“Life without play is a grinding, mechanical existence organized around doing the things necessary for survival. Play is the stick that stirs the drink. It is the basis of all art, games, books, sports, movies, fashion, fun, and wonder—in short, the basis of what we think of as civilization. Play is the vital essence of life. It is what makes life lively.”   …. Stuart Brown

Over the years, I’ve noticed my mediation practice become, well, more playful.  For those of you who don’t know what mediation is, it is when someone steps in to help others stuck in their differences become unstuck. The ingredients for how a mediation works can apply to anyone sitting down with another person to have a difficult conversation.

Being playful in a conflicted context is a challenge, given that the work is shifting from a place of anger, shut down and hatred to a place of willingness, openness and, ultimately, curiosity.  However, playfulness seems an important part of setting the container for creating a new way of being together.

Playfulness can start before entering the conversation.  Set the intention to hold things lightly.  I first heard this quote decades ago and it can apply to our difficult conversations: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”  G.K. Chesterton.  Don’t enter the conversation expecting it to go badly or to be negative.  Enter with a light heart and a hope that things can be different.

In my mediation context, I then set the stage for there to be lightness.  I will bring chocolate to a mediation, perhaps candies, tea, tea cups, a kettle, sometimes a sponge brain and some rocks to hold.  These props are there to say:  “relax”  “it won’t be so bad”  “perhaps there is normalcy here.”

What we know about the brain these days, and presumably from our own experience, is that when we are relaxed, we can access more aspects of our brain and be more resourced for problem-solving.  So, coming to, and staying in, a playful state becomes a crucial step and skill-set for conflict engagement.

My colleagues who created Mediator in a Box have also spoken to me about how they designed the feel of play into their Box.  They chose colours and images that they wanted to convey a lightness of play.

In Stuart Brown’s science-based book: Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, he calls play: “the single most significant factor in determining our success and happiness.” He posits that play is a lifelong biological necessity to keep our brains and spirits engaged and our relationships vital.  Most important for conflict, he outlines how play juices our problem-solving abilities.

Throughout my mediations, if there are opportunities to make a light comment or even a pun, I will.  This approach is obviously fraught with danger and risk in offending others.  People expect difficult conversations to be “serious.”   There are definitely serious moments, tough moments – sometimes angry moments or sad moments.  There is room for it all.

Can we make our context or container for our difficult conversations, one of play? Is there a way for you to bring more play into your difficult conversations?