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.
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Dismissive Gestures: III
- Sometimes we use dismissive gestures to express disdain, to assert superior status, to exact revenge
or as tools of destructive conflict. And sometimes we use them by accident. They hurt personally, and
they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part III of a little catalog of dismissive gestures.
- Stonewalling: I
- Stonewalling is a tactic of obstruction used by those who wish to stall the forward progress of some
effort. Whether the effort is a rival project, an investigation, or just the work of a colleague, the
stonewaller hopes to gain advantage. What can you do about stonewalling?
- In workplace politics, some people always seem to be seeking information about others, but they give
very little in return. They're pumpers. What can you do to deal with pumpers?
- Why Others Do What They Do
- If you're human, you make mistakes. A particularly expensive kind of mistake is guessing incorrectly
why others do what they do. Here are some of the ways we get this wrong.
- On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble
- When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled
by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 8: The New Virtual Meeting: Digressions
- The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
- And on April 15: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.
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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.