Monday, January 31, 2005


Irony n.
a. The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning.
b. An expression or utterance marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning.

To help people find solutions that they wouldn’t otherwise find, we often have to get them to behave in ways that they are unaccustomed to. By building an environment where openness and honesty are prized, we ask people to expose themselves, to say or do things that might make them feel vulnerable in front of their colleagues.

With each exercise we guide our participants through a minefield of potential embarrassment. The potential for embarrassment is especially acute when we have a group of participants who don’t all know each other or, worse, when we cut across a hierarchy, potentially exposing a boss to the ridicule of his or her underlings.

So it’s to minimize this risk of embarrassment (and thus to reward sincerity) that we shun irony in our work. We say what we mean and we mean what we say. Always. Our participants have to believe in the absolute sincerity of what we say. They will sense that any use of irony might be mocking or somehow undermine the trust that we need them to place in us.

Where do we risk being ironic? Toys, for example. When clients ask me what the toys are for, I reply, “To play with.” If they want more explanation, I provide it, but my initial response is usually sufficient because it is true and is said without irony. What undermines my response is if the toys themselves were chosen with irony. For example, it is plausible to imagine that a plush animal is intended to be played with, but not a Barbie or an Easy-Bake Oven.

Humor is very useful to leaven and event and open up participants who often feel under considerable pressure. But ironic humor almost always has a sting in its tail and conveys the notion that the teller knows something that the listener might not be privy to.

I make an occasional exception for irony in music. Choosing a song with lyrics that make an ironic comment on the proceedings or, better still, that has a musical theme which humorously contrasts the atmosphere of the moment can reduce tension whereas a ‘humorous’ song would simply fall flat.

As a rule-of-thumb, though, we need to always remember that our participants always need to believe what we say and they will only do so if we believe what we say.

In a recent event for 87 bankers from 22 different banks, I needed them to individually stand up, at the beginning of the event, and describe a particular problem that they personally faced in their bank. Prior to the event, my sponsors feared that nobody would have the courage to stand up in front of strangers and expose themselves. But when the time came, I invited them up as if it were the most natural thing to do, because at that moment I believed it was. It was like Indiana Jones stepping over a chasm, knowing that a moment’s doubt would cause the path that miraculously appeared under his feet to vanish. Had he let his typical ironic attitude get the better of him, he would have tumbled to the bottom of the chasm like Wyle E. Coyote.
Had I not expected them to come up and expose themselves before their peers, they simply wouldn’t have. Had I expressed doubt, they would have felt vulnerable. Had I expressed irony, they would have felt ridiculed.