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Today, an atmosphere of uncivil discourse seems to surround us like a bad weather pattern. And like the weather, it’s a problem that everyone talks about, but no one knows what to do about.

So maybe it’s a good time to be reminded that there are some unexpected ways to respond. For starters, Oscar Wilde said:

“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”

 It’s true: bringing a spirit of forgiveness and mercy can be surprising, and can ease the tensions in difficult conversations.

But this is not easy. We humans can be pretty exasperating, and sometimes, the spirit of mercy and forgiveness has to sit side-by-side with a little humor.

After H.L. Mencken, the outspoken Baltimore journalist, had written one of his columns stating some strong political opinions, several of his enemies angrily demanded to meet with him to debate. He agreed.

When they all gathered, tense and ready for a big argument, Mencken announced, “I think we should begin by singing the national anthem.” Of course, who could refuse? It’s something they all had in common.

So, Mencken started the song—and intentionally started it too high. The group struggled along, but when they reached the highest notes, they simply couldn’t continue…and dissolved in laughter. After that, the conversation proceeded with a more civil tone.

Throughout his career, Mr. Mencken often received what we would call today “hate mail”—attacking him and his opinions. He had a form letter he used to respond to all of these letters. It read: “Dear Sir or Madam: You may be right. Sincerely, H.L. Mencken.”

This at least saved him from a lot of unnecessary negative emotion!

Maybe the lesson is, when it comes to difficult communications, be a little merciful…and be unexpected!