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:
- Using Indirectness at Work
- Although many of us value directness, indirectness does have its place. At times, conveying information
indirectly can be a safe way — sometimes the only safe way — to preserve or restore
well-being and comity within the organization.
- Dismissive Gestures: II
- In the modern organization, since direct verbal insults are considered "over the line," we've
developed a variety of alternatives, including a class I call "dismissive gestures." They
hurt personally, and they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part II of a little catalog
of dismissive gestures.
- Virtual Termination with Real Respect
- When we have to terminate someone who works at a remote site, sometimes there's a temptation to avoid
travel — to use email, phone, fax, or something else. They're all bad ideas. Terminating people
in person is not only a gesture of respect. It's good business.
- Creating Toxic Conflict: II
- Some supervisors seem to behave as if part of their job description is creating toxic conflict among
their subordinates. It isn't really, of course, but here's a collection of methods bad managers use
that make trouble.
- They Just Don't Understand
- When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others.
The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
- Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.
- And on August 29: Please Reassure Them
- When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 29.
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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.