Every conference I’ve ever attended in the field of conflict resolution has featured some sort of organized discussion about the role of humor in mediation. These sessions are often quite analytical and serious, but occasionally a workshop is held that’s entertaining because the facilitators are demonstrating rather than describing their approach. It always seems, though, a little forced to urge people to be funny. After all, a helpfully humorous remark depends on spontaneity and a sense of timing that’s impossible to reduce to a formula.
Because humor can help so much when it succeeds (and also hurt when it misfires), it’s important to learn as much as can be taught about it. There are several theories and explanations about why and how it works, and the explanations tend to be completely unfunny, as I’ll demonstrate in a moment. The effort, though, has to be made because everything mediators and facilitators do in a roomful of people should be a conscious tactic designed to achieve some purpose. So what’s the tactical purpose of humor?
Here’s one example of an answer that I learned by trial and error.
I once participated in a collaborative workshop that came to a difficult moment. A few members of the small group (there were ten of us) started arguing about a particular approach to dealing with a problem. They were seasoned activists so they tossed familiar rhetoric at each other and were on the verge of getting angry.
The facilitator suddenly interrupted, clear in his mind about what was happening. “This is the wrong process!” he said. I could see what he meant, but the others – who were not facilitators – were puzzled. Then he explained the difference between a collaborative process aiming at agreement and an adversarial process aiming at victory over others. It all sounded pretty abstract and didn’t make a big impression.
When I ran into similar situations, at first I did the same thing – gave an explanation about why, at least in this room, advocacy bad, collaboration good. Not much impact.
I was looking for a different approach when the same thing started happening in another group I was managing. I didn’t have anything planned but just sat and listened for a few minutes. The arguments and rhetoric came quickly right around the room, everyone was getting into it, and at that moment I couldn’t help but admire their practiced skill in this form of combat. It occurred to me that I should tell them that.
“Boy,” I said. “You are all so good at what you do!” Everybody laughed and looked rather sheepishly at each other, as I went on. “I love this – nobody misses a beat, no point goes unanswered, thrust, parry, thrust. I really admire how well you do this … However…” And then I reminded them that this sort of thing had absolutely nothing to do with why we were there, etc. It was the humor that immediately got the group to reflect on what they were doing. The brief explanation that followed wasn’t really necessary for them to get the point, but I needed to make sure everyone understood exactly what I meant.
In this case, there were two styles the participants could use in relating to each other. The advocacy style was the one the participants best understood and knew how to use. The collaborative style was much less familiar to this particular group and not yet reinforced by positive experience. This little bit of humor jarred them in a pleasant way into realizing that they were falling into an old habit, one that hadn’t solved their issues up to that point. They needed to use their limited time together trying to work collaboratively. And so they got back on track.
The comment also worked because it was spontaneous, quite heartfelt on my part and grew directly out of the moment. I could never repeat that same comment in a different group because the conditions would not be exactly the same, and the words wouldn’t sound as natural because I’d be reading from a rehearsed script. It’s one of those “you had to be there” remarks that doesn’t transfer like a standalone joke with its setup, development and punchline.
In fact, jokes strike me as the high risk-low return form of humor in a conflict resolution setting. Of course, I’ve always heard the advice: Tell a joke to break the tension in the room. But a typical joke doesn’t necessarily grow out of what’s happening to the group in the moment. Instead of leading a group to reflect on its own behavior, it’s a diversion away from immediate concerns. The focus is on the mediator/facilitator and how well the joke is told. It’s a performance that will be judged by the delivery and content. If successful, it will get a laugh and release a little tension, to be sure. But if telling jokes and stand-up comedy don’t come naturally, the performance is likely to sound forced or just lame.
As to explanations of humor, there is an especially influential one originated by Edward de Bono, the author of Lateral Thinking, Mechanism of Mind
and dozens of other books. For de Bono, humor is effective because it stimulates creativity. It does that by helping the mind break out of habitual patterns and pull in ideas from different areas of experience.
In his view, the mind works by fitting experience into patterns that can be readily recognized. The mind has different ways of using these patterns and the information they contain. One way is through logical or “vertical” thinking, which selects the information needed to make a series of linear connections leading to a conclusion. Patterns can be quite complicated and relate to such things as the diagnosis of a disease or the purchase of a car or a decision about where to build a highway. These situations present choices and problems that usually yield to analysis within a familiar framework of thought. But often people get stuck in those habitual ways of approaching problems and can’t find any answer.
This is where creative thinking is needed. People have to be shaken out of their accustomed patterns into different ones. At that point, new possibilities open up, and creative solutions may be found. “Lateral thinking” uses numerous techniques to help stimulate the mind to break free of a limiting pattern. In less predictable fashion, humor is especially effective in provoking the mind to jump out of old patterns instantaneously. But in order to work, the linking has to be unexpected. In my example, it was unexpected to hear a mediator praising an adversarial style. The surprise made it easier for the group members to look at their own behavior.
Surprise may be impossible. A joke can be so well worn that everyone has heard it dozens of times. Because there’s nothing unexpected about it, it can’t be funny. Mental defenses against pattern switching are in place and won’t break open when listeners know what’s coming. For example, if you hear a federal official referring to the “epoxy that greases the wheels of government” as a humorous touch in a speech, anyone accustomed to listening to similar speeches won’t think it’s funny at all because they’ve heard that one a dozen times. (Of course, a fixed organizational pattern of thinking will take this one out of the filing cabinet marked “humor” over and over again.)
Humor also plays a role in the learning experience that is often part of any consensus building process. The group in my example, as is true for many groups trying to reach consensus, have learned and used adversarial techniques for years but are far less familiar or comfortable with the methods of collaboration. One role of the mediator/facilitator is to help the group gain mastery of a collaborative style so that they’ll use it more readily in other circumstances. Laughter is a great way of reinforcing a learning experience by making it more vivid and memorable. There is no greater opportunity to learn than when you’re in the midst of a high-pressure task and looking for the right methods that will help you complete it successfully. Humor can open the eyes and mind of participants and mediator alike and make it easier for new ideas to take hold.
Those are a few thoughts on the usefulness of humor. You may not be able to order it up on demand, but if you can make it work there’s no better way to help a group pay attention to new information, restore its spirits and keep it on a collaborative track.