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Disagreements and Humor

Use humor’s salve as first aid for disagreements

When it comes to patching up hurt feelings that result from an argument between friends, there is no first aid like humor, particularly when directed at oneself. There is a magic about the ability to laugh at one’s own goofs. Here are a couple of personal examples.

My best friend, Jim, and I once got into an argument while riding side-by-side on a five-day bicycle tour through New Mexico. I can’t remember what triggered the incident but I wrongly barked at him, he barked back, we argued, and then we angrily avoided each other’s company by cycling apart. Ten or fifteen miles later, at the tour’s next refreshment stop, we met up. After a few minutes of awkward silence and very little eye contact, I looked at him, smiled, and asked, “Does this mean our engagement is off?”  He broke up, we both had a good laugh, and we resumed riding together. 

That evening over dinner, we talked about what had happened and amicably agreed we had each contributed to the argument. By the end of our meal, we were both feeling reassured about our friendship.

The second example involves Merle, a colleague and former private-practice partner. She and I were having a discussion about something over lunch and it turned into a heated argument.  Both of us said some hurtful things and accused the other of being pig-headed. She angrily left the restaurant, and for the rest of the day, we avoided each other’s company in our shared office building.

Upon arriving at my office the next morning, I discovered a friendship greeting card on my desk. It was from Merle, and she had written, “About our disagreement. It’s my opinion and it’s very true.” It was signed, “Love, Merle.” I immediately knocked on her office door, gave her a hug, told her I appreciated the card’s message, apologized for my own rigid and insulting behavior, and things quickly returned to normal.

I think there are a couple of reasons why humor has such positive power. It allows us to gracefully apologize in code, and all of us are much more apt to admit to our own mistakes when the friend with whom we were arguing takes first responsibility. For instance, in the first example above, my buddy Jim knew that my humorous comment was my way of saying, “Hey, I goofed and I don’t want our friendship damaged.” In the second example, I believe Merle was saying, “I know I was being rigid and I want to be friends.”

Humor can also reintroduce perspective into those situations in which conflict and angry words have generated interpersonal fear and defensiveness. Laughter reminds us that life is short and needs to be enjoyed, and that very few things are important enough to hurt or damage the precious gift of friendship.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.