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The Uses of Humor in the IF Discussion Process

IF discussions are serious business.  But they still allow room for humor.  In fact, the more of them I facilitate, the more I’ve come to appreciate the many ways humor can promote good exploratory discussion.  (Surely humor can go wrong in a variety of ways, but I’ve not seen that happen more than once or twice in over 200 hours of discussion, and I’ve had little difficulty dealing with them.)

Humor can contribute to IF discussions by:

  • creating common ground through shared references
  • promoting openness and trust–since people often use humor to personalize their comments, show their vulnerabilities, and admit their weaknesses
  • diffusing tense or awkward situations
  • helping keep the discussion at the conceptual rather than anecdotal or personal level
  • keeping the discussion focused on possibilities rather than advocacy

A few comments about this list.  First, I’m no comedian, so I’d be the first to admit that there are surely items missing from it.  Second, even this short list makes clear that humor can be useful even in diametrically opposite ways.  It’s useful when intensely personal, useful also when used to illustrate a conceptual insight   It’s useful for illuminating shared beliefs, useful for diffusing unproductive conflict.  Finally, my sense is that while all of these are important, it’s the last item on the list that matters most.  I’ll leave it to someone who was a famous humorist, James Thurber, to explain why: “[O]ne of the great menaces” is “people with intelligence deciding that the point is to become grimly grey and intense and unhappy, and tiresome because the world and many of its people are in a bad way” (quoted in The Economist; August 23, 2003, p. 67).