Laughter is the best medicine. That’s absolutely true. And laughter is medicinal in ways other than that which you can presently imagine. Far more.
Laughter signals our brains to release chemicals into our bodies that are in themselves medicinal. Flooding our systems with the chemical equivalent of positive, healing energy. The effect of these chemicals on disease have been heavily researched and the impact is widely recognized. However we have seen this effect in other contexts as well.
Consider a “stuck state”. You know what this is intuitively, even if the phrase made you furrow your brow. And we’re sure you’ve experienced one of these moments with a loved one. This is where you are facing a challenge, and at some point, you just get stuck. You try to push through the invisible barrier, but to no avail. As you try in vain to overcome the challenge, you just find yourself right back where you started, increasingly frustrated the second, and third, times around. Stuck states aren’t any fun, and the irony is that while we can’t miss the fact we are in one when by ourselves, we often do when with a partner.
Think about a time when you faced a challenge and, if even for a moment, you got stuck. Was there any confusion about the fact? Did you have any trouble noticing that you were nowhere closer to solving the problem? Our guess is that no, you had no trouble spotting this fact. Yet when we are struggling through something with our partner, oftentimes we fail to notice our own stuck state and assume that it is just a difference of opinions. Or worse, that you are right, and your partner is wrong. As you both maintain your positions, you might have the illusion that it’s a battle of wills (more on that phrase in a later post). If you believe you are correct and the other person less so, you might think that’s all that’s taking place.
Basic negotiation theory tells us that an impasse is typically much more than two opposing sides being stubborn. There is often a need on one side or both sides that is being either ignored or challenged. Therefore the problem really is about understanding the other person’s needs, their Map of the World, how they are trying to meet their own needs through the discussion. As we remain wrapped up in our own such Map, ignoring that of the other person, we find ourselves in a stuck state.
Just as a dinosaur might have gotten stuck in a tar-pit, struggling to escape, only to inevitably sink further into the muck, we have the ability to remain stuck. We have a big advantage over the dinosaur, however. We have consciousness at two levels at least. Our conscious and unconscious minds continually strive to help us solve problems, even ones like how to escape a proverbial tar pit. So dare to recognize the stuck state for what it is, a smelly, rancid prison. It grips you and clings, threatening to keep you stuck in place, unable to move, unable to escape, unable to function.
Now aren’t you glad you’re not a dinosaur?
So we can enlist both our conscious and subconscious minds to free ourselves from that stinking, gripping tar-pit of a stuck state. One of the easiest ways to do this is to find humor in the situation. Laughter provides us with the chemical lift needed to do the extraordinary. It does things unconsciously that immediately release us from that stuck state’s clutches and moves us to solid ground, where we can then maneuver freely.
Look at a quick example of this. You are having a discussion with your significant other and each has taken an opposing position. You do not agree, and are beginning to feel the tension in your body that signals a fight is likely coming. You don’t want to escalate it that way, and imagine that neither does your partner. But you don’t really have a choice, do you? After all, you’re both stuck. Doesn’t it inevitably follow that you must hurt one another, insult each other, and leave your relationship damaged for it? Well, isn’t it?
And then one of you becomes sane for just an instant. And points out something absurd and comical, breaking the tension. Suddenly, should you agree to laugh together, you find yourselves magically freed from the tar-pit, the stuck state. There is a trick to navigating out of such states, and we see it in change work of all kinds. Briefly, most of us, particularly in a heightened emotional state, are unable to transition too drastically away from that state, in a short period of time. Say that in the example above, you are absolutely furious with your partner, and rather than discuss it with you, he or she makes some silly joke! Are you tempted to suspect he or she doesn’t respect your feelings, or your opinion? Maybe he or she doesn’t even respect you! Do you see how that could actually make things worse, even though we are advocating humor in such situations? That’s because it’s too extreme a transition. You may both need to create a gradual enough transition that it doesn’t make the other feel disrespected or overlooked. Perhaps from rage to anger. Then from anger to annoyance, perhaps testing the water, so to speak, before moving into humor and cooperation.
Sam and Marcy have been discussing what to do with their vacation time from work. She wants to visit her parents, and he wants to go to Disney World. He argues that the kids will enjoy Disney more, and they will all likely have more fun. Marcy knows that since Sam doesn’t really like her parents, that probably is his real reason. She argues however that it will be good for the kids to see Grandma and Grandpa. The kids actually agree…until given the alternative of Disney World! “Sorry, Gramps, but Mickey is more fun!” Marcy holds her ground, fueled by her anger that Sam would use the kids to justify his own position. Sam, for his part, is equally stuck, fueled by his discomfort with his in-laws. Rational discussion breaks down, and neither is interested in the other’s position.
At that moment, they both hear a light thud on the window, and they look. A bird has somehow relieved itself against the glass, possibly during flight. As the mess slips slowly down the glass in sickly green, white, and yellow streaks, they both burst out laughing. Marcy thinks first and points out this discussion had “gone to shit” anyway, and apparently the bird made his judgment, as though they were on some reality show and were being kicked off the proverbial island. Between fits of laughter, she says, “I guess our conflict wasn’t interesting enough for the television audience, so we got splatted.”
Sam laughs even harder, noticing that while he was sure he’d been angry and frustrated only moments ago, he now saw little but the humor of the situation. He realized in a flash how much he loved and appreciated Marcy’s quick wit, her easy laugh. He looked once more at the mess on the window, added, “What shitty timing!” and they both roared with laughter.
Tears filling both their eyes, Sam said to Marcy, “I love you, baby! I’m so sorry I got stuck like that.”
Still laughing herself, Marcy said, “Me too, Sam. I don’t mean to get so frustrated, but I just sometimes think you’ll do anything to avoid my parents.”
With an embarrassed chuckle, Sam admitted, “Well, yeah, I think you’re right about that. I just don’t enjoy being around them. And I don’t think they like me very much, either.”
Still smiling, Marcy thought of something else. “Look, Sam, I know they don’t always welcome you the way I’d like. But they’re my parents. I want them to have a relationship with me, with the kids…and with you. I guess I’m kind of the odd one out, because I really do see where you’re coming from. I think I need your help here.”
Sam’s eyebrows rose. This was an entirely different problem from the one that got them stuck. They were in agreement that perhaps there was some tension between him and her parents. But that wasn’t the actual problem. Redefined now, the problem clearly was, How can their family, Sam, Marcy, and their children, have a relationship with Marcy’s parents?
They had a week of vacation and Sam was the first to suggest a compromise. He admitted freely that he would not have thought of this had he still been stuck in what he perceived to be an all-or-nothing situation. They would spend three days at Disney World, then fly out to see Marcy’s parents, and spend three days with them. Then they’d fly home and recuperate from their two vacations. They both realized that this was going to be tough, that they would likely be very tired from all the travel. Though it offered not just a compromise, but also a deeper solution. They could nurture a relationship with Marcy’s parents, though with only three days, the “newness” wouldn’t have time to “wear off”. Marcy and Sam explored the previous visits with her parents and realized that on the first day or two, everything was fine. It was once they got comfortable that tensions typically arose. The abbreviated visit would enable them to spend time with Marcy’s parents, though not so much that difficulties had enough time to rise. All would still be on their “best behavior”.
Using laughter, Marcy and Sam were able to release themselves from what past experience told them would have been a “stuck state”. They were then free to seek out new opportunities and possibilities. They were magically unstuck via the healing power of laughter.
As mentioned previously, however, this was a very rapid transition, one that may not work in all situations. In those, you may very well need a more gradual transition, enabling both people to move to a more productive, positive place, while inoculating against feeling that the other’s laughter was reflective of the level of respect each partner was showing the other. This particular example does occasionally present itself, and let’s face it, in the midst of an intense discussion, few things can so quickly loosen up our stuck positions than nature flinging an actual turd our way.
The trick for us is to spot those opportunities when they arise. And if they don’t appear, gauge how intense the emotional level is, which can dictate the speed of our attempted transition into something more function for us.
Dare to find the humor in the situation, and if there is none, act as if it were possible, and then locate the hypothetical humor to keep your communication and your loving energy fluid, never stuck. With some practice, you and your partner will likely experience these “stuck state” far more rarely, and you may even begin to notice your unconscious minds beginning to look for the humor, to apply the best medicine, in order to keep you in that “ever after” experience.
Start looking for such “stuck states” in yourself. When you spot them, take responsibility for them and change them. This person with whom you’re speaking, after all, is pretty important, and he or she deserves the very best you can offer. You might be surprised at what such a gift can inspire in your partner!