The Power of Play
“You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than you can from a lifetime of conversation.” —Plato
Coaching conversations are fast becoming embedded within organizational culture as a way of nurturing and retaining talent. Research shows that engaging people in these types of conversation increases confidence, enhances performance and improves relationships. What happens, however, when a client becomes stuck and is unable to express themselves through the traditional use of words and language as a means of communication?
Usually considered important only for early childhood development, the power of play is also pivotal for adulthood. Research shows that engaging people in play has a way of stimulating imagination, innovation and creation, regardless of age. Encouraging people to express themselves creatively through the coaching process can therefore be revelatory, providing clients with a deeper understanding of themselves, others and the world around them.
What if then, as professional coaches, we enrich our practice through the integration of play? What if, by stimulating clients’ visual thinking (as well as reflective thinking), we deepen the coaching relationship and understand individuals’ complex processes faster?
Introducing Play-Doh to my practice is proving invaluable in terms of meaning-making, problem-solving and decision-making. Its malleable properties mean the possibilities for exploration are limitless. Freedom is found in focusing on a colorfully constructed object as opposed to a complicated constellation of thoughts, feelings and behaviors. New levels of insight and expertise are being revealed.
Being able to focus on something “out there” as opposed to “in there” allows otherwise inhibiting barriers to be released. The issue becomes externalized and objectified, and the client is better able to discuss their process without feeling so personally challenged. As such, the language tends to be more explicit and revealing. Equally, when there is difficulty with articulation, pointing to, playing with and touching the construct as a means of communication is also available. Working with clients in this way leads me to agree with Jenny Bird and Sarah Gornall: “The more we use all our senses to communicate, the deeper the connection and the more powerful the work.”
Our role as coach when using Play-Doh with a client is to remain curious. Through gentle observations and powerful questions, we begin to reveal what underlying messages may be communicated through the client’s visual world. In the same way, we explore the significance of nonverbal symbols and metaphor within a client’s dialogue and the significance of the client’s interaction with the squidgy stuff. We may look at the shapes molded and the colors selected; perhaps meaning is made through storytelling or by playing out various possible scenarios. Paying attention to the model built, as well as to any miscellaneous pieces of Play-Doh that seem intuitively symbolic, is also important.
For example, I recently observed a client holding on to a small piece of dough, turning it over in their hands, playing with it repeatedly, never placing it down or including it in their construct. Upon further exploration, the client revealed that this small, cube-like piece of molded dough represented their identity; an identity they were too scared to lay on the table, both literally and metaphorically.
Breakthrough moments like these show the capacity for play to take us places words may otherwise fail us. Play-Doh uses visual, auditory and kinesthetic skills that deepen understanding, sharpen insight and unlock the mind. Play-Doh helps cut through complexity, raises self-awareness and develops confidence. So, let’s start playing more with our hands and thinking less with our heads. Let’s start enriching our coaching conversations rather than being restricted by them. And let’s start playing with play.