Laughing Matters

By — on / Conflict Resolution

You don’t have to be serious to be a serious negotiator. Humor, deftly used, can be a positive factor in promoting agreement.

That’s what Finnish researcher Taina Vuorela confirmed in a comparative study of two real-world transactions. One was an internal meeting of a sales team trying to hammer out a strategy to land a potential customer. The other was the subsequent negotiation between that same team and its outside client.

Vuorela’s careful analysis of audiotapes of each transaction revealed many similarities between the types of humor employed. In both settings, humor was conveyed through tone and attitude, rather than through simple joke telling. Additionally, much of the levity that had an in-group quality; remarks that drew laughs would be meaningless to people who weren’t in that particular organization or industry. Likewise, comments that wouldn’t seem funny on the written page drew chuckles because of how they were expressed verbally.

The easy humor between negotiators served to break the ice. Sardonic remarks about the pressures that everyone faced, for instance, created a common bond. Humor also served as a repair mechanism – a way of letting someone off the hook if that person had said something awkward or inadvertently aggressive.

Differences emerged, however, between the internal and external negotiations. The salespeople were more hesitant to use humor when dealing with their customer, apparently feeling the need to seem businesslike. Hierarchy came into play, as well. People looked to the boss to locate the conversational boundaries. (They also laughed the hardest at his jokes.)

The punch line? Don’t script jokes or humorous comments in advance of negotiations, but recognize that humor can be a symptom of relational tension – and its potential antidote, as well.

The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School
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