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Another Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Resolution

Since this column opened several months ago, there have been a number of good and thoughtful comments received and added, and a few humorous observations made and noted. Also some jokes. We have heard from Consensus Mediation, of the UK, ( ) which sponsors a website containing mediation humor, including “Mediator bumper stickers.”

For example:


  • Do it until everyone is satisfied
  • Do it confidentially
  • Won’t do it for you, but they’ll help you do it for yourself.

…and others.

Tom Nagel, of Columbus, Ohio, disclosing himself as a “recovered litigator” offered:

“Knock knock”

“Who’s there?”


“Mediator who?”

“Well, let’s take a few minutes to creatively review the options in regard to that issue.”

And “anonymous” submits:

First mediator : “So how did your mediation go with the two persons dissolving their heating and air conditioning business?”

Second mediator: “Well, not so good. They just wouldn’t stop venting.”

No one ventured into the area of: “Two mediators walked into a bar…”

This diversion into the subject of humor in mediation brings us to the question of “what is humor” and “how does it have anything to do with mediation?”

As you may note from the above, we are really dealing with two types, or aspects, of humor: first, the humor of mediators taking a laugh at themselves, poking fun at some of the stereotypes of their profession, enjoying “inside” jokes, such as bumper stickers—a means of finding some fun of what we do and who we are; and second where humor is injected into the stress of a mediated conflict, becomes a tool to facilitate communication, and provides the disputants with a different perspective. Let’s take a few minutes to creatively review the options in regard to the latter issue…

It is well known that humor reduces stress, and helps people gain perspective over their issues. Steven M. Sultanoff, PhD, ( ) says that effective humor works by leading us down one road or track and then suddenly changing direction. The change may be a form of irony, an incongruous stretch, a sudden unexpected thought that tickles a funny bone. The result may be laughter which has been proven to reduce stress by its effect on the various body systems—respiratory, muscular, cardiovascular. Laughter may cause us to move, to shake, to clap our hands, or at least to smile. He quotes Mark Twain, talking about mirth:

“Humor [Mirth] is the great thing, the saving thing, after all. The minute it crops up, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”

Imagine how you feel as a mediator when you see a disputant smile or laugh, in a positive way, at something said or done in the mediation. What do you think is happening, and what do you see happening in the process afterwards? More often than not the result is a noticeable sea-change of progress, a transformation perhaps in the level and depth of communication, a fervent movement forward.

Why are good public speakers most remembered for their opening humorous remarks, their good jokes? Why are there books on public speaking the talk about how to open a lecture with a joke? Why does Reader’s Digest continue to publish a section called “Laughter the Best Medicine”? It is because we recognize the value of humor in our processes of communication, that it lightens the serious, calms the nervous, helps to heal what angers or upsets us.

It is fair to say that people in dispute are not looking to laugh about their situation—they are serious, unhappy, perhaps desperate, consumed by their problem in a way that takes them outside of their own resources. The tend to look for recourse through the court system, complaints to the police, or perhaps self–help resolution, which may be counter-productive. They come to the table nervous, mad, upset, and unsure of what to expect.

Humor, injected into the process by the mediators in an appropriate way, can soften all of these attitudes and help the parties move forward. I know a mediator who, during the opening phase will sometimes note that the bathrooms are down the hall to the left, “but no one is allowed to go there until we have reached resolution.” This unexpected, and absurd, statement is most always appreciated by the parties as an effort to lighten the moment. It serves to ease tensions a little, brings on some smiles, and in a way reinforces the commitment to actually work hard toward finding a resolution. It underscores in a humorous way the “why” everyone has come to the table.

A good mediator skill is to be able to recognize when and how to inject humor, in a respectful way, into the process. This is not always easy, as it involves taking a risk that the humor won’t be well accepted. But mediating well is a process of risk taking, as Kenneth Cloke notes in Mediating Dangerously. Used with care and respect, humor can be a powerful tool in the mediators kit.

And sometimes the participants in the process will rise to the occasion and inject their own healing humorous comments:

Consider the husband and wife who were on one side of a mediation involving a dispute over the division of the proceeds from the sale of real estate. The “other side” had made an offer,, and in caucus with the 3 panel mediators they were considering the merits of the offer vs the merits of proceeding with the litigation. The wife stated that it would “be smart” to reject the offer and proceed with litigation in order to effect a larger settlement. The husband said, (responding to the “smarter” issue) that he “would rather say that “I is” a millionaire than that “I am” poverty stricken.” In the context of the seriousness of the matter, this comment relieved tension, provoked a lot of laughter all around, from the wife as well as the mediators, and allowed the matter to resolve within the space of 15 minutes.

Humor as a form of communication can and should, in appropriate situations, be considered as a part of mediation. Sometimes it is a natural consequence of the process when the parties work through their anxieties and begin to understand one another, and gain perspective of their dispute. Humor allows disputants to connect with each other through the commonality of understanding of what is funny, and their sense of a new and different perspective of their dispute. As noted, humor can be a cure for anxiety, fear, hurt, —in this context it is an ideal tool for the mediation process.


Carl J. Debevec

Carl J. Debevec is an attorney practicing general civil law in northern California. His practice includes business, trusts and estate planning, real property, elder law issues and mediation. He is a graduate of the Ohio State University college of law, a former Air Force judge advocate, and holds a post-graduate… MORE >

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