Q: Last week I sat in on a negotiation among some of our company’s partners. Just when it seemed that they had reached a stalemate, my boss cracked a joke that instantly lightened the mood. Almost magically, she was able to rejuvenate the conversation—and reemphasize her position—in a way that proved effective. But I can also recall times when jokes have flopped in meetings. This experience left me wondering: When and how should I use humor during negotiations (if at all)?
A: Humor may seem like a frivolous distraction, but few other conversational strategies have the ability to transform moods (in both positive and negative directions) as quickly and with such impact. Humor influences whom we are drawn to and whom we trust, can help us cope with negative circumstances, and can make work and life more enjoyable. However, in the workplace, where norms of appropriateness and professionalism are often stringent, ambiguous, and consequential, it can be tricky to figure out when humor can or should be used as a means of improving our social interactions.
Several benefits come with using humor successfully. For example, research led by Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock at Universiteit van Amsterdam shows that using humor induces positive emotion, which in turn triggers positive communication and better team performance. Furthermore, humor has been shown to boost creativity. When coworkers with high levels of trust among one another used sarcasm (a specific type of humor in which you say the opposite of what you mean) in their conversations, they performed better than others on tasks that required creative insight, Li Huang of INSEAD found in her research.
In research conducted with Brad Bitterly and Maurice Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, I found that telling a joke that elicits laughter and is viewed as funny and appropriate projects confidence and competence (by conveying an accurate read of social dynamics), and also increases our status.
Although the benefits of well-timed quips may sound appealing, a joke can fail in many ways. Jokes can be perceived as unfunny or inappropriate (or both). Because an inappropriate joke can be damaging, you should keep lewd, derogatory, or other deprecating jokes to yourself.
Negotiations are often fraught with tense moments and negative emotions. In fact, I recommend a strategy, first proposed by the late Harvard professor Howard Raiffa, called a post-settlement settlement—continuing to negotiate after a deal has been reached—because some of the best outcomes can be uncovered after the tension of the negotiation has been cut by reaching a deal. Using humor has the same effect: A welltimed, sincere, successful joke can help break the tension, increase social closeness, build rapport, and foster an enjoyable, positive tone during your negotiation.
You might also use humor as a way to answer difficult questions. One of the most challenging aspects of negotiating is being asked questions that you don’t want to or shouldn’t answer—because by answering directly or transparently, you would put yourself in a weak or compromised bargaining position. In those scenarios, you may be able to use humor to divert or distract—even for a moment—so you can think more carefully about what information you can and should disclose.
Finally, humor makes our interactions more memorable. The best negotiators make their counterpart feel great about the outcome, even if it isn’t in the counterpart’s favor. Finding the humor in your negotiation will increase your counterpart’s subjective sense of satisfaction and help you both remember the interaction in a favorable light.
I will end with one word of warning: Know thyself. Humor comes easily to some people. But if you are not a natural jokester or witty conversationalist, you can also score interpersonal-warmth points by laughing authentically at others’ jokes. Very few people enjoy interacting with someone who is overly serious or never laughs. Don’t be afraid to make your negotiation light and fun. When you do, you and your counterpart will enjoy it more, be more likely to uncover creative, cooperative deals, and remember the interaction more fondly.
Alison Wood Brooks
Assistant Professor of Business Administration
Harvard Business School