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Defusing Workplace Conflict With Humor

In Canadian funnyman Martin Short’s biography, I Must Say, Short describes how his wife would ask to speak to his alter ego character Ed Grimley as a way to defuse the tension when they argued. Ed’s sweet goofiness and honesty almost always helped lower the temperature during a heated discussion.

A little disruptive humor has been shown to lower the stress levels even in very serious situations. During the Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy often insisted that meeting participants start meetings or take a break during tense meetings to tell a joke as a way of lowering everyone’s stress.
Here are a few other ways (some Ed Grimley-esque, some more serious) to lower the tension.
1. Not that Frank Underwood (played brilliantly by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards) is a role model for, well, anything, he does though use one stress-cooling tactic extremely well. Underwood always tends to agree with the person he’s having a conflict with, even when we know he doesn’t agree. Agreeing with a person’s position, no matter how crazy you think it might be, demonstrates empathy and immediately lowers the temperature to a point that you can engage in a more constructive conversation.

2. Call a 60-second “fun dance” break. Yes, it’s a silly idea, and that’s the point. It’s hard to stay mad with people when you’re dancing. (Just ask Kevin Bacon or the father in Dirty Dancing.)

3. Call for an official H.T.O. – a Humor Time Out. Have everyone go around the room and tell a funny clean joke or quick funny story.

4. Follow Beryl Call Center’s lead and create a Laugh Box. Their Laugh Box sits in the middle of the call center floor and is filled with funny employee bloopers. Whenever stress is high, someone calls for a reading from the Laugh Box.

5. A change of scenery can do wonders, as can meeting in neutral territory. So if tensions are rising in the boss’s office, try going across the street to the park or heading down to a quiet common area.

6. Assign a “meeting referee” or “meeting jester” – someone who can deploy some safe, timely humor to defuse tension and help keep everyone communicating in a respectful, constructive manner.

7. If all else fails, challenge them to a Silly String battle. In case you think I’m being facetious with such an off-the-wall idea, consider how the former CEO of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher settled a trademark dispute by challenging another CEO to a public arm wrestling match. Several thousand people attended the highly publicized “Malice in Dallas” match at Dallas’s Sportatorium, garnering national media attention and raising money for charities, to boot.

Michael Kerr, Humor at Work. Michael is an international business speaker and the author of The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses are Laughing All the Way to the Bank!

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