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Lightening the mood an effective way to reduce tension

Humour is an underrated tool for diffusing conflict, says humorist and author Marcel Strigberger.

Strigberger, whose public speaking engagements include judges and lawyers, tells his legal audiences to shed their inhibitions and embrace their inner child with gentle humour to lighten the mood in tense situations.

“Kids will laugh 400 times a day, but by the time you’re an adult, you’re down to about 15 times if you’re lucky,” he tells AdvocateDaily.com, explaining that children get mixed messages from grown-ups about the value of humour.

For example, he was recently in a busy elevator with two young children and a parent, when the passengers pressed three consecutive floor numbers and laughed about how funny six, seven, eight in a row looked lit up.  

While Strigberger chuckled to himself, the children’s mother admonished them and told them not to be silly.

“Unfortunately, the sense of humour tends to dry up, and people become afraid to use what remains for fear they will appear unserious,” he says.

However, Strigberger says that a well-timed quip can pay off, and he quotes a series of studies by Stanford University professors showing that colleagues who laugh frequently are among the most respected by peers.

And before his retirement, he practised what he preached during his 42-year career as a personal injury and family lawyer, channelling John Cleese’s advice to be serious and not solemn.

“Humour is effective, even when you’re discussing serious issues,” Strigberger says. “You can lighten the situation or lubricate discussions.”

He remembers one case in which he was waiting on a crucial medico-legal report from a busy and well-known doctor. After another lawyer complained to her College about her tardiness in delivery, the doctor said she wouldn’t write any more reports, putting Strigberger in a difficult position, since he still needed the one she had in progress.

“I sent her a letter acknowledging how busy she must be and said if it’s any easier, she could phone me at home,” he explains. “But if my wife answers, tell her it’s about a medico-legal report, or else she’ll freak out and think something’s terribly wrong with me.”  

The doctor emailed him soon after to say that his letter had given her a giggle, and she would make his case a priority because he was one of her favourite people.  

“I’m probably the only person she sent a report to that year,” Strigberger says.

Another time, as negotiations with an insurance adjuster approached resolution in a personal injury matter, he left a voicemail asking for an extra $1,000 for his costs “not only to keep the wolves away but to make sure I can pay my children’s orthodontist.”

The adjuster agreed, adding in an email that his joke had brightened an otherwise ugly winter morning.

“It doesn’t always pay off so obviously, but it beats shouting and arguing,” Strigberger says.

In family law cases, where the highly personal nature of disputes means an outburst is rarely far away, he liked to call opposing counsel early on to express his hope this “doesn’t turn into Kramer vs. Kramer.”  

“It gets a little laugh, and we start on the right foot,” he says.

Still, he says lawyers do need to take care with how they wield humour. His rule is to never insult the other client or indeed anyone but himself.

Strigberger says he’s unimpressed by the apparent turn by many performers towards mean-spirited comedy in recent years.  

“You can be whimsical without being nasty,” he says. “I let my conscience be my guide.”

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