Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 17;   April 29, 2015: Quips That Work at Work: II

Quips That Work at Work: II


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

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenufDRqVDwflJCnuDcner@ChacfbYImfpCRHlosigwoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

A gray wolf. Animosity between wolves helps ensure balance.Animosity Patterns
Animosity between two people at work is often attributed to "personality clashes." While sometimes people can't get along, animosity can also be a tool for accomplishing strictly political ends. Here's a short catalog of some of its uses.
Wilson's Bird-of-paradiseNew Ideas: Judging
When groups work together to solve problems, they eventually evaluate the ideas they generate. They sometimes reject perfectly good ideas, while accepting some really boneheaded ones. How can we judge new ideas more effectively?
A schematic representation of the Milgram ExperimentToxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Minimizing Authority
Toxic conflict in virtual teams is especially difficult to address, because we bring to it assumptions about causes and remedies that we've acquired in our experience in co-located teams. In this Part II of our exploration we examine how minimizing authority tends to convert ordinary creative conflict into a toxic form.
Feeling shameShame and Bullying
Targets of bullies sometimes experience intense feelings of shame. Here are some insights that might restore the ability to think, and maybe end the bullying.
Many different viewpoints make for many different choicesOn Differences and Disagreements
When we disagree, it helps to remember that our differences often seem more marked than they really are. Here are some hints for finding a path back to agreement.

See also Conflict Management and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A tangle of cordageComing March 28: Four Overlooked Email Risks: II
Email exchanges are notorious for exposing groups to battles that would never occur in face-to-face conversation. But email has other limitations, less-often discussed, that make managing dialog very difficult. Here's Part II of an exploration of some of those risks. Available here and by RSS on March 28.
A Mustang GT illegally occupying two parking spaces at Vaughan Mills Mall, OntarioAnd on April 4: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on April 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenuEpQYbOXnigmHLuPner@ChacPkyZTQfYxJlJRwINoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.