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Humor: A Useful, but Risky Tool in Problem Solving.

A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life. - William Art Ward

Humor can be the best survival tool. - Allen Klein

Humor is the sunshine of the mind. - Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Humor is the great thing, the saving thing after all. The minute it crops up, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations, and resentments flit away, and a sunny spirit takes their place. - Mark Twain.

During mediation, negotiation and problem solving trainings, I advise the participants that humor is a useful and great tool in the Negotiator’s Toolbox. But, humor is risky.

Inappropriate Humor in Conflict Management Settings

Surely there can be no better example of inappropriate humor than the co-mediators in the 2011 movie Wedding Crashers. The mediators try to be humorous by saying:

"Don’t you want to be a couple of kids trying to make it honest. Don’t you want to meet some Latin guy? What about throwing some of those frequent flyers miles to us?"

In the end they portray such ineffective mediators that the couple settles despite them.

Towards the end of the mediation scene, the husband participant asks the mediators to simply stop talking.

There is a divorce mediation scene in the Showtime TV series The Affair. The mediator says:

"You two are so organized that I may be able to get home for some afternoon delight.

I do not enjoy mediation but it pays the bills and I hate practicing law."

In this scene, the mediator may have found these statements to be humorous. Most mediation participants would not.


During small talk before the conflict management class that I teach began, Issac ,who hails from Iraq, stated that in his country when they smell people wearing perfumes, they assume they did not shower. Several participants took offense. He declared he was only joking and he apologized. Later, he told me that this was actually true in Iraq.


During a transactional negotiation, Jose and Hernan noted their progress and decided to schedule part two of the negotiation the next day. During the departure, Jose said to Hernan, “Give my love to your wife and MY children.” Jose was joking. The children were not his. Hernan took great offense and suspended the negotiation until Jose apologized.

How many times have you heard in workplace harassment scenarios the perpetrator defending themselves by saying, "I was only joking; I was kidding; It was only a joke."

Of course, the receiver does not receive it was a joke and, most of the time, the audience does not receive it that way either.


In a mock negotiation business partnership dispute, one person says, “I am not saying if we went fishing that I would deserve ½ of the fish caught, but….” He meant this to be amusing but of course, it was not received that way.

As Management Expert Kerry puts it, "Humor is like art. It is often in the eyes of the beholder. The reaction is unpredictable. The humor could remind them of something unpleasant or uncomfortable in their past."

Appropriate Humor

Often, when I am waiting for a class or mediation or negotiation to begin, I might make humorous comments about the weather, parking, driving conditions, the office space or classroom space, or maybe about the refreshments including coffee.

Bio-sketches: At the beginning of most of my sessions, I use the bio-sketch or visual bio-sketch exercise to introduce the participants. In the face-to-face setting, they literally create a picture with a series of images to introduce themselves. In almost all of the presentations, there is some humor and luckily, almost always, it is appropriate.

Often the wee bit of humor is self-deprecating or self-mocking or self-effacing. Of no surprise this type of humor makes the teller seem cooler or more attractive according to psychology.

Bio-sketch Humor Examples:

- I am a middle child and so people expect me to be a mediator and yet my reputation is that of causing conflicts.

- I am a military brat and most people think I am well traveled internationally. Yes, I am. Ft. Benning (Columbus, GA), Fort Bliss (El Paso), Ft. Bragg (N.C.) Ok, you get the point. I have not been to all 5,000 US Army bases, but many.

- Yes, I am Hispanic and I know a total of 8 Spanish words.

- Something you may know about me. I have a criminal record. I got fined for littering because I threw out coffee out my window which evidently got on the police car that was behind me. I took it to court thinking I would win. But the judge drove a convertible…so the judge’s imagination went wild. I was found guilty.

- So, all of you can see my picture in the class attendance list. Yes, it is ten years old but it is a nice picture, right? It is not deceptive. It is me.


Many folks define humor very narrowly; that is, joke-telling. Humor as a tool is quite broad. In my evaluations, participants often list “humorous” as one of the characteristics they enjoyed in the training. But, I am not one who tells jokes. Instead, I often include humorous stories or examples.

At the AMA (American Bar Association), I often teach virtually. They use the AdobeConnect format and include a Producer. One Producer Sally gave me this feedback:

Thanks for asking for my feedback. You are the only instructor to have done so. I love your energy and enthusiasm. You are a skilled presenter and teacher and I like that you engage people. You are articulate and your personal stories, like the one about your mother and credit cards are gems and adds so much to the class that you include those. It gives the class a personal note and endears you to the students. Your energy really comes across in your teaching.

From Participant Enrique: In class, I did not initially understand the distinction between persuasion and influence. Then you told the neighborhood story about your changed neighborhood and picking up the street and sidewalk trash. By doing so, you motivated aka influenced other neighbors also to do so. This example was an “AHA” moment for me. Thank you.

Former Ohio State University School of Law Dean Nancy Rogers tells the story of celebrated mediator, U.S. Federal Judge Thomas Lambros using humorous storytelling to help mediation parties overcome an impasse:

U.S. Judge Tom Lambros had a large fish mounted on the wall of his office. When lawyers in settlement conferences became angry with each other and were solidifying in their positions, Judge Lambros would become silent and stare at his fish. Finally, out of courtesy, one lawyer would say, 'Judge, that's a fine fish. Did you catch it?' Judge Lambros would seize the opportunity, describing in detail his deep sea fishing venture in which the fish fought valiantly. In his enthusiasm, the Judge's office coffee table would become the boat and he would stand on it reeling in the imaginary fighting fish, imaginary waves sloshing over the boat. Knowing that this story would last for seven minutes, I would quietly bow out to return a phone call and then return just as the fish landed in the boat. Soon, I became part of the humor as the Judge started calling attention to my leaving, adding that his law clerks were so tired of the story that they snuck out quietly whenever someone inquired about the fish. Well into the story, the opposing counsel would exchange glances, a shared moment of humor about the Judge's dramatic storytelling. Then the Judge would return to his desk chair and re-frame the conversation, leaving positions aside and suggesting a new way to go forward with negotiations. I saw several instances in which the lawyers reached settlement after the fish story when they had been deadlocked before it.”

Humorous Storytelling fits exactly into the Persuasion Law of Involvement outlined by Author Kurt Mortensen in his book, Maximum Influence: The 12 Laws of Persuasion.

Emojis and Humor

Today, so much communication in negotiation and problem solving is accomplished via emails and texts. I connect emojis and humor.

“Emojis are meant to be fun, light-hearted, and convey a broad range of emotions efficiently and in a way that words sometimes cannot.

Not only do emojis liven up your conversations, but they also have the ability to pick up where correct grammar or physical cues are lacking. It is important to emphasize our communication with our body language and facial expressions, yet technological advances make that a difficult task.

However, emojis make the task less daunting and more entertaining for both the reader and the sender. They are a more advanced form of text-based, casual conversation and they engage the reader.”

The Science of Humor

90% of those interviewed say that humor is one of the characteristics they look for in leaders. Researchers have found that people who score highly in certain types of humor have better self-esteem, more positive affect, greater self-competency, more control over anxiety, and better performance in social interactions.

Aside from improving your health, laughter can be a productivity tool as well. A study from Northeastern University found that volunteers who watched a comedy were measurably better at solving a word association puzzle that relied on creative thinking as compared to control groups that watched horror films or quantum physics lectures.”

In one study, participants brainstormed 20% more ideas when humor was involved. Some schools, like Stanford University, have created courses on humor hoping it will improve students’ creativity.

Purposes of Humor in Negotiation and Problem Solving

What are the purposes of humor in conflict management processes?

-Increases in positivity. Just by being positive, the likelihood is agreement is higher.

-Making the parties comfortable and at ease during an often unfamiliar process.

Once they are comfortable, they are more likely to be more motivated, more open about information, better able to distinguish between facts and perspectives and open to creativity and brainstorming. Moreover, if the parties believe the process has been fair, they are more likely to faithfully implement and follow through on agreements.

-Humor increases likeability. In negotiation and other dispute resolution experiences, it is clear that the more trustworthy and likeable you are, the more persuasive you are. Humor promotes likeability.

Positivity and Humor

I find a nexus between being positive and humor. Most of us negotiators and conflict managers pursue a strategy of positivity. Research emanating from the Harvard University Program on Negotiationp demonstrates that just by being ositive, you can increase the likelihood of agreement by 2-4%. Initially, this does not seem like much, but if all you have to do is to be positive,that increases the likelihood of settlement, which is worth it.

Using humor is challenging when the medium is remote or virtual.

Some believe that humor is more challenging in the online environment and here are the reasons:

1. Clues Get Missed. Humor is social in nature and often depends on body language, including gestures.

2. Technical Problems. Things get garbled. Some folks use cellphone with small screens.

3. Laughter is less contagious. Participants rely on others to perform or laugh. They feed off each other.

4. When the camera is on, the laughs are off. Basically, the camera’s presence is a “killjoy.”

5. Too many distractions. Despite the ground rules or guidelines, there are still many distractions, often including pets and children.

Some folks call this electronic communication “flat communication,” since it lacks body language. Virtual leaders and participants should not give up on humor but instead they need to adapt to “an ever changing set of circumstances and personalities.


Humor is a vital, yet risky and scary tool in negotiation. Why would one use humor? One: to become more likeable and thus, more persuasive. Second: To increase the comfort level. When parties become more comfortable, they often become more open about information and the negotiation becomes easier. Sometimes humor makes significant issues easier to digest. Humor can bond the group, help build relationships, and bring people together. Sometimes, humor can point out inappropriate comments.

In summary, I will quote three dispute resolution/management experts:

- First, Nancy Rogers again:I think that humor at the mediator's expense works well as long as it does not undermine trust or insult others”

- Second, Ohio Attorney Terry Wheeler (who also teaches mediation at Capital University School of Law):

“I agree with what you have written about humor above. I use humor sometimes in my mediations if it seems to me that it may help. I do not use it in every mediation. Humor might be used to help participants feel more comfortable or to help a party make a concession they want to make but don’t know how to do so.

Examples might include:

  • If any of us could predict the outcome with certainty, we might be spending more time in Las Vegas.

  • I’ve heard people say the best outcome is one in which no one is happy because no one won.

  • It sounds like you are trying to make lemonade out of lemons … is there a way to make the lemonade a little sweeter for each of you?

  • I’ve heard even Tom Brady can’t win all the time.

I don’t think I’ve actually used any of the ones above. I realize that the humor I use is usually based on something I’ve learned about the parties and not really a joke but an observation that might give them a smile and an opportunity to reframe their current position.”

-Management Professional Patricio Sanchez:

"Humor is a great leadership trait. Humor, when used with other communication tools could be a valuable tool. Tools such as emotional intelligence to be able to read people, to see if humor would be welcomed and appreciated. Using intuition for decision-making also needs to be practiced on an ongoing basis.”


DISC Conflict Management Styles Instrument. Many conflict management classes use this instrument to begin a discussion on styles. This site presents “a lighter side” to this discussion.


See Recommended Books under “Blogs” drop down menu. Clicking on any book will lead one to the discounted Amazon site.

Roy J. Lewicki is the author of 'Essentials of Negotiation', published 2015 under ISBN 9780077862466 and ISBN 0077862465. Publisher: McGraw Hill Higher Education

The Conflict Resolution Training Program, Leader’s Manual, ISBN: 0-7879-6077-2. Prudence Bowman Kestner and Larry Ray

"How to be Funny-Not Offensive-at Work," Rachel Feintzeig, 2/21/21, Wall Street Journal.


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