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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.         


Comment from Vince
Time: September 14, 2007, 2:05 pm

Although I do not consider myself a humorous person, ( I would love to learn how to tell a good joke!) I feel that humor is right up there with water, food, shelter, and sex to survive in this world. Life to me can be a struggle, and to bring humor into another person’s life is a real gift. All the more so if it’s with someone you’ve had a disagreement with. I try and use humor as much as I can with the fifth graders I teach. Thanks for the excellent tip! I will try and use humor the next time I chew some kid out and feel sorry about losing my temper!

Comment from Nance
Time: September 14, 2007, 8:35 pm

Humor is imperative to lasting good relationships. Keep up the good words, Doc! 😉 Thanks for sharing. nfm

Comment from alan
Time: September 15, 2007, 8:55 am

I have had similar experience. I think humor and attitude often express more than words. There is truth in the old bromide “it’s not what you say it’s how you say it.”

Comment from alberto
Time: September 19, 2007, 1:00 am

I agree that humor can be used to defuse a situation but sometimes it’s used incorrectly and makes one feel like a problem is being trivialized. I’ve had people try to “josh me out of my feelings” and I don’t like that at all.

Comment from Divario
Time: September 19, 2007, 1:04 am

This is a good article. Thanks for explaining how to use humor. Nicely done.

Comment from Salvatore
Time: September 19, 2007, 10:23 am

This is ridiculous! I’m Italian and I believe that Americans are always writing about how to do this and how to do that–how to behave here and how to behave there, etc. It’s all silly. I don’t want a friend that loves me according to Dr C’s belief’s about friendship. I want a friend to love me according to her or his real feelings without Dr C’s interference and teachings. It would make me and my friends here in Italy sad to deal with friends who had to learn from others how to behave with me.

Comment from John McB
Time: September 20, 2007, 7:18 am

This one really struck a chord with me.
In dealing with conflict, I have always felt that the ability to “de-fuse” the situation was preferable than allowing it to get “out of hand”.
Humor is a wonderful way to do this as it both de-fuses as well as heals in some/most instances.
If done correctly, it can also allow both parties to feel that their particular viewpoint continues to be as valid as they felt it was but, the pain/fear of being disagreed with is diminished due to perspective being restored. I.e. “I still think you are wrong, but I value you and do not want to allow this to come between the overriding importance and value I put on our friendship”.

Comment from Manny
Time: September 22, 2007, 4:21 pm

I agree that humor is essential to lasting relationships. During the aquaintance phase, however, humor can sometimes be miscontrued as simply glib. I can not think of one long lasting relationship that doesn’t include a healthy dose of humorous interactions.

Comment from James
Time: September 25, 2007, 11:44 am

Humor is the lubricant and pressure releasor of long-term relationships. Without it things either get stuck or blow up. It is also the way we have of exposing our common humanity to one another in a way that is more easily heard and accepted by others.

Comment from Barbara S.
Time: September 26, 2007, 2:58 pm

Great information. Thanks.

Comment from Billy
Time: September 27, 2007, 2:25 pm

I agree with Doctor C. that humor can be used to offset arguments. Especially self-deprecating humor. Something like, “sometimes I think I’m suffering from bozone; the substance that stops stupid people from accepting others’ opinions”. Right on doc. Keep up the good work!

Comment from Jasper
Time: October 1, 2007, 10:16 am

Some good advice! I recently had a pretty big disagreement with my best friend (whom I never fight with) so these are some encouraging tips! Thanks!

Comment from Eric
Time: December 4, 2008, 5:18 pm

I have to agree whole-heartedly. I laugh at myself all the time. When I was younger, I used to get angry and feel much more tense. Laughter gives you a euphoric feeling and helps bring out your better side. Life is too short to be too serious.

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