The Role of Humor in Non-Violent Dispute Resolution

For years now my career has focused on mediation in many areas including family law, probate, real estate and all specie of dispute resolution. During a difficult mediation I am often asked where I learned my “Problem Solver” skills. I tell people that I worked my way through law school in San Francisco, CA as a security supervisor for the world-renowned concert promotion company BILL GRAHAM PRESENTS. I often get a variation of the same response, “funny, you don’t look like a bouncer”. Of course, this is just their polite way of saying I don’t look tough and that I am in no way intimidating. This is undeniably true. At the time I was an event supervisor for BGP I was no taller than my current 5’9″, but I weighed a good deal less at about 160 pounds.

So I am not big and strong and yet, within one year of taking an entry-level concert security position I became a supervisor running shows, managing staffs of up 90 with the responsibility for the safety of thousands. I am here to tell you that with a small crew of right-minded men and women, it is possible to line up, search and generally provide for the safety of a crowd of thousands of young concert goers, without so much as a cross word, let alone a violent confrontation. This can be a formidable task that when done well appears effortless and is experienced in a positive light both by the concert ticket consumer and the security personnel.

The secret weapon in accomplishing this complex mission is simple; courteous communication combined with compassionate humor mixed well with friendly persuasion. Effective utilization of these three very learnable skills will go miles towards lowering confrontation, reducing risk, promoting amicable dispute resolution and diminishing associated liabilities.

The reality in our western society is that crowds attending concert/dance events fall somewhere along a predictability curve of potential security issues closely correlated to the prevalence of drug/alcohol abuse and adolescent mating ritual. At any given event you will almost always interact with patrons who have consumed an excess amount of some mind-altering substance or another and/or are engaged in some painfully transparent role-play in an attempt to impress their peers. Depending on the target audience of an event you will encounter more or less such occurrences during the course of the engagement. Such people must be handled with particular deference, as the potential for violence, like the patron, is quite high.

In the shows where I supervised security, patrons entering were subjected to body searches designed to discover cans, bottles, weapons and sometimes recording devices and cameras. You can imagine that such searches are at once intrusive to the patron and an awkward and forced inter-personal interaction on the part of the person doing the search. Believe me it is often, to say the least, an unsavory prospect to search certain attendees. There are a lot of people who have been drinking, smoking, and waiting in line for many hours to attend a concert that if it was your duty to lay your hands upon their person in an attempt to try and find their pocket knife, you would, if given a choice, decline. If you are doing this type of security for a living, it is a hard way to make a buck.

As I quickly learned when I started at the lowest rung of the ladder, in order to perform the search in as mutually a comfortable manner as possible you first had to make a quick human contact with the “searchee”, succinctly tell him what was about to happen and why, get his consent and then do the search as professionally as possible. When a generous amount of sympathetic humor is introduced, the experience can actually be perceived as not altogether unpleasant. Many times I had people respond to this treatment with sincere appreciation and thanks. I exclusively use the pronoun “him” because BGP always tried to have women searched by other women.

Once the crowd had been searched and admitted, security staff would have various necessary tasks to perform that are ripe with potential for conflict. Front of stage, back stage, rest rooms, medical, venue perimeters, fire lanes and exits all need to be addressed in staffing and planning. All these tasks, at their basics, require an unarmed person to exercise authority over a public that is often highly motivated to thwart their efforts. This is a job that if not done right can have disastrous consequences. It is self evident that crowd control, if lost, can create a very dangerous situation. Again, I learned that if you maintain a sense of humor, and spoke to people with respect, you could accomplish your task and pass the night with a minimum of umbrage and a good deal of fun.

My abilities at gently managing crowds were recognized by my employer. I rose through the ranks, became a supervisor and was required to train new personnel in how best to perform their duties. In truth, I doubted anyone’s ability to train others in my particular techniques. You see, at the time I was laboring under the misconception I was uniquely blessed with a keen sense of humor, a rapier like wit and a peaceable disposition. I figured, quite rightly, that it would be easy enough to teach people to make their first response in any situation kindness instead of anger. But how was I to teach people to be funny and witty when I had what I thought was clear proof that they had no such natural ability. My “proof” was that these trainees often didn’t get my jokes or find me amusing so; therefore, they themselves must not be all that funny.

Nonetheless, I soldiered on and instructed my charges in my version of friendly persuasion, allowed them to observe me in action as I joked, charmed, cajoled and gently controlled a line of several thousand people who were waiting to be searched and admitted to a rock concert. I would then appoint a trainee as assistant supervisor and watch him or her try their best to emulate my example, or try and follow my act, if you will.

“Shocked” is too mild a word to describe my reaction to the results the first time I performed this experiment. This poor fellow, who I knew to be so sufficiently humor deficient as to practically qualify for handicapped parking, was actually getting laughs and appreciative crowd response. His, to me, lame attempts at humor and witticism were greeted with chuckles and cheerful compliance with his directives. My mind reeled. At the time I thought there was one of two possible rational explanations. First, and most likely, I had “warmed up” his audience. Second explanation, beginners luck.

As I repeated the training with other candidates I observed the response was pretty much the same. Even though the trainee wasn’t particularly verbally gifted, the crowd would react favorably and reward even pathetic attempts at humor, if coupled with good will, with kind spirited compliance. This forced me to confront a fundamental proposition face on. Maybe, it wasn’t just me. Maybe, I am not as overwhelmingly clever as I had thought. Oh my God, could it be, is it possible, maybe, I’m not all that funny!

After about a nano-second of careful self-examination I dismissed any personal misgivings about my own sense of humor and realized that some other phenomena must be afoot. I discussed my observations with my fellow supervisors and their opinions fell generally into one of two camps. The first group strongly urged me to revisit my thoughts on that bit about me not being funny. The second, and obviously right-thinking group, reasoned that people who are in many ways a truly captive audience want to be treated with polite deference and will allow themselves to be easily entertained. As we are fond of saying in California, Eureka!

So there it is in a nutshell. Treat people with sincere courtesy, speak to them as you would want someone to speak to you, tell them what is going to happen and why and, if possible, interject a generous dose of compassionate humor. Follow this simple formulae and the general public will cooperate, allow themselves to be directed and be genuinely appreciative of the job you are doing on their behalf.

In the years since I was a BGP security supervisor, I have observed and been subject to many similar searches. My crystal ball also tells me that in the future we will all of us be spending more and more time waiting in lines to be searched. An unfortunate reality, indeed. I must say that I have rarely seen line control and search performed in as painless and professional a manner as it was done at BGP. The BGP security force had a huge esprit de corps and was self-proclaimed as, “The Best Rock and Roll Security in The Known Universe.” That group of young men and women took great pride in serving the safety needs of the event while having as minimal as possible a negative impact on the festivities.

I sometimes despair at the way I see security treating the public at concerts, sporting events, airports and even shopping malls. Inside a security force it is easy for an “Us vs. Them” culture to take hold. Even worse I sometimes see the humor that is employed as not being compassionate but rather making the unfortunate public the butt of jokes. Such attitudes and unkindness are unseemly and inexcusable, but are all too often the case.

The fact of the matter is that when the public gathers for what is usually some company’s commercial event, the security personnel are often the first impression the public receives from that company. It is an absolute maxim that, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” It is amazing to me that a company that will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on promotional/marketing events, allows the experience to be soured by utilizing security that appears to be openly hostile to their audience.

I know from oft-repeated personal experience that almost anyone can be given the tools and training to perform the functions of a security guard in a polite, professional and highly effective manner. With very little effort it is possible to instill a culture of service and professionalism that crowds recognize, respect, respond to and appreciate. This type of conflict management by avoidance can have a meaningful impact on risk management as well as create enhancement of a company’s highly valuable public image.