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This month I wanted to reflect a bit on an aspect of negotiation that has always interested me: the lighter side. What effect does humor have on negotiation success, especially the more playful kind of humor that I call ““whimsicality”?

First of all, it should be noted that humor is a highly risky enterprise, especially in intercultural negotiation. What you think is genuinely funny may turn out to be highly offensive to the recipient. Anything involving politics, religion or sexuality is obviously off-limits. But other minefields threaten. Be careful!

Nonetheless, humor can be a powerful thing in negotiation, for at least three reasons:

  1. It offers a a useful means to deliver a tough message in a nonthreatening way. “We are cold, Dr. Young”, said the lead negotiator of the other side in an away- from- the- table exchange in a larger merger negotiation a few years ago. “Can you go to the cellar and see what you can do about the coal?” In this way, the rejection of our price offer was relayed gently but firmly. Indeed, the jester often has the unique power to point the way forward and say the uncomfortable things that others do not dare.

Humor is also a great way to reframe proposals and put them in a different light. Whimsical analogies can reveal the unexpected perspective, and often a lighthearted but pointed remark can lays the truth open. Certainly the negotiator who dares     to jest in this way is powerful indeed: she takes the risk of the joke and she decides what should be funny.

  1. Humor builds rapport. There is a growing literature showing the positive effects of humor on trust and even on the making of concessions in negotiation. Somehow, it is hard to fight with someone after sharing a good laugh together. But the laughter must be genuine and the shared warmth from the heart. Purposive and sarcastic barbs will not suffice. Hence whimsicality: lighten up and laugh, and invite your partner to join.

  2. Finally, I value gentle humor for the distance it provides from the heat of the battle. If negotiation is a game, as I believe, it can be sometimes helpful to step outside and enjoy the show.   Especially self-deprecation is important here. Never take yourself or your positions too seriously. That is negotiation power.

Comments welcome!

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