Negotiation Humor: When to Use it and When Not to

When it comes to negotiation, using humor can be a powerful tool. However, it's important to know when it's appropriate and when it's not.


Negotiation is an essential skill that we use in various aspects of life, whether it’s in business, personal relationships, or everyday interactions. The ability to negotiate effectively can lead to favorable outcomes and strengthened relationships. However, negotiation can sometimes be challenging and fraught with tension and disagreements.

One way to navigate these challenges and create a positive atmosphere during negotiation is by incorporating humor. Humor has the power to enhance rapport, diffuse tension, and improve communication and understanding between parties. When used appropriately, humor can be a valuable tool in negotiation.

In this article, we will explore the benefits of using humor in negotiation and discuss when and how to use it effectively. We will also highlight the dos and don’ts of using humor in negotiation, providing practical guidelines for incorporating humor into your negotiation strategies. Additionally, we will examine real-life case studies where negotiators successfully used humor to achieve favorable outcomes.

By the end of this article, you will understand the power of humor in negotiation and be equipped with the knowledge to use it strategically, improving both your negotiation skills and outcomes. So, let’s dive in and explore the world of negotiation humor.

The Power of Humor in Negotiation

Negotiation is a skill that plays a crucial role in various aspects of life, from business deals to personal relationships. The ability to effectively negotiate can lead to successful outcomes and positive relationships. One technique that can greatly enhance the negotiation process is the use of humor.

Humor has a unique power to create connections and break down barriers. When used appropriately, it can transform a tense and competitive negotiation into a more relaxed and collaborative environment. Here are several ways in which humor can benefit the negotiation process:

Enhances rapport and relationship building

Humor helps establish rapport and creates a shared sense of camaraderie between negotiators. When people laugh together, they form a bond, which can lead to greater trust and collaboration. By using humor, negotiators can create a more positive and friendly atmosphere, making it easier to work together towards mutually beneficial solutions.

Helps diffuse tension and create a positive atmosphere

Negotiations often involve high stakes and conflicting interests, creating tension and stress. The use of humor can help diffuse this tension and relieve the pressure in the room. A well-timed joke or lighthearted comment can lighten the mood and create a more positive atmosphere, allowing for more open and productive communication.

Improves communication and understanding

Good negotiation requires effective communication and understanding between the parties involved. Humor can help cut through the formality and allow for more authentic and open dialogue. It helps to break down barriers and encourages both sides to express their thoughts and concerns more freely. By using humor, negotiators can foster a sense of empathy and create an environment where everyone feels heard and understood.

Fosters creativity and flexibility

Negotiation often requires creative problem-solving and flexibility to find mutually acceptable solutions. Humor can help stimulate creative thinking and encourage innovative approaches to problem-solving. Laughing together can create a sense of psychological safety, allowing negotiators to think outside the box without fear of judgment or criticism.

Builds trust and likeability

Trust is the foundation of successful negotiations. Humor, when used appropriately, can help build trust between negotiators. It allows negotiators to show their human side and demonstrates that they are approachable and relatable. Additionally, humor can make negotiators more likable, which can influence the other party’s willingness to accommodate their requests or make concessions.

In conclusion, the power of humor in negotiation should not be underestimated. It has the ability to enhance rapport, diffuse tension, improve communication, foster creativity, and build trust. However, it is important to remember that the use of humor should be appropriate, mindful, and respectful of the other party. When used effectively, humor can be a valuable tool in achieving successful negotiations.

When to Use Humor in Negotiation

Using humor strategically in negotiation can be highly effective in various situations. Here are some scenarios where humor can be employed to enhance the negotiation process:

Establishing a relaxed and friendly rapport

Using humor at the beginning of a negotiation can help create a positive and comfortable atmosphere. It can serve as an icebreaker, allowing both parties to feel more at ease and open to productive discussions.

Breaking the ice and relieving tension

Negotiations can often be tense and stressful, especially when there are high stakes involved. Introducing light-hearted humor can help alleviate tension and ease the pressure, allowing for more constructive dialogue.

Redirecting a difficult negotiation

When faced with a challenging or contentious negotiation, humor can be used as a tool to divert the conversation into a more constructive direction. By injecting a well-timed joke or humorous comment, it can shift the focus away from conflict and towards finding common ground.

Lightening the mood during impasses or disagreements

In negotiations where parties have reached a deadlock or impasse, humor can be employed to diffuse the tension and create a more relaxed atmosphere. By injecting humor into the situation, parties may become more open to finding creative solutions or compromise.

Building trust and likeability

Humor can help build trust and likeability between negotiating parties. When used appropriately, it can demonstrate authenticity, relatability, and a willingness to find common ground. This can positively influence the perception of the other party and create a more collaborative negotiation environment.

In each of these situations, it’s important to use humor strategically and appropriately. Humor should never be used at the expense of others or to undermine the negotiation process.

Dos and Don’ts of Using Humor in Negotiation


  1. Use appropriate and non-offensive humor: When using humor in negotiation, it is essential to ensure that it is appropriate and suitable for the situation. Avoid jokes or remarks that may offend or alienate the other party. Instead, opt for light-hearted and positive humor that can build rapport and create a positive atmosphere.

  2. Read the room and know the audience: It is crucial to understand the context and environment in which you are negotiating. Pay attention to the other party’s behavior and cues to gauge if using humor would be well-received. Additionally, consider cultural differences and sensitivities when using humor in cross-cultural negotiations.

  3. Observe and adapt to the other party’s use of humor: Take note of how the other party responds to humor and adjust your approach accordingly. If they engage in light banter or use humor themselves, it may indicate that they are open to a more relaxed negotiation style. Mirror their humor style and level of engagement to build rapport and establish common ground.

  4. Use humor sparingly and strategically: Humor should be used as a tool to enhance communication and create a positive atmosphere. Avoid overusing humor, as it may detract from addressing serious issues or may be seen as unprofessional. Strategically place moments of humor to break tension or build rapport, but always prioritize the substance of the negotiation.


  1. Use humor as a defense mechanism: Humor should not be used as a way to deflect or avoid addressing difficult issues. Using humor solely as a defense mechanism may undermine the negotiation process and hinder progress. Instead, focus on using humor to foster connection and understanding.

  2. Overuse humor and detract from serious issues: While humor can be an effective tool, it is essential not to overshadow the seriousness of the negotiation. Overusing humor may lead the other party to perceive you as unserious or not taking the negotiation seriously. Balance humor with a focus on the substantive issues at hand.

  3. Use sarcasm or passive-aggressive humor: Sarcasm and passive-aggressive humor have the potential to create tension and damage the relationship between parties. These forms of humor can be perceived as mocking or disrespectful, which can harm the negotiation process. Always strive for positive and light-hearted humor that fosters a collaborative and friendly atmosphere.

  4. Use humor to belittle or offend the other party: Humor should never be used to belittle or offend the other party. This type of humor undermines trust and respect, making it difficult to reach a mutually beneficial agreement. Maintain a respectful approach and ensure that your humor is inclusive and promotes positive interaction.

In summary, the use of humor in negotiation can be powerful, but it must be done carefully and thoughtfully. By following these dos and don’ts, you can harness the benefits of humor while maintaining professionalism and effectively navigating the negotiation process.

When Not to Use Humor in Negotiation

While humor can be a powerful tool in negotiation, there are certain circumstances where it is best to avoid using humor. It’s important to recognize that not all situations call for humor, and using it inappropriately can be counterproductive or even harmful to the negotiation process. Here are some instances when it’s best to refrain from using humor:

In highly sensitive or serious matters

Humor may not be appropriate in negotiations that involve highly sensitive or serious matters. When dealing with topics that have significant emotional impact or consequences, using humor can be seen as insensitive or trivializing the situation. It may undermine the seriousness of the matter and hinder productive communication. It’s crucial to gauge the gravity of the negotiation and proceed with sensitivity and caution.

When dealing with hostile or aggressive individuals

Humor may be ill-received when negotiating with hostile or aggressive individuals. In such situations, humor can be perceived as a sign of weakness or lack of seriousness, which may escalate the hostile behavior. Additionally, attempting humor may be interpreted as a strategy to distract or deflect from the issues at hand. It’s important to maintain a firm and assertive stance when dealing with aggressive individuals and prioritize clear, direct communication over using humor as a means to diffuse tension.

When the other party is not receptive to humor

Not everyone has the same sense of humor or appreciates its use in every context. If it becomes evident that the other party is not receptive to humor or does not engage positively with attempts at humor, it is best to abandon the use of humor altogether. Continuously employing humor in such cases can create an uncomfortable or unproductive environment. Instead, focus on other strategies that can foster effective communication and understanding.

When humor may cause misunderstandings or misinterpretations

In certain cultural or cross-cultural negotiations, humor can easily be misunderstood or misinterpreted. What may seem funny in one culture may be offensive or inappropriate in another. It’s crucial to be mindful of cultural differences and avoid using humor that may be seen as offensive, disrespectful, or divisive. Misunderstandings arising from the use of humor can hinder progress and damage relationships, so it’s advisable to err on the side of caution and rely on other means of communication.

As with any negotiation technique, the key is to be adaptable and responsive to the specific circumstances. While humor can be a valuable asset, it is essential to recognize when its use may be inappropriate or ineffective. By exercising discretion and sensitivity, negotiators can navigate the delicate balance between using humor to foster rapport and avoiding its misuse in potentially detrimental situations.

Case Studies: Successful Use of Humor in Negotiation

Example 1: The Killer Whale Negotiation

In a high-stakes negotiation between an environmental group and a marine park, the two parties were at odds over the treatment and captivity of killer whales. The atmosphere was tense, and it seemed impossible to find common ground. However, one savvy negotiator on the environmental group’s side decided to inject some humor into the situation.

During a particularly heated exchange, he interrupted the discussion and said, “You know, these killer whales must really hate being in captivity. I mean, who wouldn’t? It’s like being stuck in a bathtub your whole life!” The room erupted in laughter, instantly diffusing the tension and creating a more positive atmosphere.

The use of this lighthearted joke broke the ice and allowed both parties to step back from their rigid positions. It opened the door for a more productive discussion, where they were able to find creative solutions that addressed the concerns of both sides. Ultimately, this negotiation led to a groundbreaking agreement on improving the welfare of killer whales in captivity.

Example 2: The Salary Negotiation

In a salary negotiation between a job applicant and a hiring manager, the applicant was seeking a higher salary than what was initially offered. The conversation was becoming intense, with the applicant pushing for a higher figure and the hiring manager resisting.

Feeling the tension rise, the applicant decided to inject a bit of humor into the negotiation. After discussing the importance of the role and their relevant experience, the applicant said, “I have to warn you, I’m not responsible for what happens when I don’t get my morning cup of coffee! You might want to include it in the job benefits for everyone’s safety.”

The unexpected humor caught the hiring manager off guard and brought a moment of levity to the negotiation. Both parties shared a laugh, and it broke the seriousness of the discussion. This moment allowed for a shift in the tone of the negotiation, leading to a more collaborative and positive dialogue.

As a result of using humor strategically, the applicant was able to build rapport with the hiring manager. This led to a renegotiation of the salary offer, culminating in a compromise that satisfied both parties.

Example 3: The Vendor Price Negotiation

In a vendor price negotiation between a client and a supplier, the client was seeking a lower price for a bulk order of products. The supplier was initially resistant to reducing the price, which created tension between the two parties.

To lighten the mood and steer the negotiation in a more positive direction, the client decided to use humor. After discussing the benefits of a long-term partnership, the client said, “You know, I’m so confident in our future collaboration that I’ll do a victory dance if we can agree on this price!”

The unexpected offer of a victory dance caught the supplier by surprise. It elicited laughter from both parties and diffused the tension in the room. This moment of humor helped to establish a more relaxed and friendly rapport, fostering a sense of camaraderie in the negotiation.

As a result, the supplier became more open to considering a price reduction. Through continued negotiation and a positive atmosphere, both parties were able to reach a mutually beneficial agreement that met the client’s budgetary constraints while still providing fair compensation to the supplier.

These examples illustrate the successful use of humor in negotiation. By injecting lightheartedness and laughter into tense situations, negotiators were able to break the ice, diffuse tension, and create a positive atmosphere. Humor played a crucial role in establishing rapport, redirecting difficult negotiations, and building trust. However, it is important to use humor strategically, sparingly, and in a manner that is considerate and respectful to all parties involved.


In conclusion, incorporating humor into negotiation strategies can be a powerful tool when used appropriately and in the right context. Throughout this article, we have explored the importance of negotiation in various aspects of life and how humor can enhance the negotiation process.

Humor has the ability to establish a relaxed and friendly rapport with the other party, breaking the ice and relieving tension. It can redirect a difficult negotiation, lighten the mood during impasses or disagreements, and ultimately build trust and likeability.

However, it is crucial to approach the use of humor with care and caution. The dos of using humor in negotiation include using appropriate and non-offensive humor, reading the room and knowing the audience, observing and adapting to the other party’s use of humor, and using humor sparingly and strategically. On the other hand, the don’ts include using humor as a defense mechanism, overusing humor and detracting from serious issues, using sarcasm or passive-aggressive humor, and using humor to belittle or offend the other party.

There are also situations when it is not appropriate to use humor in negotiation. These include highly sensitive or serious matters, dealing with hostile or aggressive individuals, when the other party is not receptive to humor, and when humor may cause misunderstandings or misinterpretations.

To further illustrate the effectiveness of humor in negotiation, we have provided case studies showcasing real-life examples of negotiators successfully using humor. By analyzing these examples, we can understand how humor played a role in achieving favorable outcomes.

In summary, incorporating humor into negotiation can create a positive atmosphere, enhance communication and understanding, and ultimately contribute to successful negotiations. However, it is essential to be mindful and selective in using humor, ensuring that it is appropriate for the situation and that it helps build rapport and trust rather than detracting from the negotiation process.

By incorporating humor into our negotiation strategies with care and thoughtfulness, we can not only achieve better outcomes but also strengthen relationships and make the negotiation process more enjoyable for all parties involved.