"Go for the jocular vein, not the jugular vein.” – Joel Goodman
Since conflict will always exist in dynamic, changing environments, managers are no longer charged with the task of resolving conflict. Now they must simply manage it. According to Terry Paulson, PhD., author of Making Humor Work, humor can be a great tool in the process.
One starts with the premise that behind every angry person is a problem that needs to be addressed. Paulson coins the phrase "verbal aikido" to describe one of his techniques for disarming anger. Aikido is a martial art in which one learns to give an unexpected response. You push when pulled or pull when pushed. In verbal aikido, instead of responding with defensiveness (“Not me!”) or a counterattack (“you’re not so great yourself!”) the message is one of acceptance, redirection, and affirmation “you’re right! It’s not like me, but sometimes I act that way.”
Paulson shares several examples of aikido strategies:
“It won’t work!”
“you’re probably right. There’s no warranty on any idea. What problems do you see?”
“you’re just like the rest of the managers around here!”
“I am a manager. It’s reassuring that it shows. Now, what’s the problem?”
“you’re too young to understand.”
“I’m as old as I can be for my age. What’s the problem?”
Unexpected responses absorb and redirect anger in harmless ways without insulting or belittling the other person. A keen witticism, at the right time and in the right place, can quickly lighten an overbearing critic. When in the hot seat, Paulson suggests any one of these strategies:
“I didn’t do it, and I'll never do it again.”
“Is there anything else you don’t like? I’m on a roll here.”
“You don’t like what I’ve done so far, and you’re hoping the rest of my day will be at least as good.”
When used properly, humor breaks the anger cycle. Both parties can move from confrontation to problem-solving. However, some people can inadvertently use humor to avoid problems. The complaint, “He won’t take anything seriously,” is not a compliment.
Remember that humor is a tool for deflecting an attack so that there is room for discussing viable solutions to presenting problems.
“One manager found an interesting way to break the tension at a confrontational meeting. Just prior to starting the meeting agenda, he took out a target and pinned it to his chest to a chorus of laughter from the others in the room. The humor broke the tension and contributed to early problem solving.”
Source: Paulson, Terry, L. Ph.D. (1989). Making Humor Work “Take Your Job Seriously and Yourself Lightly. Los Altos, California: Crisp Publications.