Negotiation Blog

Why did the negotiator cross the road?

By Marianne Eby

Negotiations are serious business, which is why it is important to understand, and build trust with, the other party. Great negotiators know that no matter how serious the interaction, laughter is often one of the quickest paths to trust; it can relieve tension, create a bond, improve everyone's moods, and foster the creativity you want for mutually beneficial agreements to emerge.

Researchers in many fields, from medicine to psychology to communications, are increasingly interested in the social power of humor and the physical and emotional benefits of laughter. Public speakers are trained to open presentations with jokes or funny anecdotes. Political candidates are now expected to demonstrate their sense of humor on the talk show circuit to improve their likeability. In 2010 Comedian John Stewart was voted the "most trusted man in America." His social power derives from the fact that he is knowledgeable and funny, which makes him seem more trustworthy.  

A sense of humor is useful during all phases of negotiation as well -- to signal confidence or shift power, to change the environment, to soften bad news, to avoid answering a question, to respond to a ridiculous offer, or to save face.

Telling a funny story or acceptable joke can also help you gauge whether the other party is on the same page with you. If the other side is not laughing, or even engaging in a joking conversation, pay attention: they are not where you hope they are. Not laughing in response to a humorous gesture is a sign of discomfort or disconnection.

So prepare with ice-breakers -- anecdotes or jokes that get a group to laugh before you begin bargaining.

Try these tips for opening an interaction with humor:

Tell a story on yourself: People love to laugh at absurd but real events. Carol Burnett famously said "comedy is tragedy plus time." A story you tell about yourself makes you more human.

Don't take yourself too seriously. Keep the humor light, and your expectations for laughter down. Nothing kills an attempt to develop rapport more than someone who can't laugh at him or herself. Mildly self-deprecating jokes imply trust.

Collect a few jokes that work for you. They're easy to find or to collect. Good storytellers and comedians prepare material in advance, to avoid hitting the wrong note, and to be ready to hit the right one.

What to avoid:

  • Stories and jokes about race, culture, gender, religion, politics, or hometowns
  • Offensive material
  • Sarcasm
  • Targeting something sensitive about them you discovered by being empathetic (don't overuse empathy!)
  • Stories or jokes that require long, complex setups, or special insider knowledge
  • Telling a joke if you are not good at it
  • Jokes that rely on an exact understanding of your language

Sometimes puns (ambiguous play on words with multiple meanings) can be fun – just make sure your humor is understood. Let’s say you’re in a tense negotiation and everyone is frustrated. You might say:

“Does any one feel the way I do? Trying to figure out a solution that satisfies us all is like getting ready for a root canal – it’s unnerving!”

Keep these guidelines in mind for successful humorous stories and jokes:

  • Make them modest, not ambitious
  • Keep them short -- avoid a long setup!
  • Try to be topical -- find a story or joke that's relevant to the negotiation at hand, a recent press story, your travel, etc.
  • Be yourself!

Be real. Leverage your own style and personality. Be willing to laugh. See how it changes your negotiation results!

Negotiating Tip

Win-win is an attitude, not an outcome: people who view negotiating as an opportunity capture more value than those who see it as a threat.


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