Building Relationships with Laughter:
A Negotiator’s Guide to Effectively Using Humor - Part Two

Because conflict is inevitable, negotiators must learn how to deal with it appropriately and in a healthy manner. Conflict creates cognitive dissonance, described as the mind’s response to contradictory ideas and needs. Humor has been proven to alleviate tension and stress, thereby limiting the cognitive dissonance that someone is experiencing. As part one of the mini-series discussed, humor is healthy for one’s mind and body. When entering into a negotiation it is helpful to be equipped with humor skills to assist in reaching a successful settlement. Humor can be used in many different ways. Humor can be used to persuade another person, or relax the tension. Humor can also deflect difficult questions that the negotiator might not want to answer at the time by changing the subject or ignoring the question in a joking manner. There are many benefits when using humor in negotiations.

Decreasing Tension
Tensions run high during negotiations, working in a back-and-forth, give-and-take pattern. A humorous anecdote allows the process to take a time out, creating a fresh environment. If the parties have not yet worked together, the tension is likely to be stronger since relationships are not established. Laughter creates a bond between people, and taking a moment to share a joke might release some nervous tension at a first meeting. When stress is too high, people begin to shut down mentally and emotionally. If this occurs, it is difficult to discuss your opposing position. Alternatively, the use of humor will change the surroundings to a more cordial and comfortable atmosphere. “Emotions on one side will generate emotions on the other. Fear may breed anger, and anger, fear. Emotions may quickly bring a negotiation to an impasse or an end.” Using humor, negotiators will be able to “breed” positive feelings among the parties.

Humor does not only have to be used in negotiations with opposing parties. Humor within your own team discussions will reduce anxiety. A relaxed team will likely encourage the opposing side to relax. It is in the best interest of negotiators to limit tensions, and as discussed, humor releases hormones to ease stress. In addition, group humor unites the team through the creation of “an internal perception that increases an in-group cohesiveness and validates commonly held perceptions. Simultaneously, this humor excludes individuals or groups who do not have the knowledge of the in-group’s reference or structure.”

When tension and stress is reduced, the overall creativity increases. Negotiators agree that a good imagination is a useful skill in settlement discussions because it allows people to create different options. People use their entire brain when they laugh, and as a result improve their creative thinking. The enhancement of creativity means more people will develop strategies to “increase the pie.”

Shifting Power
Good negotiators work to persuade participants toward settlement. “Humor at its best, is a form of persuasion.” If someone laughs at your attempt at humor then you have exerted control over them. “Joking seems related to power, and power is a factor that influences who has the right to begin and end a joke, and also seems to determine whose joke is laughed at.” In business settings, or organizations with hierarchical structures, the most likely person to make a joke, is the boss — the one with the most power. If someone else makes a joke, such as a secretary, other people in the room might not laugh out of fear of subverting the boss. Joking may earn you respect if you are looking to advance your position because people who joke are admired more than those who do not. During negotiations, look to the leaders of the parties and see if invitations to the use humor have been made. If the negotiation is within an informal setting then it is possible that humor will be looked upon favorably.

Saving Face
“Normally a person is not held responsible for what he does in jest to the same degree that he would be for a serious gesture.” To “save face,” is when one’s main goal in settling conflict is the protection of their self-image. Culture, leadership structures, and personal characteristics all encourage people to save face. Joking allows parties to open the door on topics that might not be on the table for discussion. By using this technique, the teller of the joke can bring up a topic while still saving face, allowing the listener to say nothing if they disagree. Likewise, if opposing negotiators are losing ground and giving into demands, humor can allow them to save face. A simple joke about the struggles of negotiation, or the frustrations of conflict, can allow the opposing side to laugh off their loss. Using humor gives them the opportunity to mend their self-image with laughter, thus maintaining pride and the relationship.

Humor allows a person to express frustration at the current negotiation. Humor is a “safe way to express discontent because it permit[s] the speaker to express a problem while at the same time saving face because the joke was ‘off-the-record’ and not an official part of the negotiation.” This is often done through ironic exaggeration. For example, if both parties feel they are far from a settlement, one could make a joke that they are very close to an agreement. The awkward laughter that follows, stemming from the release of tension, occurs because both parties have openly acknowledged that they are far from an agreement. Laughing out of both parties’ shared frustration allows negotiators to eliminate unspoken tension.

Creating Rapport which Leads to Trust
People think favorably of people who make them laugh, as long as the content is respectful. Impressions are formed quickly, sometimes within the first few minutes of meeting someone. As a result, negotiators need to establish instant positive relationships in an environment where relationships can develop, and trust can grow. “Research indicates that humor helps to establish trust relationships.” Self-disclosure invites the other person to reciprocate, thereby developing a relationship. Negotiators can use humorous stories about themselves to break the ice. Parties will appreciate the honesty and will begin to see the negotiator as someone they can trust.

Increasing Cooperation and Communication
As negotiators become irritated, stubborn, and unhappy, their effectiveness ratings drop. Humor puts people in a good mood, people in a good mood are more agreeable, and agreeable people are better communicators. Effective communication is a struggle in most negotiations. It is difficult to simultaneously express your positions (without giving away your interests), preserve relationships, and resolve the original conflict. Humor acts as a lubricant between messages to support more resourceful communication. Likewise, cheerful laughter can be an indication that participants are open to an agreement. Laughter signals the release of tension, a change in the environment, open mindedness, and positive rapport. If the opposing party is not laughing, even with the barter of witty banter, it is safe to assume that they are not ready to discuss terms of a settlement. One is not going to laugh when upset or angry with the other side.

As discussed above, negotiators can use humor in various scenarios to decrease tension, shift power, develop party-trust, save face, and improve party communication.

by Marie Dominguez-Gasson

Marie Dominguez-Gasson graduated from Pepperdine University School of Law in 2011, where she obtained her Juris Doctor, Master's in Dispute Resolution and a Certificate in International Law. While attending Pepperdine Marie worked in Kampala, Uganda with the Commercial Court and later with the Los Angeles Superior Court. In addition, Marie has over two years of state and federal legislative experience. Marie currently works at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith with the Employment and Labor Group.