Family relationships can be minefields whose navigation requires courage and careful thought.
What does one say to a sibling, or a parent, or a child, whom one has not seen for many months, or even years – especially if the relationship’s history reads like a battle diary?
Several years ago my family of origin was in crisis. Misperceptions and deeply-rooted resentments, reflexive to some of the principals while opaque to others, had nearly destroyed the family unit. Trust, honest communication, and good will were in short supply.
To address the situation, the five of us – who at that time were spread over seven thousand miles – agreed to convene at my mother’s house for a long weekend in February.
Realistically apprehensive about what might transpire at the meeting, I mulled over how to approach the weekend and how to ensure that we said what we needed to say while maximizing the chances of constructive solutions. The meeting needed an organizing instrument that would accomplish three goals: (1) to help each participant to organize his or her thoughts about our family system in advance; (2) to break the ice, i.e., lay the groundwork for honest and straightforward communication; and (3) to apply a congenial structure to a discussion which otherwise would surely be fraught with difficulty and might result in even further estrangement.
I remembered that some of us had had great fun with the game of Balderdash, a riotously funny romp whose goal is to guess which players have authored humorous movie plots, word definitions, book titles, etc.
For our family meeting, I was inspired to create a game that blended Balderdash, the board game Therapy, and The Book of Questions. The new game would center upon guessing the authorship of answers to questions – some light-hearted and meant to teach us about each other, and others, more serious, designed to stimulate thought and conversation about what was really going on in our family.
I created a list of 36 questions, formatted them in Excel with space for answers and authors’ initials, converted the document to a PDF (linked here), and emailed the package to my relatives a few weeks in advance.
Each participant filled out his or her answers on paper, initialed each, used scissors to separate the answers one from another, and brought the answers to our reunion.
The first hours of our meeting, before we played the game, were stiff but well-mannered. I think it helped ease tension that we all knew that our first group project would center on the 36 questions. When the five of us sat down to play after a sumptuous, home-cooked brunch, we were all pleased to find the experience to be enlightening, memorable, and genuinely fun.
Here are some examples of the lighter questions.
- What is one thing that almost no one knows about you?
- What three adjectives do you hope will accurately describe you in five years?
- What three adjectives describe you not at all?
- Write the first draft of your epitaph.
- What is your favorite topographical feature?
- Who in this group would be most likely to enter a monastery or convent?
- Who in this group would look worst with flaming red hair, and who would look best?
- Name something you have always wanted to do but haven’t done yet.
- If you could wave a magic wand and change careers, what would you most like to do?
- Write the first line of the following song: “If Only You Knew.”
Here are the serious questions I wrote for the game.
- In abstract terms, what do you want from the family members who will gather this weekend?
- What three concrete goals would you most like to achieve through the this meeting?
- If you could communicate only one message to the family in February, what would you like that message to be?
- What are your three greatest concerns about the weekend’s meeting?
- What role would you like to have in the family one year from now?
- What personal changes do you think you might need to make in order to improve our family dynamics?
- In general, what behavior(s) would you like to see more of in members of this family group?
- What do you think are the two most formidable obstacles to healthy family relationships in the future?
To begin play, one person (the Reader) collected all five answers to Question 1, stated the question, and then read all of the answers aloud in random order. Each of the other players, armed with a notepad, guessed the author of each of the five answers and wrote those guesses down. The Reader then announced the answers’ authors. Players received one point for each correct guess, with a maximum of five points per turn. The Reader recorded the scores on a scorepad. The job of Reader/scorekeeper progressed around the group clockwise.
The game served as a valuable tool, helping us to organize our thoughts and identify our feelings, offering a forum in which each of us might raise concerns safely, and providing a metric whereby each of us could see how well he or she did – or did not – really know each of the others.
The game was so engrossing, eye-opening, and downright fun the first time through that we decided we’d play it again when next we met four months later. For the second round, each of us contributed questions. It happened that none of the questions was serious.
With family holidays looming over the horizon, I wanted to offer this ice breaker to others who might be anticipating difficult reunions. The game provided my family a safe, structured, and straightforward forum for sharing thoughts, feelings, and concerns, becoming better acquainted, and having fun together.
(The game works best if every family member participates with enthusiasm and honesty and, to the greatest extent possible, as an equal member of the group.)
Quote for Today
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” ― Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910) in Anna Karenina