The Second Most Powerful Tool in Conflict

Credit: Brooks, Charlotte, photographer. Image from LOOK — Job 56- titled Lucy comes home. United States Jamestown New York State New York, 1956. Feb. 9 date added to Look’s library. Photograph.

The most powerful interrupter of all kinds of ugly conflict is tactical listening. The kind of listening where you prove, with your words, tone and actions, that you have heard and understood the other person. Even as you continue to totally (utterly!) disagree. Advanced listening is the skeleton key to conflict, proven out in study after study.

OK, now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about the second most powerful tool in conflict, one that is much more fun!

I first noticed this phenomenon about five years ago, when I observed a Braver Angels workshop in Virginia. I was there as a reporter, watching as a group of strangers — half Republicans, half Democrats — assembled in a church community center to find a way to talk to each other.

I had low expectations, I have to tell you. I wasn’t even sure why I had come. It was right after the 2016 election, and this kind of well-meaning “dialogue session” seemed like way too small and naïve of a response to the schism that had opened up in the country. I secretly planned to leave at lunchtime.

And yet, as I listened to the Republicans talk about their beliefs, I felt a strange sensation. I disagreed with some of the things they said, which didn’t surprise me. [I typically (not always) lean more to the left than right in my political opinions.] But I felt myself liking them anyway. Two of these men were just…funny. I had to smile. I felt like I “got” them at some human level, because they had a sense of humor.

I felt myself becoming more curious about what they were saying, without conscious awareness. It just happened. I felt a little embarrassed about this at the time. Is that all it took? A sense of humor, and then suddenly I drop my guard? And more importantly: Why was my guard up? I was supposed to be witnessing this encounter, not judging it. Reporters don’t have emotions. (LOL)

That was before I knew about the 2nd most powerful tool in conflict: levity.

There is hard science behind this. Laughter causes the release of oxytocin — and a decrease in stress hormones. It sparks trust. (Even the expectation of laughter can decrease adrenaline by 70%, researchers have found.)

Humor literally is a drug, boosting trust, creativity and flexibility (all of which characterize “good conflict” as opposed to “high conflict.”) In one study, people who watched a funny video before trying to solve a puzzle were more than twice as likely to succeed.

OK, I know what you’re thinking: Great, thanks for the hot tip, Amanda. Now what? Who can be funny — on command — especially when we are really pissed off?

Well, thankfully, you don’t have to be funny to use humor to your advantage. It’s much easier than that. “The mere act of signaling that your sense of humor has a heartbeat is enough to make a big difference,” according to Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, authors of Humor, Seriously, one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books (which I highly recommend to anyone who cares about human behavior, leadership or enjoying life as a human).

Managers with a sense of humor (who may or may not be funny themselves) get rated by their employees as 23% more respected, 25% more pleasant to work with, and 17% friendlier. It’s like being good looking — without actually having to be good looking!

So what makes someone seem to have a sense of humor? They see the levity in life. They laugh at other people’s jokes — and at themselves. They notice absurdities in the world. Or on Zoom.

This is a daily practice — like meditation but less serious. “Levity is a mindset,” Aaker and Bagdonas write, “an inherent state of receptiveness to (and active seeking of) joy.” Delight in your own mistakes. Or in small acts of silliness. They are all around you. (Note: This should go without saying, but don’t try to find humor in mocking other people, especially in conflict. That will backfire. If you want to make fun of someone, make fun of yourself.)

That’s why I didn’t sneak out at lunch that day. A shared laugh made me realize how much I didn’t understand — and how much I wanted to know. In some ways, I’m still in that damn room… trying to make sense of my fellow Americans. Through laughter and tears.

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