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 High Cost of Low Trust: I
- We usually think of Trust as one of those soft qualities that we would all like our organizational cultures
to have. Yet, truly paying attention to Trust at work is rare, in part, because we don't fully appreciate
what distrust really costs. Here are some of the ways we pay for low trust.
- Communication Templates: II
- Communication templates are patterns that are so widely used that once identified, nearly everyone recognizes
them. In this Part II we consider some of the more toxic — less innocuous — communication
- The Advantages of Political Attack: II
- In workplace politics, attackers are often surprisingly successful with even the flimsiest assertions.
Often, they prevail, in part, because they can choose the time and venue for their attacks. They also
have the advantage of preparation. How can targets respond effectively?
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: III
- In group decision-making, impasses can develop. Some are related to the substance of the issue at hand.
With some effort, we can usually resolve substantive impasses. But treating nonsubstantive impasses
in the same way doesn't work. Here's why.
- Contextual Causes of Conflict: II
- Too often we assume that the causes of destructive conflict lie in the behavior or personalities of
the people directly participating in the conflict. Here's Part II of an exploration of causes that lie
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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.