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Can Humor Help to Resolve Conflicts?

In an earlier post I provided readers with a parable that illustrates how to utilize the conflict resolution skill of “Summarize and Delay.” In the parable, both parties remained very serious throughout their interactions. We found that there was a satisfying outcome that came about as a result of the technique being used.

humor 4Although remaining serious throughout a conflict has some merit, many people like to interject a little humor. Such a style raises some important considerations that we will explore in today’s “From Insults to Respect” post. We’ll go about exploring these considerations by first taking another look at the original parable, and then I’ll present it again, but with some humor thrown in. After discussing the different approaches illustrated in the two versions of the parable, we’ll discuss a few more examples of people using humor in conflict situations. 

PARABLE OF KATE AND HER BOSS AS ORIGINALLY PRESENTED

Kate’s boss, Mr. Nelson, left for a week vacation in the Bahamas during a particularly busy time. When Mr. Nelson returned, he started to insult Kate because she and the rest of her team did not complete all that he had expected. Mr. Nelson’s tone of voice began to infuriate Kate.

Rather than explode, she had a well-rehearsed plan that she enacted. She managed to keep the expression on her face looking concerned about what her boss had to say. digShe recalled the DIG CONFLICT MODEL which uses the word DIG to remind her to dig to look for her boss’s desire, what happened that interfered with his desire, and what he thinks she is guilty of doing wrong.  

When Mr. Nelson finished yelling, Kate replied, “You’re the boss, Mr. Nelson. It’s clear to me that you want us to accomplish more work while you are gone and this time it didn’t get done. You feel that we are guilty of letting you down. You deserve a thorough reply. After I discuss your concerns with the rest of my team and I have a few days to think this through, I’ll get back to you.”

“I want an answer now!” Mr. Nelson demanded. 

“Sure boss, here’s the best answer I can offer you now—I don’t have a good answer now. I’m sorry I’m not ready with any helpful answer just yet. I will be ready to move this discussion forward within a week.” She then looked into Mr. Nelson’s eyes and said gently, “Please give me a little time.”  

Mr. Nelson frowned, and then hollered, “I better have an answer in a week or else!”

“Thanks, Mr. Nelson,” Kate replied.  “I’m sorry you are disappointed in us.”  Then she left.

PARABLE DISCUSSION

Beautiful thinking business woman isolated white background

As I explained earlier, this parable illustrates the “Summarize and Delay” skill. For Kate to express her anger at her boss while both she and her boss are frustrated could potentially silence him. It might also get her fired or decrease the chances of a promotion. By remaining polite, while also being firm, she demonstrates a respectful professional tone and buys herself time to consider the best way to respond to her boss in a more reasonable manner. It also gives herself and her boss some time to calm down. In a few days her boss might even apologize on his own for shouting at her.

Now, let’s go over the parable again, but this time we’ll have Kate interject a little humor by providing an Abraham Lincoln quote.

PARABLE OF KATE AND HER BOSS WITH SOME HUMOR THROWN INTO THE MIX

This time, when Kate’s boss, Mr. Nelson, returns from his vacation and starts to shout and throw insults at her, she again goes into her well-rehearsed plan. She manages to keep the expression on her face looking concerned about what her boss has to say.

When Mr. Nelson finishes yelling, Kate replies, by summarizing what he is angry about, and then says, “You deserve a thorough reply.  After I discuss your concerns with the rest of my team and I have a few days to think this through, I’ll get back to you.”

“I want an answer now!” Mr. Nelson demanded. 

“Sure boss, here’s the best answer I can offer you now—I don’t have a good answer now. I’m sorry I’m not ready with any helpful answer just yet. abraham-lincolnAs Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.'” Then Kate provides a delightful smile. She notices a hint of a smile come to Mr. Nelson’s face. She then says, “I will be ready to move this discussion forward within a week, Sir.” She then looks into Mr. Nelson’s eyes and says gently, “Please give me a little time.”

Mr. Nelson says softly, “Please have an answer for me in a week.”

“Thanks, Mr. Nelson, I’m sorry you are disappointed in us.” Then Kate leaves.

PARABLE DISCUSSION

In the second version of the parable, why might the addition of Lincoln’s humorous quote be helpful toward resolving the conflict? Here’s a theory to consider. locomotiveThe anger that Mr. Nelson is experiencing has, in a sense, placed him on a train barreling in one direction, toward punishing Kate for what has occurred. When Kate presents the Lincoln quote and uses it to provide her an opportunity to provide a pleasant smile, it begins to slow the train down, then brings it to a halt, and then gives Mr. Nelson an opportunity to get off. Once off the anger train, he has an opportunity to look around at some other paths he could take besides the path the train had been taking him. Said another way, in contrast to being close minded, he becomes more open minded.

How does humor do this? As Kate begins to tell Lincoln’s humorous comment, it raises for Mr. Nelson, two concerns–Will he be able to figure out the point of the humorous comment, and is this comment designed to ridicule him? When he discovers that he has to figure out what the comment is meant to convey, and that the joke doesn’t put him down, but rather, it is Kate that is the target of the joke, he feels relieved, and this leads to his smile.

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When Kate smiles at the joke, this lights up what are called “mirror neurons” in Mr. Nelson’s brain, which leads to an enhanced pleasant experience that comes about when we share something humorous. This interchange gives Mr. Nelson a chance to get off his one track anger train.

Let’s take a quick look at another example so we get a little better understanding about how humor can be helpful during a conflict. I came up with this example by looking at some examples of John F. Kennedy’s humor. I don’t know all the details that surrounded this bit of humor so, for illustration purposes, I’m going to add some.

THE KENNEDY EXAMPLE

Kennedy for presidentAt the time this example took place, Kennedy was a young senator running for president. It had recently become clear that he was rising in the polls, and the outcome was beginning to look more and more favorable for him. Senator Kennedy, to promote his candidacy, decided to invite leading opinion writers from the press to discuss the issues of the day.

One of those present, a guy we’ll call Fred, angrily said, “Senator Kennedy, your success is an outrage! It’s really because of your father’s wealth, the way he can open doors for you by spreading money around! A person with great talent but only average wealth doesn’t have a fair chance against you wealthy politicians!”

After rubbing his chin for a couple of seconds, Senator Kennedy replied, “I appreciate the point you just made, Fred. If I understand you correctly, you desire that elections be carried out on a level playing field. Interfering with that is the influence of big money. You feel that my family is guilty in this regard. Is that right?

“Absolutely!” Fred cries.

“Well, Fred,” says Kennedy with a twinkle in his eye, “it’s interesting you bring this up because I just got a wire from my generous Daddy – ‘Dear Jack,’ that’s what my Daddy calls me, Jack, ‘Dear Jack, don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.” jfk 1Then a huge smile spreads across Senator Kennedy’s face, and all of those present break out laughing, including Fred.

Immediately after the laughter settles down, Senator Kennedy continues. “Fred, I agree with you that big money in politics is a serious problem. Not only is it a problem because people like me who can have more influence because of my family’s wealth, but it is at least as big a problem when less wealthy politicians get money from big donors who finance their candidacy. These big donors have way too much influence over what those politicians do. This has been going on since the dawn of our republic. So, we have to get beyond expressing our unhappiness about this and put together a real plan that will fairly level the playing field. What I want to suggest is that you, and the rest of those present today, work to design a specific blueprint for a bill that does this. Get it to me as soon as you are ready, and I’ll make sure the leaders in Congress get copies. And if I’m elected as president, I’ll work my butt off to promote it.”

Then Senator Kennedy put out his hand to Fred, and together they warmly shook on this.

EXAMPLE DISCUSSION

Here, as in the Kate and Mr. Nelson example, humor is used to get someone off of a one track anger train. Fred, who was angry with Senator Kennedy, upon hearing him tell his joke, had, for a brief moment, two concerns–will he get the joke, and will it serve to humiliate him. As Fred comes to see that he does get the joke and that it does not serve to humiliate him, he experiences a sense of relief and this relief is experienced as laughing. His anger has now subsided. When Senator Kennedy then explains that he agrees with Fred about the serious problem regarding the influence that the wealthy have on politics, Fred is more open to hearing the Senator out.

Now, for humor to be helpful for resolving conflicts, there are at least two things to keep in mind. First, it should not seek to humiliate the angry party. LincolnMuch better is to make the joke teller the butt of the joke. Second, there are times when humor might be in the form of satire that counters the other party’s position. When this is done, it’s a great idea to say some kind things about the person who holds the other party’s position.

Abraham Lincoln was masterful in this regard. Lincoln Douglas DebatesFor example, Lincoln got a tremendous laugh from the audience when, during the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates, he said that Judge Douglas’s arguments were “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.” At another point, after Judge Douglas made the case that slavery wasn’t all that bad, Lincoln cracked up the audience when he replied, “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

Despite these humorous quips, from time to time throughout these debates Lincoln referred respectfully to the Judge as “my friend,” and called him “a great man.” Thus, Lincoln knew the importance of mixing in some supportive statements about the person with whom he had some disagreements. This is a principle well worth keeping in mind when we attempt to utilize humor as a tool to assist in resolving conflicts.

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Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

Comics, Conflicts and the Desire to be Liked

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

2 Comments

  1. An important and welcomed article. Thank you

    • Hi Sandra Ceren, I very much appreciate that you took the time to let me know what you thought of the article. Much thanks. Jeff

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