I was recently in a meeting that was headed in the wrong direction. The participants didn’t agree with each other and the issue was important enough that neither side was ceding ground. The discussion was quickly getting emotional and participants started describing the actions of their counterparts in previous contexts that had nothing to do with the current issue simply as a way to critique the other side. The discussion was fast shifting from being about the issue to being about the characters of the people behind the issue.
At that moment, one of the meeting participants cracked a joke. Although he used the joke to make fun of himself, the joke was one that the other meeting participants could also easily identify with. It brought about a lot of laughs that diffused the tension in the room. This happened for two reasons.
First, jokes make us laugh and, as humans, the physical act of laughing releases hormones that make us feel good.
Second, when jokes take place in the presence of a group, they let you establish common ground with the other members of the group. Even if only for the duration of the joke, this common ground brings people together. This makes them more likely to be able to express empathy for each other moving forward.
Jokes don’t always work. Sometimes the issue which sets two sides apart is so divisive that the act of laughing only creates a moment of unity which disappears soon thereafter. But sometimes they work. This is what happened in this case, as the two sides felt enough empathy for each other after the joke to reach a compromise solution.
As long as there’s a chance that a joke will work, it’s worth trying.