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
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Nasty Questions: II
- In meetings, telemeetings, and email we sometimes ask questions that aren't intended to elicit information.
Rather, they're indirect attacks intended to advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part
two of a catalog of some favorite tactics.
- Changing the Subject: I
- Whether in small group discussions, large meetings, or chats between friends, changing the subject of
the conversation can be constructive, mischievous, frustrating, creative, tension relieving, necessary,
devious, or outright malicious. What techniques do we use to change the subject, and how can we cope
- Dealing with Rapid-Fire Attacks
- When a questioner repeatedly attacks someone within seconds of their starting to reply, complaining
to management about a pattern of abuse can work — if management understands abuse, and if management
wants deal with it. What if management is no help?
- Pariah Professions: II
- In some organizations entire professions are regarded as pariahs — outsiders. They're expected
to perform functions that the organization does need, but their relationships with others in the organization
are strained at best. When pariahdom is tolerated, organizational performance suffers.
- The Discontinuity Effect: What and Why
- Counterproductive competition is more likely in group-group interactions than in one-to-one or one-to-group
interactions. Why does counterproductive competition happen?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 27: Stone-Throwers at Meetings: II
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- And on April 3: Career Opportunity or Career Trap: I
- When we're presented with an opportunity that seems too good to be true, as the saying goes, it probably is. Although it's easy to decline free vacations, declining career opportunities is another matter. Here's a look at indicators that a career opportunity might be a career trap. Available here and by RSS on April 3.
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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.