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Have you ever had one of those weeks when you seemed to have spoken to many people – Skype conference calls, WhatsApp messages, emails; Facebook posts – but when you thought about it, you really had not talked to anyone in any meaningful way?

Did your conversations at any point teach you anything new about another person or enable you to understand yourself better?

Have you found yourself among people who constantly check their cellphone screens or who tell with bravado how much they drank a few nights before or giggle knowingly about some story concerning their neighbour? Have such instances made you feel disconnected? Empty? Alone?

Unfortunately in today’s society we are not very good at connecting with ourselves and others. We mistake technological connection for real connection and kid ourselves that the number of “friends” on our profile is proof that we are okay. While we may be constantly on our phones or computers or chatting, our conversations lack authenticity. We hide behind screens.

We have forgotten how simply to be – without protocols and pretence determining what we say and how we say it.

This leads to an artificial way of communicating, one we use to hide behind masks we hope will keep us safe from rejection. However, in a rare setting a different way of relating, a different way of connecting is consciously encouraged and promoted.

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“I have a major problem with internet porn and it has left me feeling really ashamed of myself,” says one guy. “Kathy from next door and her husband had another fight last night. Hearing them yell and scream scared me because it made me think of my own parents,” shares a lady. “When I think of anger, I think of the current state of the nation and about Zuma breaking the constitutional law. At times I catch myself acting very racist.” Or perhaps just something like: “Wow, I love rugby. I love the communal spirit of watching a game together!” These honest statements illustrate a different way of conversing, a different way of relating. The good news is that this approach can be taught, and is exactly what happens at the Authentic Relating Game events in Cape Town.

A typical games evening starts with ten to twenty strangers sitting in a circle. For the next few hours conversational games show these participants new ways of cutting through the clutter and layers to get to the real person more quickly. At my first Relating Games night, we played a game called “Googling”, an associative game where participant A asks participant B: “If I had to google ‘Sarah’ (participant B’s name) and then type in something like ‘water’, what would I get?” B may then express all the ideas, feelings and associations “water” holds for them. In “Inner Guru” one person is chosen to be the guru. Participants then direct their questions to the guru, such as: “Can love be healthy?” “How can I become wealthier?” “How should I make peace with death?” The guru answers according to their own truth and is acknowledged by a simple “Thank you, Guru.” Another typical game is again in pairs and uses open-ended statements to be completed by the other: “When I think of anger, I . . .” or “The thing I want the most in the world is . . .” Participant A has two to four minutes to voice their thoughts while B listens, and then they switch.

Simply listening without responding, advising or judging is one of the major guidelines for a night of authentic relating.

This is done to keep the space safe, for without safety, connection is not possible (read my article on connection and safety here). If we feel safe, we can let down our guards and our masks and become vulnerable. We must, however, remain true to ourselves; we must be comfortable with ourselves in both big and small matters: we must feel free to go to the toilet if need be, but also be aware when there is a matter we really do not feel ready to talk about. We are responsible for our own processes and feelings, and have the right to decline to answer any particular question. Another very important guideline is respect for the other, which means allowing the other person to appear just as they are without judgement. And lastly, if we so choose we may ask that what has been said should be kept confidential. This is agreed upon by a simple raising of the hand.

There is great healing in Authentic Relating Games. As Josh Ramsey said: “We grew up in groups. We were hurt and rejected by groups. We need groups in order to heal.” The best attitude to have to these games nights is to trust the process and allow any uncomfortable emotions to arise without trying to change or do away with them. At one games night I talked to a very friendly, very kind guy. That evening we participated in a game of being honest about whatever emotion, thought or sensation arises in ourselves in response to the following: “When I am with you I notice that . . .” followed by “When I hear you saying that, I notice that . . .”. This man immediately headed my way wanting to chat to me. At some point I noticed that I had grown cautious. I voiced this feeling which immediately made him feel “sad”. I voiced my regret at this, to which he responded: “I wouldn’t want someone else to feel sorry on my account if they had voiced their feelings honestly.” What a gift! Without him knowing it, he had helped me to grow as a person.

Think of how often we modify our feelings to accommodate those of others; to make them feel better about themselves.

His response, however, immediately eased my mind and enabled us to connect – thanks to the structure of the conversation and the tools we had on hand.

The practical guidelines for more authentic relating or “tools” are, among others, curiosity, mirroring, impact and empathy. I particularly like the fact that curiosity is emphasised when it comes to authentic relating. Often when we speak to another person we are quick to offer our own opinion, some advice or tell how we relate to what they have just said, thereby shifting the focus to ourselves. The curiosity approach encourages us to be genuinely interested in knowing and understanding more regarding what the other person has just said by asking explorative questions. Mirroring is a very old counselling and coaching technique to show that what the person has said was truly heard. The listener responds to the speaker with: “Let me check if I got you. I hear you saying that . . . Did I get everything?” Participants are also taught how to empathise more effectively with one another.

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If we think of the racial and political conflict in South Africa as well as in the rest of the world, there is a great need for more tolerance, mutual respect and reconciliation. We quickly become afraid and then reject and oppose anything that is “other” to us. Yet, if we would empathise, we would realise that we all share the same fears and needs. As connection guru and Imago therapist Harville Hendrix once said: “[By your] experiencing empathy, the freedom to explore, trust, and insight can reset your default reactions to a more curious, tolerant, and confident stance.” Josh Ramsey, one of the Authentic Relating facilitators in Cape Town and group coaching/wellness yogi, very poignantly explained the nature of empathy using the metaphor of person being stuck in a well. A sympathetic passerby would yell down the well: “That looks awful. That’s really bad, man! Do you need anything?” But the passerby with empathy would respond: “Hey, you down there” and jump into the well themselves and experience what it is like to be stuck in the well. It is said: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” But firstly, you need a deep understanding and knowledge of yourself.

Only through knowing, understanding and empathising with myself first can I truly know, understand and empathise with another and normally there should be a good balance between the two. But it is easier to ignore our own feelings and pain by racing from one task to the other than to make time to take a hard look at what is going inside ourselves. Recently I heard a friend comment on this “crazy busy life in Cape Town”. We allow ourselves to be caught up in a rat race while complaining that there is not enough time in the day. We make our work our priority in the hope that it will ensure our existence. Anything regarding ourselves and our relationships takes a back seat. To compensate we kid ourselves by thinking that as technology continually advances, we are more connected than ever before: it is quicker and easier to send a friend a wink by WhatsApp or Facebook than to set a time and place for a cup of coffee and a personal get together. It is easier to hide behind a screen than genuinely be open about our hopes and dreams, and share them honestly. That demands quite a bit from us: time, energy, commitment . . .We have to show up and be fully present. We have to be real.

However, it is as if we want to be distracted and run from reality.

Is it that the reality of being human – the pain, the suffering, the emotions, the highs and lows – is too messy and complex for us to control? We prefer things simple, easy, convenient, fast . . .

but what we lose in the process is our ability to really converse and therefore connect. For, as Sherry Turkle said on the TED talk, “Connected, but alone”, “. . . We use conversations with each other to learn how to have conversations with ourselves.” This is what makes us human: our ability to use self-reflection in order to empathise with one another while living this crazy, beautiful, difficult thing called life.

In real connection we find the humanness that we share with each other. And from our humanity we discover that we are not alone, but rather all one.

Authentic Relating Games nights are held every Wednesday from 18:30 for a donation of R100. Join via the Meetup page here or join the community on Facebook here. Get in touch with any of the event hosts (Josh, Craig and Alexi) by mailing your questions to info@authenticrelating.co.za

[Main image: Royalty free stock photo from 123RF.com/ stillfx. Other images supplied by Craig Jaffa)

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