When a conversation gets tense or goes silent, a little levity can do wonders. President Ronald Reagan, “the Great Communicator” was a master at this. One of his finest performances occurred in the operating room of George Washington University Hospital on March 30, 1981. He’d been shot, and doctors were desperately trying to stop his massive internal bleeding. He’d already had four transfusions and had lost half his own blood
A team of surgeons was preparing to anesthetize him so they could open his chest, repair the damage, and retrieve an attempted assassin’s bullet. There was great doubt he would survive. Their hands were shaking. They were about to cut open the President of the United States!
In the OR Reagan raised himself up on one elbow, moved his oxygen mask so he could speak, and said, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” The unbearable tension was broken as they burst out laughing. Dr. Benjamin Aaron, a liberal Democrat, assured him, “Today, Mr. President, we’re all Republicans.”
Humor can help in ordinary arguments, too. A fellow mediator tells this story: She was getting nowhere with two parties who kept insisting, “I want this” and “I want that.” No one would move. Annoyed, she said, “Well, I want George Clooney naked on a beach, but we don’t always get what we want!” That cleared the air!
A couple of things to note: the butt of the joke should be the teller, not the listener. That’s obviously true of the second joke. But even Reagan’s comment is also self-deprecating, in that he acknowledges – in jest, but with a tinge of reality — his own fear and insecurity.
The second point: it allows everyone in the room to recognize their common humanity. My enemy is laughing and so am I. Both of us may be unrealistic to think we can always get our way . . . or, in Reagan’s case, we’re all vulnerable human beings whose deepest need in distress is compassion and care. We’re all in this together.
Breaking the tension with humor opens everyone’s field of focus. It helps the parties move from fear and defensiveness to creativity, from competition to collaboration. It can move us from our snake brain where fear reigns, to our frontal lobes where problems can be solved.
So . . . next time the tension gets thick . . . remember to lighten up!