This week I found myself in a room of about 60 people, most of whom were British and I could smell it a mile off – the unmistakable British trait of Banter. Let me define what I mean by Banter. It is not humour, exchanged between people to create a mutually relaxed environment. It is comments, in-jokes between individuals used as a defence mechanism to not engage with the room.
It is rarely used consciously or deliberately. It is a knee-jerk reaction that comes hand and hand with cynicism. It is a mask that people sub-consciously wear to stop them from being vulnerable. And it is rife in business. If you love banter, as you are reading this you probably think I am over-sensitive. If you have been on the receiving end of it, you know that sinking feeling of being isolated and not part of the “in-crowd”, of not feeling safe to share your voice and feeling a bit stupid. Whether you are for or against it, what is true is this – banter by it’s nature is commenting on the meeting you are in, which means you are not fully present, fully listening to people. It means you are dis-engaged.
I called it out with the client. They heard it and it was a great workshop. I have called it out with all my clients, from the Italians working at Microsoft to trainee vicars! I have seen banter ruin environments and good humour bring work places to life. It is all about connection. Once you are connecting more with people then you give people permission to let down their barriers and drop the banter. Where there is connection there is always natural humour that everyone can enjoy. So, here are a couple of thoughts that I hope help you to manage your own banter and open others up.
1) If you have one or two allies in your meetings, (someone with who you love to share with, laugh with and therefore banter with) when the meeting starts you will be drawn to that person to validate your feelings – feelings of frustration, cynicism, anger, etc. All it takes is a rolling of the eye and suddenly it is you and your buddy/buddies against the speaker. The speaker may say something you find stupid. You might find them stupid or annoying; you simply don’t want to connect. This is natural and normal – we are humans and not everyone will like us or us them. However, the challenge is to push through this, to look the speaker in the eye, to listen in silence, to smile at them. You either sow into connection or disconnection. In the end, what is the long term goal? Why are you in the meeting, how will engaging with this speaker, no matter how difficult be a win-win for you and the business? I have rolled my eyes and bantered many times over the years. It only disempowers others and shuts you off to that person.
2) If someone wants to banter with you, it is incredibly difficult to ignore it. It is peer pressure, taken out of the playground and put right into the heart of that meeting. The most powerful weapon is a smile that says “I have heard you”, then silence and moving your eyes to the speaker. It doesn’t guarantee that the banter-bringer will give up (they may not), but at least you have taken the step to dis-connect from the moment. Dis-connection gives you perspective and perspective always gives you a way out of the next attempt.
3) If the banter is obvious and you are running the meeting, then find a way to call it out, with humour and gentleness. I find asking questions is a very powerful non-defensive way of connecting. “Is everything alright? Do you have any concerns? What are your thoughts on this? Could you give us a re-cap of where we are at with XXX?” It is not so much the question, but the act of interacting that stops the disconnection. If you can stop the disconnection, you are breaking the power of banter. It is never easy, it is initially awkward, but let your motivation be – connect, connect, connect. For the sake of the other people in the room who feel isolated, you need to bring everyone in from their silos of disconnection and create a safe space for freedom of speech.