Photo of child dressed as a clown

Tap into your playfulness

Amaia Sotes 18th May 2021

… and you’ll stumble upon creativity, lasting social bonds and positive emotions

Do you remember when you were a small kid, how you engaged with other kids through play? It still fascinates me today, when I observe how easily kids embrace completely new games and playing partners, assigning each other made-up roles and going from a fantasy world to our own world in a blink of an eye, creating new realities and improvising on the stop. It feels light, playful, intense and fun; serious enough to make one laugh and cry, while trivial enough to forget about it in a matter of minutes. We all know what I am talking about, because we have all been there and then sometime in our lives, no matter how long ago it may seem.

I consider myself enormously lucky, as I had to re-learn to go back to that very place as an adult, when I trained to become a certified executive coach. In order to engage with my client’s creativity, ability to find new perspectives and solutions, connect to his or her emotions, or help them unearth their unaware emotional patterns, I soon discovered that intellectualization and analytical thinking would not take us far. By the time a coachee comes to me, they have already thought about whatever is challenging them for months and often for years on end. They already know what they know. Working as a coach means helping my clients discover what they do not know about themselves, while re-discovering to parts of themselves they have never seen, or they had long forgotten about. And for that, I need to connect to my own ability to improvise and play.

Researchers Charles Limb and Allen Braud, who performed brain imagery scans using functional MRI on professional jazz pianists, discovered that while they spontaneously improvised, the central brain processes that typically mediate self-monitoring and conscious control were absent. In other words, when they spontaneously played, their egos relaxed.

Learning to coach others unintentionally helped me to take myself less seriously while strengthening my own ability to play and to relate to others, witnessing first-hand the benefits of playfulness in my own personal and professional relationships. Indeed, researchshows that “laughter and shared positive experience elicited by social play assists in the creation of lasting social bonds and attachments. (…) A playful attitude also correlates with stress-reduction and coping strategies (…) and playful people have been found to more frequently employ adaptive coping strategies, strongly correlated with well-being and mental health, which supports the idea of playfulness as a valuable positive psychological construct which, when cultivated, is able to broaden one’s momentary thought-action repertoire, and thus build the personal recourses necessary for coping and flourishing. 

I happily stumbled upon all these benefits, by learning to be a coach, and by re-learning to play: to engage with others in a less controlled way, while focusing on the process of interaction while letting go of the desired outcome.

If you are yourself a coach, you may well know what I am talking about, or you may want to know more on how to include playfulness in your coaching approach. If you are in the second group, keep on reading!

Whenever you see your coachee is struggling to connect to what he/she is feeling, is avoiding certain emotions, or is too stuck in one single emotion and therefore one single perspective, it may be the perfect time to call for some playfulness! We are now trying to engage the part of the brain that is less analytical, more artistic, sensorial, able to see the bigger picture, in order to allow our client to access emotions and realizations that are at this point out of reach for him or her.

To do that, ask your coachee to pay attention to the exact sensations he or she may be feeling in the body, and to describe them as concretely as possible to you. Some clients prefer to close their eyes to do this, since it may be hard to exactly know the body sensations they are experiencing. Every time your client stops talking about his or her body or the sensations and goes back to telling you what he or she thinks that means, ask them to come back to the body. As your client to use colours, sounds, images, metaphors, tastes, songs, to describe what they are perceiving to that you can help them get deeper into whatever sensations may be present. They may resist or answer immediately that they don’t know what you mean, or they do not know what to say. If that is the case, give them the time and space they need, and ask them relax and remember how they played when they were kids, and that there are no right or wrong answers: that this is a game. In my own experience as I a certified professional coach with more than 1.500 hours of coaching hours under my belt, I have never yet met one client who has not been able to sooner or later engage with their emotional and creative self. So do not panic if you feel there is a light resistance. Name it and reassure your client! Note that it may well be the first time since childhood that this client is allowing him or herself to let the imagination take them to places they do not know.

As you both keep on playing, you will see that most clients enter into the world of sensations they are describing to become part of it. Follow them and help them explore deeper and further. Keep on asking open questions that help them describe more textures, sound, colours and shapes of what they are perceiving, and soon enough you will notice they are in a different emotional place than where they started. This is the exact moment to press pause and ask them to look back to the place where they started, the problems they felt stuck in, the emotions they were unable to connect to or those they were avoiding. The very rewarding “aha” moment is likely to arise at this point. Now you know you have helped the coachee not only explore and discover emotional patterns and emotions they may have not been aware of, but also the power to transform their perspective while unlocking new resources and power to face their challenge in a more creative, innovative, sustainable and positive way.

If you are not a coach but are reading this, and still want to re-learn to go back to that place you once knew, I highly recommend it too. An easy access to re-train your playfulness skills? Take playing with your kid seriously and re-learn those skills you once mastered! No kids? No worries: join an improvisational theatre near you, enrol in a coaching skills course, or organize a role play with your friends! Just make sure, you do not take it too seriously. This is my challenge to you!