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Volume 15, Issue 17;   April 29, 2015: Quips That Work at Work: II

Quips That Work at Work: II

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Last updated: August 8, 2018

Humor, used effectively, can defuse tense situations. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for using humor to defuse tension and bring confrontations, meetings, and conversations back to a place where thinking can resume.
"Will" Rogers, humorist and cowboy philosopher

"Will" Rogers (1879-1935) was a Native American humorist, cowboy, social commentator and, in his day, media star. He was and is still widely quoted — especially his political commentary. For example, he is quoted as having said or written, "Never blame a legislative body for not doing something. When they do nothing, they don't hurt anybody. When they do something is when they become dangerous." That this sentiment is overly simplistic is often overlooked, that it contains more than a grain of truth is irrefutable.

One path to enhancing your ability to quip might be to study his writings and quotes, many of which apply as much to our situation today as they did to his then.

Photo courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

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 others
as 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  Go to top Top  Next issue: Compulsive Talkers at Work: Addiction  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs 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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