Funded by the Monash University law faculty, RMIT University and the Australasian Institute of Judicial Administration, the study found that over two-thirds of mediators at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) use humour during mediation sessions.
The three researchers on the project, Monash University law lecturer Dr Becky Batagol, RMIT University senior lecturer Kathy Douglas and freelance researcher Clare Coburn, spoke to 16 of the 60 mediators on the various VCAT lists.
According to the study, Humor and mediation: how a dose of humor may help mediators and disputants in conflict, mediators’ views of their use of humour matched available research into the therapeutic and intellectual effects of humour in conflict situations.
The study revealed that those VCAT mediators who used humour said it helped “lighten up” disputes, release stress and alleviate “charged situations”.
One mediator with a central European background said he used humour with multicultural clients to “change the dynamic of the dispute”. He said his own multicultural background made him more confident of using humour in this way.
A quarter of mediators, however, said they were conscious of potential cultural when attempting humour.
“I watch very carefully and if I say something that offends somebody, I apologise immediately,” said one respondent. She illustrated the importance of this point by sharing a personal story about one occasion where she had asked a party; “What did you do in your last life to deserve this one?” before discovering the party believed in rebirth.
Mediators who avoided humour said they did not trust their ability to use it, and said mediation sessions, where participants were nervous, were not the right place for jokes.
Two young female mediators said they avoided using humour because of their gender and relative youth compared to the people with whom they were dealing. One said she was concerned older men would not take her seriously if she used humour.
“I knew if I came in, being female, and started joking around they would not take me seriously, so I would have to be very, very serious about it,” she said.
Dr Batagol said humour is ideally suited for mediation because it creates an atmosphere of cooperation and often means solutions can be found to difficult legal problems.