Humor can help resolve tension, but not just any humor will do. To effectively end tension, the humor must meet several constraints. Perhaps the most important relate to the resources people have available to process the humor, given that they're fully focused on the center of the tension, and possibly feeling angry or fearful as well. To meet this resource constraint, I favor a form of humor known as a quip. Quips are usually short, witty remarks, connected somehow to the situation at hand. These attributes make them easy to understand, and therefore likely to tickle everyone immediately.
But quips about what? Here's Part II of some guidelines for generating quips that work at work.
- Make fun of yourself, not others
- Making fun of yourself — sometimes called self-deprecating humor — can inject laughter into a situation with little risk of offending others. Little risk, but not zero risk. Be certain that you're the only target of the quip. It could be risky to poke fun at yourself for having done a particularly dumb thing that someone else in the room has just done.
- For example, after a stressful exchange, someone might say, "I've heard that humor can defuse tense situations. This situation makes me wish I were a whole lot funnier."
- Demonstrate empathy
- Empathy is the ability to feel what another is feeling; to see things as another sees them; to set aside one's own perspective long enough to grasp the perspective of another. Humor that demonstrates empathy is most effective when it captures the feelings others are feeling, and does so before they themselves have recognized they are feeling those feelings.
- For example, Making fun of yourself can
inject laughter into a
situation with little risk
of offending othersas a member of a team that has just received an impossibly short deadline, someone might say, "I've got it. I think we can do this if we start three weeks ago…"
- Provide perspective
- We often use the word perspective to denote a new way of perceiving a situation that changes how we feel about its consequences. Sometimes humor can provide perspective more effectively than sober narrative.
- For example, if some people feel that the new version of our product isn't up to our standards, one way to put its imperfections in perspective might be: "I agree, it isn't perfect. Let's keep perfecting it until we go out of business."
Finally, remember always that any tool can also serve as a weapon. To avoid using humor as a weapon, avoid three things:
- Making fun of other people or their close friends
- Making fun of anyone's creations if the creators are proud of them
- Using sarcasm
Instead, poke fun at yourself, at nameless third parties, or at anything universally held in low regard. Maybe this is why so many comedians make fun of their governments. First in this series Top Next Issue
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:
- Conflict Haiku
- When tempers flare, or tension fills the air, many of us contribute to the stew, often without realizing
that we do. Here are some haiku that describe some of the many stances we choose that can lead groups
into tangles, or let those tangles persist once they form.
- The Uses of Empathy
- Even though empathy skills are somewhat undervalued in the workplace context, we do use them, for good
and for ill. What is empathy? How is it relevant at work?
- An Emergency Toolkit
- You've just had some bad news at work, and you're angry or really upset. Maybe you feel like the target
of a vicious insult or the victim of a serious injustice. You have work to do, and you want to respond,
but you must first regain your composure. What can you do to calm down and start feeling better?
- Bemused Detachment
- Much of the difficulty between people at work is avoidable if only we can find ways to slow down our
responses to each other. When we hurry, we react without thinking. Here's a suggestion for increasing
comity by slowing down.
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: IV
- Some impasses that develop in group decision-making relate to the substance of the discussion. Some
are not substantive, but still present serious obstacles. What can we do about nonsubstantive impasses?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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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.