While we’re generally advised not to play games in our relationships with friends, family, and significant others, some experts recommend just the opposite! In fact, game playing–usually in the form of reversing roles–can often improve your relationships by providing a lot more than a glimpse into another’s feelings and reasons for acting the way they do, and improving communication between you.
Frequently used as a tool in family and group therapy, and in corporate retreats, stepping into someone else’s shoes and seeing a situation from their perspective takes a little practice, but experts say the results can transform challenging dynamics into environments where compassion and empathy come first. And let’s face it, like the age-old cliché, who doesn’t want to be understood?!
For Dallas area residents Barb and Carl Hastings, similar interests like skiing, golf, and a love of theatre and old movies were what attracted them when they met and married in 1996. In the ensuing years, the stress of raising three children, Barb’s promotion and steady path toward a law practice partnership, and Carl’s decision to go back to school at night for his MBA put what seemed like oceans between them. “It happens to a lot of couples, but it was as though we were living in separate countries–and speaking entirely different languages,” Barb said.
At her annual corporate retreats, and though until recently it had never occurred to her to apply it to her marriage, Barb was introduced to the idea of role-reversal by a savvy human resources director. With the 75-member firm noted for the lowest employee turnover in the region, HR director Candace Hall had been instituting employee games, including role-reversals, for years. “It can be a somewhat daunting exercise at first,” Hall said, “especially when we ask an assistant to become his or her boss and vice-versa. But it turns on a light for everyone.”
At a recent church-sponsored couples’ weekend, the Hastings finally got to reverse rolls between themselves.
“I’d always been a closet thespian,” Carl confessed, adding he took some acting classes in college where he enjoyed playing other characters. “I thought I was pretty convincing, but when I had to become my wife Barb–to get inside her head and heart, as it were–it was a lot harder than I’d thought, but I found out a lot about myself as a husband in the process.” The same was true for Barb.
Psychotherapist Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC, wrote in his blog Therapy Soup, “You can learn so much from this tool that feels like a game: How you feel deep down inside, how others see you and how they feel, how to focus your thoughts and connect them more fully with your words, how to more successfully navigate complex (or even simple) interactions, and so on.”
While experts count sympathy–feeling and concern for others–among an individual’s most admirable traits, they consider empathy–which is generally a deeper connection with and understanding of others based on undergoing the same or similar experiences–the key to real relationship success. For Barb and Carl, empathy came from time spent “wearing each other’s skins,” as they put it, something they do every so often with professional guidance when things become overwhelming, as they will.
“We’re even including our children, ages 10, 12, and 15, in role-playing now,” Barb said, which she added has led to some hilarious situations, important revelations, and has clarified and strengthened family interactions. “My only regret is that we didn’t do this sooner,” she said.