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How to Have the Last Laugh When Dealing with Life’s Bullies

Unfortunately, most of us know all too well how it feels to be bullied—whether on the schoolyard or in the workplace. If you want to deal effectively with unwelcome taunts, take a tip from standup comics and learn how to harness the power of humor.

A comic’s job is to remain in control of the stage and audience at all times, despite the occasional loud-mouthed heckler who attempts to grab the attention and control. Humor, when used correctly, is a brilliant tool that diminishes tension, builds trust and shows self-confidence.

For example, in response to Jon Stewart’s jibe, “Martha Stewart could make a shiv out of a lamb chop,” Martha replied, “Jon Stewart is so cute; I have a crush on him.” The subtext here is that Martha is so friendly and confident that she can take a joke. Her spirit will prevail. Her brand will thrive. She gained the upper hand by staying in control.

Former President Ronald Reagan, “The Great Communicator,” was perhaps the consummate practitioner of the “humor is power” approach. During his 1984 presidential debate with Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan used humor to pre-empt concerns about his advanced age: "I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Reagan knew that it’s hard to be angry and to laugh at the same time. That’s one reason no problem seemed to stick to the “Teflon president.” Laughing with him seemed to change the shape and scale of a problem.

So next time someone gives you a hard time, don’t get mad--get funny. A snappy response might be all it takes to defuse an inflammatory remark. Because when we laugh, hostility and problems become smaller. In fact, they may disappear altogether!

The key is to control is how you react to attacks. The next time someone bullies or heckles you, keep these three ploys in mind:

1. Validate what the person says. Repeat back what you heard. Once you let someone know you’ve heard them, discussion is closed off. This buys you some time to keep from reacting too emotionally and to think of what you should say. For example:

Say, “I see, you think I should have gone to you in the first place with this problem.”
or “So, you’ve noticed that I’ve gained weight.”
or “I know you are concerned about that.”

Validating what is said does not mean that what was said is correct--only that you heard it.
Your emotions are kept in check, the hostility is left with the attacker and you can walk away if you like.

2. Don’t offend the other person. You don’t want to be manipulated by other people’s insecurities and hostilities. Usually an attack expresses someone else’s problem, not yours. If you become defensive, you may give credence to the other person’s statement. Defending yourself lowers your status, makes you look unsure of yourself and gives the person the power to set the terms of an argument.

3. Don’t get mad; get funny. If you react in anger, you lose. You get caught up in the other person’s web of negativity. Even if their accusation is dead wrong, if you show anger, he or she has succeeded in luring you into combat--and what’s more, you’ve allowed them to choose the weapon.

Keep in mind that the use of comedy is not for the amusement of the other person. The goal isn’t to make him or her laugh; the goal is to keep your sanity. Better to punch up your jokes than punch out your boss. You won’t get the other person to laugh, but if you get to laugh, that’s plenty powerful.

Have some fun. Here are a few snappy comebacks to get you started:
Taunt: You have gained weight, haven’t you?
Snappy reply: Yes, and thank you for noticing that all my over night eating has finally paid off! My anorexia is cured!

Taunt: You should have come to me with this problem.
Snappy reply: Good idea. From now on, I’m going to come to you with all my problems. I’ve got this big rash…you want to see it?

Taunt: You look pretty when you smile.
Snappy reply: And I’ll look drop dead gorgeous when I get a promotion.

It’s a cliché, but it’s true: he (or she) who laughs last lasts best.