As the world is gradually reopening and a new relational reemergence is taking place, the stage is set for cultivating connections, enjoying deeper conversations and experiencing the magic of ‘play’ in our professional lives.
This is why renowned therapist, podcast host, and author Esther Perel created Where Should We Begin – A Game of Stories: a card game designed to unlock the storyteller within and offer a framework for asking each other questions, eliciting more details, and strengthening relationships in the process.
The game serves as the perfect mise en scene for this new post-pandemic era.
Developed over the course of the pandemic by Perel and her team, the game was finalized over a few weeks in January, while she was quarantining off-site with a group of friends she’d known for 25 years but hadn’t seen in months.
“The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives,” Perel often says. “And this is true in your intimate life, but it’s also true in your friendships, and it’s true in your work life.”
Here is how Where Should We Begin – A Game of Stories works: The three elements of the game are 250 Story Cards, 30 Prompt Cards and tokens (reminiscent of backgammon pieces). The game is for friends, lovers and family, and there’s a ‘safe for work’ modification custom-designed for play with co-workers (players simply remove all cards that feature a triangle, for the ‘work appropriate’ version of the game). It is intended for ages 18 and over, and best enjoyed when played among 2 to 6 people.
Its mission is to take you deeper with friends, family and lovers you thought you already knew, and to help rebuild those social muscles long atrophied as we navigate reentry.
“It’s really about relationship enhancing, relationship creation, connecting, reconnecting, countering social anxiety, and controlling social atrophy,” Perel explains.
“I didn’t want it to be just an icebreaker or a conversation starter. I really wanted all the multiple possibilities of playing the game, as well as the combination of how the group dynamic — be it 2, 4 or 6 people — plays out with the cards, the prompts and the tokens. So it’s all these elements interconnected. People are coming out of 15 months of isolation, and for some of them, it means dealing with social atrophy. For others, it’s the discovery that they’re extroverted introverts, or introverted extroverts, another permutation that we hear. People would like to know, what was it like for you?, but they don’t know what they have permission to ask. And so the game — any game play — gives permission to play in a container. And it gives you permission and just enough structure, so that you can improvise.”
The best part? Every participant leaves the game a winner.
“Where Should We Begin – A Game of Stories is not a game that is based on competition, but rather on connection. The winning is the experience of connection, having fun, and of the discovery that players have with each other. You’re not playing against people — you’re not actually playing against anything. It often ends when people have really had two full rounds of sharing. ‘Winning’ means learning something about others, either that you didn’t know before or that you thought you knew, but then realized you still had a lot to discover.”
Part of really connecting and going deeper is mastering active listening as a skill.
“An active listener is a curious listener,” Perel states. “It’s a person who really asks more questions to get more of the story. It’s a quiet person who is not necessarily so quick at responding or reacting, but more at eliciting and inviting and opening up. An active listener manages their reactivity. If a story is being told, they know how to self-regulate and to stay with the person who is telling the story. An active listener doesn’t assume that they instantly understand everything, but instead lives with the notion of, what else can I discover here? What else have I not asked? What else can I still learn about you? It’s that deep sense of curiosity that often comes with compassion and empathy. I think that’s the primary criteria for active listening.”
Playing the game can teach participants to become better listeners — and this is where the element of the group dynamic is a key aspect in the learning.
Perel explains: “There’s a collective giving of permission to go further, to go deeper, to be bolder, to play with possibilities, to ask more questions. Sometimes the questions that come after the story are as long as it took to tell the actual story, if not longer, and then someone can finally say, Okay, shall we move on? They are all story cards, so you can’t answer them with just a sentence, or with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, they literally invite a story. And stories are the way we make sense of our lives, but they’re also the bridge between ourselves and others.”
Where Should We Begin? – A Game of Stories serves as more than an icebreaker — it provides a framework or a structure for conversation, for asking questions about a person, for eliciting curiosity among people, and for taking the risk to be vulnerable.
“It’s the risk of opening up, of revealing yourself to others. Risk in relationship is directly connected to trust. As you take risks in the presence of another or with others, you end of up trusting them more when the outcome is positive. So these two are in a constant dance with each other. The more you trust, the more risk you take — and the more risk you take, the more the trust gets emboldened.”
With the reactivation of an IRL “back to work” routine (or a hybrid of in-office and work-from-home models), many people are tiptoeing or almost second guessing themselves when it comes to what they are allowed to ask colleagues, and what is socially acceptable.
“There are many companies where people have recently been on-boarded — which means hundreds of new people that have never met in person and have very little relationship history. So, the game comes in super handy by providing a framework, when played among team members.”
After all, just like an amazing connection is about sharing, listening, risk, laughter, and discovery, so too is a great game. The Prompt Cards serve to guide the players, while the Story Cards inspire players to share the stories they rarely tell.
“The game’s content delineates, creates a boundary and creates the permission — it’s very ritualistic to play. All of that is captured in Where Should We Begin – A Game of Stories”
As the host of two podcasts, Where Should We Begin? and How’s Work?, Perel often speaks about the interconnectivity between one’s home life and work life, and that both realms of our lives should be in sync. She believes in a holistic approach to relationships and how they shape our lives.
On that note, a professional environment that’s all work and no play? Not ideal. Play and curiosity are integral for growth, even in the workplace.
“We often think of play as associated with children. And we are uncomfortable with the word ‘play’ when it comes to adults because that connotes ‘not serious.’ — which is a misnomer,” Perel asserts.
“There’s a lot of evidence that more play would actually offer more creative alternatives and solutions to all kinds of entrenched problems at work. Play is a form of exploring problem solving. Play gives you the permission to try out things because it is in the framework that is defined as play. And it is fundamental at work.”
This sense of play, wonder and curiosity also inspired the design of the game and its box, which was designed by Steve Tam.
For Perel, who was born in Belgium, the box reminds her of a box of Belgian chocolates.
“When you open the box, you want to explore what’s inside, like a box of chocolates. You’re seduced by the unwrapping and you’re curious about what else is in this box — just like a box of pralines. The exploration aspect is part of the design, as much as it is part of the storytelling.”
Like a coffee table book or box of decadent desserts, the card game has a decorative element to it that deserves to be displayed in one’s home.
“We wanted something that was visually appealing and that had a tactile element to it. I’ve always loved royal blue, and it’s matched by the orangey-yellow, which is like the glow of the sun — it’s a happy color. The whole project was my happy project during the pandemic and I wanted it to respond to that aesthetically as well.”
And as a prompt for Perel: The game is best enjoyed when [blank].
“The game is best enjoyed when you are bold with people you don’t know, and when you take risks with people that you’ve known forever. Some people are very comfortable listening, but don’t necessarily want to divulge so much initially, and that’s fine, too. You can at first stick to something easier — more surface. And then watch how other people go deeper and see that nothing bad happens to them. On the contrary.”
As for what Perel loves to ask, as her favorite signature questions?
“I love to ask, if you didn’t currently do what you’re doing, what would you be doing? Or sometimes I say that we all have an official resume, but what does your unofficial CV include? It’s everything that you don’t write on the job application that reveals so many more interesting things about you.”