Using Humor to Resolve Conflict

  • Humor can be used a defence tool to disarm angry or irate people.
  • It can be a useful skill to learn, but it can also backfire quite easily.
  • Remember however, that no matter how far you push the envelope, it will still be stationary.

So, this priest goes on safari, right? Yeah, I know. It’s a weird way to start an article. Stay with me though. The priest somehow gets lost and finds himself wandering the Serengeti. He’s walking and he’s walking, but he has no idea where he is. Suddenly, a huge lion bursts out from the overgrowth and begins to give chase. The priest runs as fast as his tired legs can carry him, but he doesn’t get far.

Laughter is a physical reaction in humans consisting typically of rhythmical, often audible contractions of the diaphragm and other parts of the respiratory system. It is a response to certain external or internal stimuli. Laughter can arise from such activities as being tickled, or from humorous stories or thoughts. Most commonly, it is considered a visual expression of a number of positive emotional states, such as joy, mirth, happiness, relief, etc.

Finally, he decides to show a little faith. The priest nervously drops to his knees and begins to pray. “Oh Lord” he implores, “please make this lion a Christian!” He turns around, eager to see if his prayer has been answered. As the lion draws nearer, he can hear something…The lion is praying! The priest’s heart soars with happiness…Until he hears the lion say “thank you, O Lord, for this food I am about to receive.”

As human beings, we use humor to bond with one another, or to find a compatible mate. Nobody is 100% sure where or why humor first developed in our species, but it has been around for long enough that thousands of years before we were born, ancient Greek satirists had developed layered and nuanced comedies of a very sophisticated kind. Even the word ‘sarcasm’ comes from Greek word ‘sarkasmos’, so human beings have clearly been laughing for a long, long time.

Whatever its origins, humor definitely has the demonstrable effect of bringing two or more people closer together, uniting them in a shared appreciation of the unlikely or absurd. For example, Ikea recently sponsored my child’s school, now assembly takes ages.

Psychology professor Arnie Cann says,

“Most would probably agree that those who are perceived to have a good sense of humor tend to be creative and cognitively flexible. They can see the world through a different lens, so that they appreciate the ironies and absurdities in life.”

Humor is also great for diffusing tension. During the Cuban missile crisis, US President John F. Kennedy would often insist that terse and difficult meetings be opened with a joke and, when tempers flared and anxieties abounded, he would usually tell another joke to lighten the mood.

So humor can be a great tool when it comes to conflict resolution. Jokes allow us to open up to different viewpoints or possibilities without necessarily having to conform to them, while laughter itself can yield a great many physiological benefits.

If a workplace situation becomes too tense, it may be possible for the manager to tell a joke, or to go around the room and ask people to tell one. It might be prudent to start Monday morning meetings with a ‘Joke of the Day’, so that everyone brings in a joke – or takes it in turns to do so. The funniest might be printed out and placed on the noticeboard for others to enjoy.

Making a light hearted joke that includes everyone can be great for establishing a sense of community, as well as fostering a corporate culture where people feel safe to speak their minds instead of simply keeping their heads down.

You should always avoid mean-spirited or exclusory humor, however – and remember that there is a fine line between banter and bullying, so don’t aim your jokes at any one person. It of course goes without saying that sexist, racist and homophobic jokes have no home in the workplace (or anywhere, for that matter).

The study of humor and laughter, and its psychological and physiological effects on the human body, is called gelotology.

Remember however, that no matter how far you push the envelope, it will still be stationary.

Research has shown that executives who exhibit and use humor in their working day are more likely to get promoted and tend to earn more money. However, further evidence suggests that sarcastic people tend not to get promoted at all, which is just great.

Humor is a healer. It can bring people together, solve numerous problems and diffuse tense situations. It is a vital leadership tool. Perhaps Titanic survivor Millvina Dean said it best, “have a kind heart and a sense of humor” that way you can’t go too far wrong, can you?

Anyway, I think we’ll close on this gem.

Three blondes were out hiking when they came across some tracks.

“Oh, those are elk tracks,” said the first, authoritatively.

“No way, those are moose tracks,” said the second.

“Oh come on,” argued the third, “they are clearly deer tracks!”

…They were still arguing when the train hit them.

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