5 Low-Stakes Authentic Relating Games to Deepen Connection
Being authentic with those closest to us can be the hardest. Here are a few games you can play to experience a deeper connection with friends, family, and flatmates.
Since I can remember, I craved more connection than I knew how to create.
As a school kid, I considered myself shy and awkward. I was that geek you’d copy your homework from — but not have much fun hanging out with.
The awkwardness continued through my teenagehood and into my adult years. Even with close friends and partners, I often mumbled my way through surface-level conversations. Getting to more juicy topics or activities seemed out of my reach, and only happened by accident.
The pandemic certainly didn’t help improve my relational skills. However, it made it painfully clear how much I was missing human connection. So when I stumbled upon an Authentic Relating course from Sara Ness, I didn’t hesitate. I went through the training and, for the first time in my life, I felt like I found the tools to create connection “on demand.”
But as I soon discovered, it wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed. It was a very different thing to use those practices with a bunch of strangers in an online course than to try them on with my friends or partner. Doing this with people close to me felt way edgier. As I introduced them to the idea of Authentic Relating (AR, for short), I noticed myself tensing up. I wasn’t sure if they’d be willing to go there with me.
They often felt awkward at first, too. However, each time we endured the discomfort, the rewards were bigger than expected. We discovered that, if we committed to playing an AR game no matter what, we usually came out of it feeling enriched and open-hearted. From that perspective, the initial discomfort didn’t seem like an obstacle anymore — it became the bonding agent of our connection.
In this article, I’ll give you an introduction to Authentic Relating and share five games you can try with your loved ones. Yes, it may feel edgy at first. But I’m confident that if a socially awkward, introverted person like me could make it happen, then so can you.
Before we go any further, let’s answer one important question.
Why It’s So Hard To Experience Authenticity With Loved Ones
Many people assume they should experience a sense of connection with close friends, lovers, or family members as their default state. But often, this doesn't happen.
In my experience, it’s actually been the opposite more often than not. Feelings of connection were easier to come by with a stranger or at the beginning of a relationship. That’s because I had nothing to lose. No strings attached means it’s easier to risk asking deeper questions, try on different ways of being, and be curious. All these things facilitate feelings of interpersonal closeness.
But the more time and energy you invest in a relationship, the more you want to preserve what you built together. Venturing beyond the established relational patterns starts feeling risky.
Psychologist Randi Gunther, Ph.D. explains what this may look like in a romantic partnership:
“As they get to know each other and that rate of new discovery slows, the partners become more concerned about the relationship’s future. One or both partners limit any threatening personal transformations and reward each other instead for predictable interactions. They become partners who strive to accept each other’s limitations rather than challenge them. Their initial explorations into unknown territory fall into sleep mode as the partners let the past define the future, and see those chosen limitations as true and lasting love.”
This is the case in many relationships, not just romantic ones. The longer a relationship lasts, the more established its unspoken “rules” become. Even if these rules don't serve you, it may feel scary to challenge them.
However, a certain degree of challenge and transformation is necessary if you want to feel connected to the other person. That’s why vulnerability became such a buzzword — it allows for new openings and changes in relational patterns.
This process of opening new territories tends to stagnate in long-term relationships. To some degree, this is to be expected. Luckily, there’s a lot you can do re-ignite the “exploration mode,” even in the longest relationship.
That’s where Authentic Relating comes in.
What Is Authentic Relating… and Why Bother?
In this article, I use the term “Authentic Relating” as defined by Sara Ness. Sara is the unofficial organizer of the AR movement, founder of Authentic Revolution, and a facilitator with over ten years of experience. In the video below, she explains what Authentic Relating is in less than two minutes.
Watch it now if you can. It will provide valuable context for the rest of this article.
If you can’t watch or listen to the video, here’s the essence of what Sara says:
“The thing Authentic Relating gives is a space where it’s safe enough to express more of our emotions, of the parts of ourselves that we don’t usually get to see in daily life. (…)
I think people should do it just because it gives more of a sense of possibility. Because that’s the other part of it: Authentic Relating forms incredible connections. When I’m talking with you from my inner sense of self, from the things I’m deeply passionate about, the things I’m afraid of, my insecurities, desires, what I’m really good at — all these things — you feel me more. You probably have versions of the same things and that’s what creates connection.”
Connection happens when you see yourself in the experience of the other person — and vice versa.
For example, a friend is sharing how she feels about losing her dog and this reminds you of the time your pet died. Or, as you express gratitude to your partner for how supportive they’ve recently been, they realize they feel the same way about you.
Unfortunately, as our relationships grow older, we often develop a lot of unspoken “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” around what’s acceptable to do and share. As a result, you may feel like only certain expressions of yourself are welcome — while others should be avoided. This is the very thing that limits the potential for connection.
For example: As a child, I was taught not to express anger in conversations. If I did, this made me a “bad person.” In my native language (Polish), even the words we use for “angry” and “evil” are the same. That means this emotion was demonized by the whole culture I was surrounded by.
As I grew older, I didn’t know how to express my anger safely. I was afraid that if I did, this would make my relationships fall apart. However, anger wasn’t the only experience I denied myself. Depending on the particular relationship and context, I also felt like I “shouldn’t:
”be too proud of myselfact
act silly and make jokes
speak too much or stay too quiet.
Everyone has their own list like that. The thing is, when you deny yourself the expression of these things, you also make it impossible for the other person to relate to them. The more “rules” you follow in a relationship, the fewer opportunities for connection
At the same time, breaking those rules also doesn’t seem like an option. It feels risky. So what do you do?
The way out of this impasse, I believe, is through games. The AR games can lower the stakes while giving you the best shot at experiencing the connection you’re looking for.
How AR Games Lower the Stakes While Still Offering Great Rewards
“Authentic Relating games are simple safe space to be real and create connection.” — Sara Ness
An AR game feels different than an ordinary interaction. In particular, these two changes open extra space for connection:
You pay more attention to each other because you’re in a structured activity together.
Your interaction is regulated by the game’s rules. This means the relationship’s unspoken “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” can move to the background.
The first change means it’s easier to tune out distractions and engage fully with the other person. The second change means more diverse self-expression is allowed.
That’s how the context of “playing a game” reduces the stakes of trying something new — even in a well-established relationship. Whatever happens, you know it’s just part of the game. Such framing helps you be honest and vulnerable with each other.
For example, saying things like “I feel angry,” or “Right now, my mind wandered and I didn’t fully catch what you said” often feels too risky for me in real life. But when playing an AR game, saying them is exactly the point.
When my friends and I agree this is what we’d be doing, we anticipate things like these to come up. Because of this anticipation, our capacity for discomfort grows. We’re able to hold space for the difficult stuff without taking it personally.
When the rules of your interaction are explicitly named, it’s easier to feel safe. Everyone knows and agrees to them in advance. In Authentic Relating, that’s called “creating a container” — i.e. setting up a context in which people can explore the interaction in line with pre-decided agreements.
You can find examples of Sara Ness’ agreements here and use them in your games. One overarching agreement I strongly suggest you use is the “commitment to connection” (a concept I learned in Sara’s course). It starts with acknowledging that because interactions and relationships are fluid, you can’t always control their outcome. But, regardless of the outcome, you can always commit to staying in connection.
To me, this means periodically checking my own, as well as the other person’s feelings, and compassionately communicating them whenever needed. As long as people do that, it should be clear if everyone is happy playing the game or whether anyone’s boundaries are being compromised.
At the end of each game, it’s a good idea to spend a few minutes debriefing. That’s a chance for everyone to share their experience, as well as to close the metaphorical “container.”
All that said, shall we get started with the games?
5 Authentic Relating Games to Create Connection With Your Loved Ones
The games I chose here are relatively low-stake. The level of vulnerability is up to you and your partner(s). If you’re unsure how deep to go, you can always start low-key and increase intensity when playing the game another time.
I recommend playing these games many times, even with the same people. This allows you to see how you and your loved ones show up differently on different days. This can make you even more aware of the various “parts” of yourselves — and, as Sara Ness put it, give you more sense of possibility.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the games.
Note: The credit for these games goes to Sara Ness and Authentic Revolution. I modified some of them (or their names) to work better for me and my friends. You can find all the games described below (and many more!) in The Authentic Relating Games Manual by Authentic Revolution (this is not an affiliate link.)
1. Crowdsourced Meditation
The purpose of the game: To notice and share your present-moment experiences with others. You and other players get to know each other’s realities, while also helping one another stay present.
The number of people: As many as you want.
Instructions: Gather everyone in one space, preferably sitting in a circle. First, everyone closes their eyes and takes a moment to become aware of their breath and body.
Then, people start naming whatever experiences arise for them in the moment. This can include immediate sensory experiences (like “I’m feeling a breeze on my cheek” or “I can hear a dog barking”), bodily sensations (“There is tension in my left shoulder” or “My fingers feel a bit tingly”) or thoughts and emotions (“I notice a judgmental thought” or “I’m feeling a sense of gratitude”). There are no limitations on what experiences people can name, as long as they’re referring to the present moment.
I recommend playing it “popcorn style,” which means there’s no order in which people have to share. Anyone can speak when they’re called to, as long as they avoid cross-talk.
The beauty of this game is its agility. You can go deep and vulnerable if you want to, but you can also “play it safe.” For example, if someone’s noticing their judgments, they can phrase it in several ways:
“I’m noticing a judgmental thought.”
“I’m noticing that I’m judging this game.”
“Right now, I’m having a thought about this game not making sense, and I notice a desire for it to end.”
Can you see the different “edginess levels” of each of those statements? Be prepared that those levels may vary from person to person. However, this isn’t a competition — the main point is to notice and name what’s coming up in the present. This is what allows players to establish a sense of a shared reality.
Suggested duration: 5–10 minutes should be enough to start with. If everyone is enjoying it, try playing longer the next time.
Possible context: This can be a great activity to kick off a gathering or date. You can suggest it after everyone arrives. It helps people ground themselves in the shared space.
If you’re planning to play more games later, this one is great to start with.
Notes: Some people may skip talking during Crowdsourced Meditation, and that’s fine. Silence is a very valid part of this game. Don’t worry if no one’s speaking even for a few minutes and hold the silence, so that genuine sharing can emerge out of it (or not).
2. The Noticing Game
The purpose of the game: Noticing and naming what’s arising in the interaction in real time.
The number of people: I suggest starting with two. The more comfortable you become with the game, the more people you can add and even play it in a sharing circle format.
Instructions: Sit in front of each other and bring your attention to the present. Agree that you’re going to talk to each other, but only about what you’re noticing here and now.
You can use two sentence stems for that.
“Being here with you, I notice…” — Complete this sentence stem with whatever is present for you right now — a feeling, sensation, thought, something you notice in your environment, or something you notice about the other person.“
Hearing that, I notice…” — Complete this sentence stem if you want to express the experience emerging in response to what the other person just said.
Take turns with your partner and use either of these sentence stems. Try to name your experiences as objectively and non-judgmentally as possible. You don’t always have to respond to what the other person said — you can simply notice your own experience. However, noticing what comes up for you as a result of your partner sharing is where the magic usually happens!
If you’re not sure how to play, I recommend this short demonstration from my friends, Sílvia and Michal (might be more useful than the one from the potatoes).
Suggested duration: Start with 5–10 minutes, as this can be quite intense in the beginning. Then, build up from there if you want to go deeper. It often takes a while to “warm up” in this game before you get to the juicy stuff.
Possible context: As this game touches upon the relational level of conversation — i.e. talking about how you relate to one another in real time — it’s a great chance to deepen your bond. It’s great for rebuilding connection with your partner or a life-long friend. Some people also find it’s a good way of addressing conflict.
Notes: Here, like in the Crowdsourced Meditation, expect periods of silence. When it happens, embrace it — in my experience, it’s often in that silence that authentic connection grows root.
3. The Empathy Game
The purpose of the game: I think of this game as “slowing a conversation down.” Because of clearly assigned roles and structure, you get a chance to separate the experience of being the speaker and the listener — and fully enter each role. Each participant can also get a better idea of how others perceive them.
The number of people: 2–3 people is ideal.
Instructions: Decide in advance who’s going to be person A, B, and — if you have a third player — C. Prepare a timer to time each part of this game.
The first person to speak is A. For three minutes, they’re sharing about a problem, decision, or idea that’s been on their mind recently. B and C don’t interrupt or ask questions and listen as closely as they can.
After A has finished, person B gets 1.5 minutes to summarize what they heard from A. Person’s B task isn’t to interpret A’s experience. They simply repeat what they heard in their own words.
Once B is done, C (if they’re playing) also gets 1.5 minutes to share. C’s task is to summarize the non-verbal cues they observed in A. This can include body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and so on. Again, this isn’t to make assumptions about A’s experience. C tries to be as objective as they can and name what they noticed on the tangible, physical level.(You can think of B and C’s roles as noticing things that a camera could capture — this is about as objective as it gets.)After that, it’s back to A again. They have 1.5 minutes to talk about how they felt receiving feedback from B and C.
This is how one round of the game comes to an end. You should then switch roles until everyone has played as A, B, and C.
Suggested duration: With two people playing, expect approximately 7–8 minutes per round (adding up the speaking time of all players + transition time in between). With three people, it’ll be closer to 9–10 minutes per round.
Possible context: This game allows you to become more aware of how other people perceive you. It can be used to get perspective on a problem you don’t know how to solve or a decision you’re struggling to make.
Notes: If you’re playing with just two people, decide whether person B will reflect the content of what A has shared, the non-verbal cues, or both. If it’s both, you may want to allow a bit more time (2–2.5 minutes) for B’s sharing.
4. The Google Game
The purpose of the game: Have fun and learn more about each other.
The number of people: 2–5. You can play with more, but this slows the game down which may mean it’s not as entertaining.
Instructions: Take turns in “googling” each other’s mind by saying the other person’s name + any phrase you like. It can be “John horse racing,” “John traditional Chinese medicine” or “John how to find true love in high school” — literally anything.
Then, John’s task is to respond with the top “search result.” It can come in the form of a personal story, something they recently read, or anything else that’s top of mind after they hear the “search term.”
If you’re playing with just two people, simply take turns in being the “googler” and the person whose mind is being “searched.” If there are more players, go around the circle and have people take turns “googling” the mind of the person on their right.
Suggested duration: As long as you enjoy it!
Possible context: This is a great game to play with someone you already know well but would like to learn more about. It works as a pastime on a road trip, a long walk, or when you’re waiting for something.
Notes: The option to say “no search results found” is always there — but try not to abuse it. ;) Most of the time, you can find something in your mind. Even if it seems silly to you, it may be interesting for others to hear!
5. Feedback Session
The purpose of the game: You can think of this game as an opportunity for accelerated self-discovery. It’s also a good exercise in giving and receiving feedback in a detached, non-judgmental way.
The number of people: 2–4. With more, this game may take too long.
Instructions: Give each player some time (up to 10 minutes) to prepare 3–7 feedback questions they’d like to ask others. The point of the questions is to get other people’s perspectives on the asker. It’s most insightful to ask about one’s strengths, weaknesses, habitual behaviors, and other aspects that are difficult to see clearly on your own.
After everyone has their questions ready, dedicate up to half an hour per person to gather feedback. I recommend going one player at a time. During their round, that player gets to ask questions to all or some other members of the group. After they’re done, move on to the next person and continue until everyone has had their “feedback round.”To get people started, you can prepare sample questions in advance. Players can use those questions as they are, get inspired by them, or come up with their own. Everyone should be free to choose their questions.
Here are the examples we used in Sara Ness’ course:
What are three words you’d use to describe me
What do you think I’m really good at?
What do you rely on me for?
What do I add to your life?
My most important values in life are [insert values]. Are there any ways you see me living out of alignment with these?
What might you want to see more of from me
Important reminder: Whatever people say in this exercise is just their opinion and not objective truth. Whatever feedback you hear, you’re free to decide what to do with it.
Suggested duration: up to 30 minutes per person, depending on the number of questions and how many people are answering them.
Possible context: This game deserves time and space of its own. I once did it with my housemates as an evening activity. Another time, I scheduled a call with a friend specifically to play this game. The bottom line is, you want to have ample time to think about the questions and answers, as this maximizes the value of the feedback.
Notes: You may want to put a voice recorder on while you play. This way, everyone can re-listen to the feedback later on and get even more value from it.
The Only Way You’ll Create Connection Is by Risking Rejection
Suggesting and playing those games with people you know well can bring up a fair amount of discomfort. I wouldn't expect it to be any other way.
By introducing AR games, you’re altering the established relationship dynamics. You’re introducing the element of novelty. Even though the games offer clear rules and a sense of safety, to get to that safety you first need to go through the uncertainty of proposing the game.
Will people be up for it? Will they like it? Or will they make fun of you for even suggesting a game like that? These may be the questions going through your head as you introduce the games. These were the questions I wrestled with, too.
There’s not much you can do to escape these doubts and discomfort. To create connection, you often have to risk rejection. Sara Ness talks about it in her article on community building — and her thoughts apply equally well to connection building:
“I realized that if I didn’t risk rejection to create community, I wasn’t going to get community. Because very few people out there were able to offer it to me. (…) Community is the act of putting myself out there — again, and again, and again — to ask for and create the things I want to receive.”
If the human connection is what you crave, potential rejection isn’t that big of a price to pay. The worst that can happen is… not getting what you don’t have anyway.
I get it though — feeling rejected is nothing pleasant, especially when it’s about something important. So, as a reminder and parting message, I’ll say this: If people laugh at you or reject the idea of playing AR games, it’s usually not because they don’t want to connect. It’s because they’re scared of breaking the unspoken “relationship rules” even more than you are.
If that’s the case, try to find compassion for them and yourself — and try another time, or with different people. But, there’s also a good chance that where you expect rejection, you’ll find enthusiasm.
You may be surprised by how much your loved ones are willing to play along. After all, you're not the only one who’s missing authentic human connection.