Thursday, November 13, 2008

Jokes as the Canary in the Meeting Room

Last weekend at the NASCO Institute in Ann Arbor I got a chance to pioneer a workshop on the role of humor in meetings. I styled it: "But Seriously Folks… " Though I had sketched it out years ago, this was the first time I got to do it.

The best part was that in the process of delivering it, I got a new insight into what humor represents. I already understood that jokes are sometimes a terrific tension breaker; sometimes a distraction; and sometimes an unattributed criticism (think sarcasm). My new idea was the extent to which humor is an indicator species.

That is, excepting only when things are rolling along smoothly (by which I mean the group is loose and on topic & productive), humor is mostly a pressure relief valve, and suggests that there is some level of discordance in the room. If the meeting culture does not provide a reasonable way for people to examine tensions, or participants don't know how to articulate their discomfort, attempts at humor (or else shutdown) are likely to result.

If you're aware of this—that jokes are a symptom, rather than a cause—it suggests a different strategy when you encounter people offering up inappropriate zingers. Rather than focusing on extinguishing the behavior ("… and the beatings will continue until morale improves"), you can root around for the underlying tensions. You can think of the oddly placed joke as a cry for help.

While you still need to be alert to the damage that can ensue from put-down humor, you can also look for ways in which the meeting is not working for the people sniggering in the back of the room. It might be the topic; it might be the format; it might be that you've gone too long without a break—but something isn't working. You could be more curious about what that might be, rather than more diligent about keeping the comedians on a short leash. At least that's my insight.

I'm eager to test drive this in the meetings I have coming up (luckily, there are always more meetings) to see how much it helps me sift through the complexities of dynamics to better understand what's happening and what opportunities it presents. Uncovering a nugget like this is exactly why I love trying out new material. Teaching forces me to distill my experiences into articulate patterns, and whenever the information is organized in fresh ways, there is the chance that I'll see deeper patterns still.

I think of it as the fractals of group dynamics.

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