Humor in negotiations

humor in negotiations

Have you ever wondered if humor in negotiation is appropriate, and when?

The best negotiators make the counterparty feel good about the relationship, good in the communication process, and good about the outcome, even if it is not in the counterparty’s best favor, because the process has been considerate. Humor makes our interactions more memorable. Finding humor in the negotiations will increase the other party’s subjective sense of satisfaction and help both of you remember the interaction in a more favorable light.

Many have associations and experiences that negotiations are about tense moments and negative emotions. I recommend my clients become aware of who they are and how they can help reduce tension and create positive emotions early in the negotiation with conscious use of humor. This advice builds on the strategy recommendation of the late Harvard professor Howard Raiffa, called a post-settlement settlement. It is about continuing to negotiate after an agreement is reached – because some of the best results can be uncovered after the tensions in the negotiations are taken down by reaching an agreement.

A team I co-coached used the humor strategy in a very considerate way in the negotiation and mediation competition in Singapore in 2019. They WON GOLD and were referred to as THE HAPPY-TEAM!

I have used and experienced others using well-placed humor as a very effective tool in negotiations, and there are several advantages to using humor in negotiation.

A well-adapted, sincere, successful joke or story can help break the tension, increase social closeness, build rapport, and foster a pleasant, positive tone during negotiations.

Humor creates positive emotions, which in turn triggers positive communication and better team performance. I have experienced this myself repeatedly, and it has been documented in research at the Universiteit van Amsterdam.

Furthermore, humor has been shown to increase creativity. When high-trust colleagues used sarcasm (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. This emerges from the research from the prestigious university INSEAD. Creating trust, and in particular, a high level of trust between negotiating partners is demanding. It becomes even more challenging when both parties keep their cards close to their chests and share little information. This is where the essence of the use of humor in negotiations comes in. Creating a light mood, e.g., by using humor in negotiations, will increase the other party’s subjective sense of satisfaction. It will also help the parties in developing a better interaction that generates trust and in the long run, increases the development of more creative solutions. It’s about what I can contribute to creating the foundation for trust building by sharing information and being transparent and predictable. It’s about GIVE and TAKE.

In the introduction, I wrote, “The best negotiators make the other party feel good in the relationship…“. It’s not about becoming “best friends” with the other party but creating such a good working relationship that we reduce destructive tension between us, the fundament for creating more value.

Telling a joke that elicits laughter, and is viewed as funny and appropriate projects confidence and competence, because it’s conveying an accurate read of social dynamics, and also increases our status according to another research done at the renowned Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

Humor influences whom we are attracted to and whom we trust. Humor can help us cope with negative circumstances, and can make negotiating and life, in general, more enjoyable. But, in negotiations, where the norms of appropriateness and professionalism often can be stringent, where ambiguous communication alarms the threat in the other and can suffer major consequential damage, it can be difficult to figure out when humor can or should be used as a means of improving our social interactions.

As I wrote above, humor can be used to increase the other party’s subjective sense of satisfaction. You can also use humor in negotiations to answer difficult questions. One of the most challenging aspects of negotiation is being asked questions that you don’t want to or shouldn’t answer – because by responding directly or openly, you will put yourself in a weak or difficult negotiating position. In these scenarios, you may be able to use humor to deflect or distract – even for a moment – so you can reconsider more carefully what information you can and should disclose.

Humor can seem like a distraction, and few other conversation strategies have the ability to transform moods (in both positive and negative directions) so quickly and with such an impact.

My advice to you is: Don’t be afraid to make your negotiation processes more relaxed and fun. When you do, you and the other party will enjoy the process more, it will be more likely you will be able to uncover creative options and create better substantive agreements because the tension is taken down.

A sincere, timely, well-placed, and successful joke or story can help break the tension, increase social closeness, build rapport, and foster a pleasant, positive tone early in negotiations because some of the best results can be uncovered after the tensions in the negotiations are taken down.

Try it – negotiating is FUN!