In October of 1962, the world held its breath as the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR) went head-to-head, with nuclear weapons ready to launch. The USSR was installing nuclear missiles in Cuba—just 90 miles from the Florida coast. The 13-day crisis played out in real time on TV around the world.
Tensions were high as American and Soviet delegates met to negotiate, and soon they were deadlocked. And then…a Russian delegate told a joke: “What is the difference between capitalism and communism?” He paused, then answered his own question. “In capitalism, man exploits man. In communism, it is the other way around.”
Delegates on both sides cracked up. The tension was lessened at once. But more important, the incident created a rapport between the two sides; a rapport that led to a successful negotiation.
Opening a negotiation with humor can pave the way for a desirable outcome. Studies have proven that humor and laughter generate a positive environment. And, as we learned with the U.S.-USSR negotiation, they can create a rapport.
Regardless of whether you are negotiating for world peace, a major contract, or where your family should vacation, humor can play an important role. It can reduce tensions and help you arrive at a mutually agreeable solution.
Before you employ humor as a negotiator, bear in mind who you are negotiating with. To avoid a backfire—an attempt at humor that offends rather than amusing—it is important to consider the other party’s culture, nationality, position, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and any likely areas of sensitivity. Generally, though, humor at one’s own expense is a safe bet.
Another advantage of humor in negotiation is the fact that it can be used both competitively and cooperatively at the same time. It allows a negotiator to be tough on an issue but soft the people involved.
Most research suggests that negotiators with a primarily cooperative style are more successful than hard bargainers when it comes to reaching novel solutions that improve everyone’s outcomes. Negotiators who lean toward cooperation also tend to be more satisfied with the process and their results. A touch of humor in your negotiations helps you to be perceived as more collaborative.
Very few negotiation training courses explore humor’s use in negotiations. The subject is rather uncharted territory. But humor is serious business, and the wise negotiator employs it purposefully. Perhaps even more so in tense, stressful situations.
Even when a joke doesn’t quite work, due to cultural or other differences, a sincere attempt at easing tensions may yet improve relations between negotiating parties.
In one study, researchers examined the effects of humor in a series of negotiations over the price of a work of art. (1)
In each negotiation, the researchers instructed the seller to behave in a certain way. When the buyer’s and seller’s price demands converged within a prescribed range, the seller was instructed to make “a final offer”—the lowest price they would be willing to accept. In each case, the offer required some concession by the buyer; the size of the concession varied from case to case. In half of the cases, the seller added, “And I’ll throw in my pet frog.” In the rest, the humorous addition was omitted. Other than this one difference, the seller’s behavior was as close to identical as possible in all cases.
The result: regardless of the size of the concession asked, buyers conceded more often when the seller injected this little bit of humor.
Inclusion of a single joke during an entire negotiation had a decisive impact. The touch of humor, it was thought, allowed the buyer to concede while still saving face.
When humor happens by chance, it’s just funny. But when you use humor deliberately, it can get you results.
- Plan ahead. Know your counterpart.
- Tell a joke, ideally with yourself as the target.
- Be hard on the topic but soft on the people.
- Think humor, especially when a negotiation becomes tense or stressed.
- The chief no-goes in employing humor are religion, sexual orientation, kids, pets, culture, and jobs.
1) Viveka Adelsward and Britt-Marie Oberg, “The Function of Laughter and Joking in Negotiation Activities,” Humor – International Journal of Humor Research 11, 4 (2009), 411.