Building Relationships with Laughter:
A Negotiator’s Guide to Effectively Using Humor - Part One

As communities grow closer and technology expands multicultural businesses, conflicts arise. “Cross-cultural differences create such a high degree of friction and frustration that they put business deals in jeopardy, make disputes more difficult to resolve, and create international incidents.” Conflict is unavoidable in many situations. Therefore, the goal is to teach people and parties entering a negotiation how to deal with conflict appropriately and not to avoid it. Communication is one of the largest sources of conflict between different cultures in multi-party negotiations. Conversely, appropriate use of humor allows negotiators to speak the language of all people — laughter.

In an article written for MSNBC, Robert Provine stated, “laughter is part of the universal human vocabulary. All members of the human species understand it. Unlike English or French or Swahili, we don’t have to learn to speak it. We’re born with the capacity to laugh.” Therefore all people, regardless of culture, speak the human language of laughter. Without having to learn a different language, laughter allows people of different cultures to communicate on a human level. The use of humor in multicultural negotiations eases tension, shifts power roles, and builds party trust. If the main goal in a negotiation is to establish relationships, then laughter is key. In order to understand why humor should be used, it is important to look at the cognitive process that is undertaken when humans experience conflict, and how humor and laughter can ease tension. Humor is the perfect complement to multicultural negotiations. Although humor can be based on cultural similarities, the benefits of humor, when correctly applied, are the same among all cultures. This three-part series can be used as a guide for advocates. Part I of the series is titled “The Benefits of Humor?” It explains how humor and laughter influence people across cultures physically and cognitively. Part II of the series is titled “When to Use Humor in Negotiations.” This section discusses how humor can help in negotiations by decreasing tension, shifting power, developing party-trust, and improving communication. Part III of the series is titled “Tips for Using Humor in Negotiations.” It suggests ways to effectively use humor and outlines when humor may not helpful in the negotiation process.

Psychological and Physical Benefits of Humor
Laughter is a neurological process; therefore, it is the same for all people. By targeting one’s genetic similarities you work on a level that is not subject to cultural differences. Although the jokes might be different, and the type of humor changes, laughter creates similar reactions in all people. Laughter creates a sympathetic release in the limbic system allowing people to relax and let their guard down. The brain’s right frontal lobe is the processing center that allows a person to react to something funny. The frontal lobe links information from the language areas of the brain with the memory and emotional sections of the brain. Laughter stimulates the mind, and an activation of the pre-frontal cortex allows people to become more creative within negotiation settings. Additionally, the “release effect” of laughter assists in protecting people from inappropriately reacting to stress or conflict. For example, if a person is anxious and has begun to enter a state of fight-or-flight, laughter can release endorphins to enable a feeling of well-being. It is this calm attitude that allows people to confront conflict in a more constructive manner.

Laughter also keeps us healthy. Laughter maintains our cognitive processes by working through the challenge of a joke, the creation of an emotional reaction, and the motor skills used to smile in the process. Laughter increases the heart rate, changes breathing patterns, provides a boost to the immune system, and reduces levels of negative neurochemicals. Doctors say that laughter is “exercise for the body,” as it can create the same effects. Research shows that our mind positively responds to laughter.

Social Benefits of Humor
A sense of humor is essential in cross-cultural settings. The biological effect of humor is present in all people. Although the jokes are different, laughter creates similar reactions. “Most people think of laughter as a simple response to comedy, or a cathartic mood-lifter. Instead, after 10 years of research on this little-studied topic, [Robert Provine has] concluded that laughter is primarily a social vocalization that binds people together. It is a hidden language that we all speak. It is not a learned group reaction but an instinctive behavior programmed by our genes. Laughter bonds us through humor and play.”

Often, negotiators see themselves as entering into a conflict with another person who is their adversary or enemy. In reality, laughter can help us bridge our differences in order to reach consensus because we are all genetically related.

Laughter has evolved over time, not only as a natural response to humor, but as a relationship mechanism allowing people to communicate.

“Occasionally we’re surprised into laughing at something funny, but most laughter has little to do with humor. Laughter, much like yawning, when heard triggers a neural circuit that causes another in turn to produce laughter. It’s an instinctual survival tool for social animals, not an intellectual response to wit. It’s not about getting the joke. It’s about getting along.”

Humor is a tool used by humans to form relationships through laughter. Unlike animals, humans use laughter to build relationships with one another. One of the reasons why people respond to laughter is because it is an honest emotion. Laughter shows others a human side during negotiations. Scientists believe that “primal laughter evolved as a signaling device to highlight readiness for friendly interaction.” As demonstrated, humor has various benefits including psychological, physical, and social benefits.

by Marie Dominguez-Gasson

Marie Dominguez-Gasson graduated from Pepperdine University School of Law in 2011, where she obtained her Juris Doctor, Master's in Dispute Resolution and a Certificate in International Law. While attending Pepperdine Marie worked in Kampala, Uganda with the Commercial Court and later with the Los Angeles Superior Court. In addition, Marie has over two years of state and federal legislative experience. Marie currently works at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith with the Employment and Labor Group.