Michael Cundall Jr.
Using Humor in Conflict
Responding with Humor: A Choice
YouTube can be such a wonderful place to spend some time. Of course, it’s also a deadly time suck, so watch out. But the following video illustrates a point about humor, especially humor in situations where we could be angry, annoyed, or even threatened. Humor has been used by people facing the most difficult of circumstances like concentration camps or forced marches. Sometimes our ability to use humor, to play with even the most awful of situations is what marks as human.
I love the video above cause I can imagine a couple of neighborhood fellas or a couple of garbage men just watching in disbelief as the cans roll down the street in the stream. Dealing with that, the trash that might be strewn about, and just getting the cans back up that hill is an extra part of the day and certainly no fun, but it’s going to need doing. I would prefer someone laughing about it and looking over at me as if to say, “Well, there’s nothing more to it. Let’s get at it.”
Laughing at the ridiculousness of it, sharing that laugh with me, inviting me to enjoy the absurdity, all while knowing the work to come makes the thought of all the mess so much easier to bear. I could be mad at Mother Nature for the cruel joke, and I could grumble and complain about the work to come. But the work will come. I think laughing at it and sharing the absurdity just makes the world better. Choose to find humor in situations and the word will come easier.
Often humor or incongruous responses can be used to diffuse a situation. For some reason, when we encounter a particularly clever joke, or bit of humor, we tend to focus on it, the enjoyment of it, and our negative feelings that may have existed prior to that seemingly disappear. Sometimes they’re gone for good, other times, the bad feelings are just temporarily ignored.
I used to have a joke at the ready that if ever I had a date that was starting to get dull, or it felt off, then I would bring up the fact that all cheese that’s yellow is dyed. Most folks don’t know that and for some reason, the “out of left field” comment just stops whatever preceded it, and acts as a sort of restart. I can imagine using a ploy like this when a discussion is simply not going well. Drop this one and see what happens. Or choose your own unique fact and see how it works.
Humor can also be used to diffuse potentially violent situations. There’s a video of an older man teaching some younger fellows Krav Maga. In it he cautions the class not to seek out conflict. He mentions that they’re younger and may be more apt to take a situation into a time of physical conflict. Instead he offers that when I guy looks at him and says, menacingly, “What are you looking at!?” he will try to respond with something like, “That shirt. That’s a great shirt! Where’d you get it?” Sometimes this completely unexpected response avoids the conflict completely. Check out this Aikido story in this link. It’s something of the same approach.
One way to see how humor works, or to visualize it working is like sudden change in direction. Think of anger and aggression as straight-line energies. Anger and aggression are directed at a target and typically targets can either get hit, as with punch, or the target can dodge it. As I teach my students in self defense classes, the best way to avoid a punch is to just not be there. Another way to meet that energy is to simply engage it a different way, through humor, or lightheartedness, sort of like the way that the man teaching Krav maga, or the student in the Aikido story. When one approaches issues with the light heart, or uses humor, the aggression doesn’t find the target. In using humor your denying the anger it’s focus. When I get hit or dodge the punch or the harsh words of another, I’ve accepted, tacitly or explicitly, that this action is intended to harm and the person performing it is at odds with me. When I respond with a joke, or with the light heart, I don’t see the other as opponent, I see the other as another person I want to engage in a friendly and even frivolous manner. Anger asks for a fight. Mirth asks for a dance.
Humor won’t always work; not every strategy is foolproof. But investigating and being open to humor as a way to resolve conflict is something that may help you more than you can appreciate at the moment.