.
Why did Mr. We need ways to climb down from
tense situations, back to where
we can think clearly again.
Humor can help.West's attempt at humor fail so miserably? And why was the humor of the San Francisco police officer so successful (we suppose)? The answers to these two questions can provide valuable guidance for using humor in tense situations at work.
Here are the first two of a set of guidelines for just that.
- Keep it short
- The shorter the better. A single word is best. Think Henny Youngman.
- Tie the quip to the here and now
- Canned jokes, like Mr. West's knock-knock joke, are designed for stand-alone use. That is, they're usually self-contained. If they aren't self-contained, they depend only on general context, independent of what's happening in the moment. That's why connections from the canned joke to the moment can seem tenuous, which makes the humor seem forced. Make the connection as immediate as possible, in the way that the San Francisco police officer did.
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- The True Costs of Indirectness
- Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than
the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict.
It can be an expensive practice.
- Changing the Subject: II
- Sometimes, in conversation, we must change the subject, but we also do it to dominate, manipulate, or
assert power. Subject changing — and controlling its use — can be important political skills.
- Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual
- Careful observation of workplace politics reveals an assortment of devious tactics that the ruthless
use to gain advantage. Here are some of their techniques, with suggestions for effective responses.
- Agenda Despots: II
- Some meeting chairs crave complete or near-complete control of their meeting agendas. In this Part II
of our exploration of their techniques, we emphasize methods for managing unwanted topic contributions
- Reframing Revision Resentment: II
- When we're required to revise something previously produced — prose, designs, software, whatever,
we sometimes experience frustration with those requiring the revisions. Here are some alternative perspectives
that can be helpful.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 29: Newtonian Blind Alleys: II
- Some of our decisions don't turn out well. The nature of our errors does vary, but a common class of errors is due to applying concepts from physics originated by Isaac Newton. One of these is the concept of spectrum. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
- And on June 5: I Could Be Wrong About That
- Before we make joint decisions at work, we usually debate the options. We come together to share views, and then a debate ensues. Some of these debates turn out well, but too many do not. Allowing for the fact that "I could be wrong" improves outcomes. Available here and by RSS on June 5.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.