Did I get your attention? Are you expecting something a little different now? Wondering how I'm going to get back to more serious topics?
I want you to pause, if you don't mind, and notice the quality of attention that you're giving me at this moment. You're not just listening to me, you're also scrutinizing me carefully! That's the best kind of attention there is. Without trying to flatter myself, it might be fair to call it rapt attention. And if you want to have influence, that's the gold standard.
For middle managers and executives, each new minute seems to require a momentous decision. With that kind of pressure, and the tight schedules that go with it, there's little spare attention to go around. And it's nearly impossible for anyone to give adequate consideration to the deepest issues that concern the organization. Strategic humor is one good way to change that dynamic. Let me illustrate with a story from my social life.
Just the other night I was having a delightful dinner at home with my wife. Joining us were an eighty-something friend of hers who wore hearing aids (and who I had never met), and another friend, a young man in his early twenties. Early on, the conversation somehow found its way to bodily functions (don't ask me how – I had nothing to do with it). In the flow of conversation, I said something I thought was funny, and everyone laughed except the older woman. I thought she hadn't heard me, so I Iooked right at her, made good eye contact, and said clearly and strongly "Gas".
Do you get the picture?
The woman looked at me without speaking. I explained that she'd had a blank look on her face during my funny comment, and I thought maybe she hadn't heard it. Again I said, "Gas".
Once she realized she could believe her ears, she smiled broadly and confided in me that with hearing aids you can't hear people very well while you're chewing. "They never tell you about that," she said. This disarming exchange broke the ice for us, and a new, warm relationship formed quickly after that. We soon were discussing subjects of more gravity than you would expect in a first meeting, and the evening was thoroughly enjoyable for both of us.
Do you think it unprofessional to talk to a senior executive about gas?
I certainly do. But you can say you admire their nerve (as you notice their yellow socks). Or that the pile of papers on their desk is so high you imagine it makes a better trashcan than their trashcan does. Or any number of things. In addition to being good icebreakers, these kinds of comments all serve a very useful, subtle purpose – they tell you how defended your counterpart is.
If someone doesn't enjoy your initial playfulness, then you know it's going to be "all business" from here on out. You can prepare to stick to the facts. And a lack of personal connection will turn up as an organizational issue within the person's span of control, I guarantee it. On the other hand, if someone enjoys your playful bid for connection, a warm personal channel is likely to open that will serve you both well when you do get down to business.
The key here is that conflict is inevitable, and it's a lot easier to work through it with someone you feel you know than with someone you don't. You can get to know a busy executive really quickly with well-chosen strategic humor. I would not mention gas, though.
This post has been selected for publication in the 4th Of July Leadership Development Carnival.