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Using humor to manage and defuse conflict

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Using humor to manage and defuse conflict

Conflict is an inevitable part of all relationships. It may take the form of major discord between the two of you or simply petty aggravations that have built up over time. Either way, how you manage conflict can often determine the success of your relationship.

When conflict and disagreement throw a wrench in your relationship, humor and playfulness can help lighten the tension and restore a sense of connection. Used respectfully, a little lighthearted humor can quickly turn conflict and tension into an opportunity for shared fun and intimacy. It allows you to get your point across without getting the other person’s defenses up or hurting their feelings. For example:

Alex is retired, but he still goes up on the roof to clean the gutters. His wife, Angie, has told him numerous times that it scares her when he uses the ladder. Today, instead of her usual complaints, she yells up to him, “You know, it’s husbands like you who turn wives into nags.” Alex laughs and carefully comes down from the roof.

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Lori’s husband is a smart guy but after a few drinks over dinner, he consistently miscalculates the amount he should tip for the meal. This embarrasses Lori, makes her husband defensive, and often means a pleasant evening ends with an argument. The next time they’re out for dinner and her husband moves to pick up the check, Lori playfully hands him a calculator and says, “There are three kinds of people: those who can count, and those who can’t.” Her husband laughs and instead of leaving the restaurant arguing, they leave smiling and joking with each other.

Humor isn’t a miracle cure for conflicts but it can be an important tool to help you overcome the rough spots that afflict every relationship from time to time. Humor—free of hurtful sarcasm or ridicule—neutralizes conflict by helping you:

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Interrupt the power struggle, instantly easing tension and allowing you to reconnect and regain perspective.

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Be more spontaneous. Shared laughter and play helps you break free from rigid ways of thinking and behaving, allowing you to see the problem in a new way and find a creative solution.

Be less defensive. In playful settings, we hear things differently and can tolerate learning things about ourselves that we otherwise might find unpleasant or even painful.

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Let go of inhibitions. Laughter opens us up, freeing us to express what we truly feel and allowing our deep, genuine emotions to rise to the surface.

Authors: Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Melinda Smith, M.A.

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