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They Who Laugh, Last!
March, 2001

Paul E. McGhee, PhD

Humor Improves Communication

Part III: Using Humor in Meetings

"If you’re going to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh. Otherwise, they’ll kill you." (George Bernard Shaw)

Humor helps you ease into awkward communications. One woman who was promoted suddenly found herself as the boss of people who had previously been her peers. She knew this would be a sensitive issue, so she opened up her first meeting in her new position, by saying "Don’t think of me as your boss. Think of me as a friend . . . a friend who’s always right!" Everyone had a good laugh, and she was then able to proceed to a more relaxed discussion of how things would work from that point on.

If you’re issuing some kind of criticism or bad news in a meeting, people tend to stiffen up, react emotionally, and not hear what you want them to hear. Shared laughter helps take the sting out of these situations. It shows that you’re not really upset at the employee, but that some changes do need to be made. This is especially effective when the manager confesses a similar mistake s/he him/herself has made in the past.

The accelerating pace of business in recent years has created the need for rapid decisions. This increases the chances of making a mistake, since you may not be able to obtain all the information you need before making a decision. One manager who had made a mistake in judgment was preparing for a meeting designed to determine how to deal with the mistake, and move on. He walked in wearing a bull’s eye on a T-shirt. The T-shirt playfully acknowledged that the blunder was his responsibility, and allowed other employees to vent their upset through laughter before the meeting even got started. This helped assure a more productive meeting.1

Another manager made a mistake, and knew he would have to justify his actions in the meeting that was about to take place. After presenting his defense as well as he could, he said, "That concludes my prepared evasion. I will now evade questions from the audience." This melted some of the negative feelings in the room, and allowed everyone to focus more clearly on how to best deal with the circumstances they were now in. Once a mistake is made, it is important to acknowledge the error and move on. The ability to laugh at your mistake helps reduce the tension resulting from it and focus on moving forward.

Another manager was planning a meeting in which the team had to deal with a problem they had been putting off. Prior to the meeting he hung a sign on the wall containing a quote from W.C. Fields: "There comes a time in the affairs of men when we must take the bull by the tail and face the situation." This triggered laughter as people walked into the room, and made the point that the team had not committed themselves to coming to grips with the problem--which helped create a climate for doing so at the meeting.

Research examining the dynamics of humor in task-oriented meetings suggests that it can play the pivotal role in moving the group toward a consensual solution to a problem. One study examined 26 hours of videotaped meetings held by 6 different management groups.2 The meetings generally opened up with "a stiff, serious tone and a communication process that was sometimes complaining and sometimes adversarial." Humor during this phase (whose average length was 30 minutes) was infrequent. When it did occur, it evoked laughter from only one or two participants, partly because it focused on discontent with others’ point of view.

It was after this initial serious phase that--for a period of a few minutes--the pattern of joking changed into humor that caused the entire group to laugh. While the early joking emphasized the differences between people at the meeting (and was sometimes disparaging), this mid-meeting humor drew people together and led to smoother interactions as differences were discussed.

This mid-meeting humor "appeared to allow them to continue by creating a more freely flowing pattern of communication, which led to the eventual resolution of their differences." It "seemed to facilitate a transition from a feeling of tension and defensiveness to a realization of relative safety and playfulness . . . This apparently shared comic vision seemed to create a working bond, overcoming previous estrangement . . . it cultivated a climate in which creative, playful, unconventional problem-solving could mature." (p. 290-291) Following the laughter, the "groups seemed to progress much more rapidly through the remaining stages of the decision making process."

If you’ve been in many meetings, you’ve probably seen this impact of humor in action. You may want to plan ways of building positive humor into your meetings once differences of opinion have been clearly expressed, in order to speed up movement to a consensual solution. Anything you do to momentarily establish a playful atmosphere in the room helps create a non-judgmental frame of mind in dealing with differences of opinion. The shared laughter helps the meeting move more quickly toward the resolution phase, which means everyone can get back to their desks more quickly.

[Excerpted from Health, Healing and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training, 1999.]

References

1. Kushner, M. The Light Touch. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.

2. Consalvo, C.M. Humor in management: No laughing matter. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 1989, 2, 285-297.


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