A Funny Thing Happened On My Way To Resolution!

Question: “How many mediators does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

Mediator: “So what I hear you saying is that you would like the room to be brighter.”

The thought about humor in mediation came to me when I read a comment made by a disputant on a post-mediation evaluation form.

The disputant, Joe, was a large, unkempt, rough and rambling man. He presented his story to the panel of 3 volunteer community-based mediators. He had been injured in the laundry room of the apartment building where he lived, because a leaky washer had caused water to be on the floor. While doing the family laundry, he had slipped in the water, and fallen and injured his back. He worked as a heavy equipment operator, and had lost several weeks of work due to his injury. He wanted the apartment owners to pay him for his injuries and his lost wages. He talked about how the injury had affected his life, his income—he was quite agitated—and it is fair to say the mediators felt a little worried about the possibility that he might, well, erupt. They listened to his story, asked questions, kept him on track, and helped him communicate with the others at the table.

The other party, defendants in the lawsuit filed by Joe, were the property manager of a small apartment complex and her insurance adjustor. They sat, by pre-arrangement, alongside the plaintiff. The case had come from the Small Claims Court by agreement of both parties, for mediation.

The property manager and adjustor talked about their view of the case. The adjustor felt Joe had not been injured as claimed, suggested he had “made up” his injury, and that he was just trying to get money from the insurance company. She acknowledged his medical expenses, (Joe had copies of bills) questioned his lost income, explained that her company had denied Joe’s claim because of lack of proof.

As the process went on, Joe and his spouse, and the property manager and insurance adjustor, had engaged in occasionally heated discussions about the issues. The panel of mediators helped in keeping things peaceful. The result of these discussions was that the adjustor agreed to arrange for payment to Joe of an amount that he felt was fair, and the property manager agreed to assure that the laundry room equipment was in good operating condition. The parties thanked each other and the mediators, hands were shaken, and they departed.

A few days later the mediation center received a letter from Joe in response to its standard request for feedback on the mediation process. Joe’s response was: “You listened to me. No one listens to me. I wouldn’t have listened to me. Thanks for your help. “

Joe had, through the mediation process, been able to look within himself and take the time to comment, in a fairly insightful way, on his perceptions, of himself, of the process.

That his comment contained an aspect of humor, in a self-deprecating way, caused me to think about the issue of humor and mediation. And to wonder whether we mediators may not tend to look at what we do with an eye toward its humorous aspects. Not that we take ourselves too seriously, but that we do not always appreciate the possibilities of humor in our field, in what we do, in our unique culture. I suggest that the opportunity to look at the funny side of mediating offers an extensive opportunity for creative insight finding, as well as fun making.

An admittedly brief review of the literature did not reveal any writing on the subject of humor in mediation. Lots of articles exist however on the curative properties of laughter. A newspaper cartoon was found, a single frame showing one side of the mediation table lined with barbarians waving swords and axes. The mediator sat at one end and was saying: “I’m beginning to pick up on a sense of hostility here…” The caption read: “Being a skilled mediator, nothing gets by Nancy.” (credit to Wiley)

So the question might be, what is humor in mediation and how can, or should it be employed to make our endeavors more enjoyable or productive. Is humor a valuable subject for debate, or exploration, to deepen our understanding of what we do, and how we do it? For example, we might laugh at our ingrained training to reframe, as noted in the opening lines above. Or we might have stories to share about experiences in mediation, for example the story of Joe’s experience of the mediation process.

I suggest that the forum for sharing jokes, stories or humorous insights, and debate on the subject be opened for contributors. Mediator.com is a perfect venue for this venture. Add your joke to the comment field at the end of this article.


Carl J. Debevec

Carl J. Debevec is an attorney practicing general civil law in northern California. His practice includes business, trusts and estate planning, real property, elder law issues and mediation. He is a graduate of the Ohio State University college of law, a former Air Force judge advocate, and holds a post-graduate… MORE >

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