How do We Play with THAT?!
A conversation about connecting across difference and responding better to conflict
In these times of personal isolation, social tension and societal conflict, I’ve been thinking a lot about the worst moments for me and my family recently.
At the same time, many friends and clients have been reaching out about various conflicts they are having online and in real life.
They are asking me,
“What can I do about this?!
“I want to scream…. Give up… Throw them out the window!…”
Besides giving basic crisis and coaching advice, I’ve been wondering more deeply, “What ingredient is missing in these interactions?”
The sense I get is it is not about being nice. Or calming down. Or saying the right words.
None of those intentions feel accessible to us when the shit hits the fan and we experience the rising of our own anger, our feelings get hurt or the threat of a bigger conflict erupting looms between us like a live volcano rumbling.
Something deeper is called for.
What is needed seems to me to be a skill and a way of being with the unease, the anger and the tension which naturally arises in any genuine relationship.
That’s when I was reminded of the power of playfulness.
It’s not just kids stuff. There’s a tonne of research to back up how powerful and essential it is (see references at bottom).
But I don’t want to hide my head in the books.
I want to wrestle with how to bring in playfulness into the most emotionally charged and potentially dangerous moments.
That’s why I called up my friend Mike Andre. He’s a full time working dad of a young child, a committed husband, and a stand up comedian with a big heart.
Our conversation (listen to the full episode here) did not start where I imagined as Mike launched into,
“I’ve been thinking about misery a lot because I am miserable… “
He mentioned reading this Medium article about The 6 Habits of Deeply Miserable People and identified with it, saying…
“My grandma used to say, ‘You know boy, you’re miserable…’ And it made me wonder ‘Was I just being a regular kid… or was she peering into my soul?’”
Mike went on to list out the 6 traits, concluding that Yes he had 4 and a half of them. I make fun of the article (which I genuinely think was written as fluffy click bait). Then I look for a way to help us both get more playful.
“Mike. Listening to you being miserable, I’m thinking about the art of clowning. Where you wear the thing that is real but make it bigger.”
I started hamming it up, making dramatic gestures… “Look at my clothes… My thinking is bad… I’m miserable!” Glad he trusts me and knows I was not mocking him.
“You know this Mike from your experiences that there is power in exaggerating the truth, to be able to more fully own it. And the more you externalize it the more I hope you realize it’s just an act. There’s a miserable guy inside you but it is just a shtick. It’s not who you really are… “
I feel relieved that I have shifted Mike’s attention as he is laughing along and jumping on the idea,
“Right. Yes, And what I struggle with and what many comedians struggle with as we get older… If I start to get better as a person, If I start to separate myself from the misery, take medication or seek counseling, will I be less funny…? Which is almost like choosing between life and life. What is life beyond being funny? If I am happier but not funny, will I be really happy. Like the two couldn’t co-exist.”
I try not to be preachy but share my sense of it,
“I think life is complex and challenging enough that if I take my own suffering out of it, life becomes more interesting. If I’m less caught up in my own sense of being a victim and life sucks. There’s so much going on for everybody.”
Mike takes my invite.
“There it lies, the core of playfulness for me is connection.”
Now we’re cookin’!
“Yeah. Right on… and earlier we spoke about types of play that are just mocking people, putting ourselves down or minimizing the reality of something troubling… So, let’s define what is real playfulness. The kind of play that is soulful and transformative… Do you have an example?”
This next part made me guffaw with deep belly laughter, nearly peeing myself.
“Yesterday. Another just normal difficult day of both of us working from home. Cleaning and cooking and all that stuff. My wife said she was going to Target to get groceries… And then she came back with nerf guns and a note which said… ‘Hey Love, first one with three shots gets to decide bedtime tonight.’ And she already had her nerf gun out. Wait! It was on. It was on immediately. I mean went from I went from kinda zoning out on the couch, watching TV, angrily stewing over my day, to immediately trying to stuff this dart into a nerf before I got shot! That’s how quickly it happened. That was a true injection of playfulness.”
Putting myself in his shoes, I was burning to know, “Did you have a moment of choice there or did the playfulness just take you over…?”
“Totally a moment of choice. Absolutely! There was a moment of like, “What do you want?” (serious tone)
I was reminded of so many times my wife or daughter getting playful and me with my arms crossed being as I described to him. “Mr. serious. What is this?!”
“But as I read it… There was a nerf gun and note on a napkin… a love note… ‘First one to get three shots at the other person…’ I was like, ‘Oh, This is a CHALLENGE!’ And then it was on. We were running around the house, hiding behind doors… Shots getting fired. And she said at the end, ‘I knew you could not resist the opportunity to shoot something at me.’ I was like ‘You’re totally right!’”
I love this example and I had to analyze it with Mike a bit.
“Your wife is so smart and wise… It’s so beautiful because she’s working with reality… In any couple, you have real moments of aggression.. Arr, you are so annoying. And to take that and make that playful… Not to be like “lets be happy!” trying to be “positive”. Instead it’s “You want to take a shot? Here it is!”
Mike summed it up clearly,
“Yes! You’re right, she dealt with the truth. You want to take a shot at me. I want to do that too. And here is a safe way to do so.”
This made me think about how true play is to speak the unspeakable, to touch the untouchable…
“And I heard someone else say, in a traditional culture, when someone gets sick, the healer would ask them, When did you stop playing? To diagnose them. What happened? When did life become so serious and painful that you could no longer play with it. So they assume playing with stuff is part of being healthy. Playing with death, with betrayal, with anger, with whatever comes up is part of being healthy and human. [It’s necessary to] digest life.
And when we stop being able to do that, something’s wrong…”
At this point, I feel disarmed by Mike’s example.
At 13 minutes into our interview, I get really vulnerable and share a situation that is really bugging me around a moment with a family member; someone whom I love dearly but also wanted to punch in the face.
Mike and I spend the rest of the time wrestling with my dilemma. It was painful and awkward at first. Yet, in our back and forth, we discover new ways to be more playful and powerful in such a situation. I could transcribe it here, but you’d miss the magic of hearing it unfold in a live way between us.
Our playful conversation left me practically armed with several ideas for playing with violence, racism and offensive moments. It also made me deeply grateful for our friendship and the power of play!
LISTEN here to the full interview.
Further REFERENCES and REFLECTIONS on PLAY
For one, play is a key to actually learning stuff. Engaging in play improves us both on the inside (mental functioning, emotional regulation and growing brain connections) and on the outside (performance in tasks, ability to socialize, solve complex problems). https://www.parentingscience.com/benefits-of-play.html
In my experience helping boys and men with conflicts I have come to see it as a secret weapon. Play helps to disarm tension, release aggression and ultimately to transform the hearts and minds of our “opponents”.
In the bedroom, playfulness is a magic elixer which our lovers crave from us to relax, trust and open up to ecstatic expression (sex and joy). Deeper thoughts on that here
Research on play and intimacy – https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1468-2958.1992.tb00556.x
Furthermore, play is a gateway to making people TRUST and LISTEN to us.
There’s a tonne of research out there such as: