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:
- False Consensus
- Most of us believe that our own opinions are widely shared. We overestimate the breadth of consensus
about controversial issues. This is the phenomenon of false consensus. It creates trouble in the workplace,
but that trouble is often avoidable.
- When Over-Delivering Makes Trouble
- When responding to inquiries such as "Is that correct?" we sometimes err by giving too many
reasons why it's incorrect. Patterns of over-delivery can lead to serious trouble. Here's how.
- Overtalking: I
- Overtalking is the practice of using one's own talking to prevent others from talking. It can lead to
hurt feelings and toxic conflict. Why does it happen and what can we do about it?
- 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.
- Grace Under Fire: I
- If you're ever in a tight spot in a meeting, one in which you must defend your actions or past decisions,
the soundness of your arguments can matter less than your demeanor. What can you do when someone intends
to make you "lose it?"
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 21: Make Suggestions Privately
- Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk. Available here and by RSS on November 21.
- And on November 28: Wacky Words of Wisdom: VI
- Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" seem valid often enough that we accept them as universal and permanent. Most aren't. Here's Part VI of a collection of widely held beliefs that can be misleading at work. Available here and by RSS on November 28.
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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.