It’s Not Funny, McGee!

Okay, we mediators are not comedians, and we don’t claim to be. But a joke is a joke, folks, and, if it gets a laugh, funny things can happen on the way to the forum.

We know there is concern for the clock and its impact on the cost of a mediation proceeding. Mediators are sensitive to that. We gain nothing in the long run by extending a proceeding longer than necessary. Honestly, we do try to be as efficient as we can be. We realize time is money for attorneys and adjusters.

That said, however, the mediator’s goal is to help parties settle their differences, and they have certain techniques they use when negotiations seem to be breaking down. One technique is levity. When tension builds to a point where the mediator fears that emotions start to rule the proceeding, it is time to bring the participants back to reality, reality being simply that we should not take ourselves too seriously during this all-too-brief earthly existence.

I do not mean to belittle the significance of a legal dispute. There can be a lot at stake for both sides, and the object is to resolve that dispute in an amicable and mutually satisfactory manner. That objective should never be forgotten.

There are times, however, when lips are squeezed tight, eyes are glaring, words are harsh, and the mediator realizes that the whole proceeding is about to implode.

Now, I have had occasion when my joke or lighthearted story fell on deaf ears, but it doesn’t happen often. Indeed, it is not unusual at times for parties to look for someone to melt the icy mindsets.

I have started mediations with a tasteful joke, and, while the reactions may occasionally border on the polite, the mood is almost always improved, especially if the story is relevant to the dispute or to mediation.

We are speaking, of course, of the mediator’s role in relieving tension and keeping folks on the negotiating track, and we do the best we can. Frankly, I wish there were more participation by the attorneys and adjusters in contributing some humor to the process. It can perform wonders at times.

Settlement negotiations are all about communication, and, like ships passing in the night, those communications do not always achieve the desired connection. I have often (hopefully, not to the same audience) told the story of the husband (wife, if the majority present are of the female persuasion) who called home and said: “Honey, I just won the 10 million lottery. Pack your bags.” To which the happy wife (or husband) replies: “Oh, sweetheart, that’s wonderful…but, should I pack for warm weather or cold?” To which the husband (or wife) responds: “Doesn’t matter. Just be gone by the time I get home.” Corny, perhaps, but somehow it hits home with those involved in a negotiation where minds are otherwise loath to meet.

Our dilemma, of course, is keeping track of when and with whom we share our limited repertoir of jokes. I think I have about used up the one above, but I always look for others.

Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone—and without a settlement. And, despite Molly’s admonition, Fibber was funny—at least for those of us old enough to remember.


Edward P. Ahrens

Ed Ahrens has been a member of the Florida Bar for over 43 years. He is a certified state and federal court mediator in Tampa, Florida. He is also a freelance writer and former president of National Writers Association, South Florida Chapter. He is the author of the popular book,… MORE >

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