Be Like Abe: Effectively Use Humor to Diffuse Conflict and Tension

We’ve all heard the proverb; laughter is the best medicine. That’s because it relieves stress, elevates mood, improves resiliency, draws people together, and serves as a catalyst for healthy physical and emotional changes in the body. It can also quickly turn conflict into an opportunity for connection and resolution. When used well and thoughtfully, infusing humor (absent of sarcasm and ridicule) can disarm others, defuse conflict, and strengthen relationships by bringing levity to almost any situation. What makes this so?

Authenticity: Humor and laughter open us up and allow our genuine emotions to rise to the surface increasing vulnerability, which encourages open communication, intimacy, closeness, and self-regulation, easing tension and conflict. 

Cooperation: When we feel playful, we tolerate more and become less defensive about things we might otherwise let bother us, which encourages learning and a more cooperative spirit.  

Flexibility: Laughter allows you to look at an issue in a different way and seek creative solutions. 

Reconnection: Humor can ease tension, interrupt the power struggle, help re-frame, and put things in perspective.

Not sure humor is appropriate for the workplace? Consider President Abraham Lincoln who is well known for his eclectic humor. He used humor as an instrument and was the first United States president to make jokes and laughter in the office even during some very serious times. Let’s see how he effectively used humor. 

The year was 1862. The United States was in the first year of the Civil War, a war that would result in more American casualties than any war before or since. A time when the country was on the verge of division, and battling one of the biggest civil rights concerns of all time – slavery.

Abraham Lincoln (Abe) called together a special session of his war cabinet members to discuss an incredibly important topic. Every member of the cabinet was there, the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Attorney-General, and more.

As people entered the room, Abe was reading a book and smiling to himself. Once the people were settled, Abe started the meeting by reading a humor story from the book. After reading it, Abe laughed aloud along with no one else. The room was silent. So Lincoln decided to read another story.

Again, silence.

Abe did not waver. He did not apologize or feel like he made a mistake. Instead, he said, “Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.”

The next document Abe read, and the purpose of the meeting, was the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of the most important documents in America’s history since the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Abe knew the value of humor and knew that levity does not negate the magnitude or seriousness of a situation, but rather helps us through it.

We can all learn something from President Lincoln and his leadership style.1

Of course, while humor is an effective tool, it must be used with care. This requires developing a sense of humor that adapts to the circumstance as well as being aware of your impact to ensure others appreciate your efforts to alleviate the tension. You can do this by monitoring nonverbal cues, avoiding mean spirited humor, and taking advantage of inside jokes that already exist. 

By: Elizabeth Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office 

1Tarvin, Andrew, “Why Don’t You Laugh? Abraham Lincoln Humor and the Seriousness of Humor”, Humor That Works crediting The Story-Life of Lincoln by Wayne Whipple. The JC Winston Co, 1908.

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