Gary Ware

How to Use Play to Increase Connection with Facilitator, Speaker, Coach, and Founder of Breakthrough Play, Gary Ware

Gary Ware was working as a VP at a digital ad agency when he realized that being completely depleted, feeling broken, and having no drive to do anything was perhaps *not* normal. Gary was experiencing what many of us have faced, especially during the pandemic—burnout. So Gary took an improv class and realized play is what was missing in his life. On the podcast this week, Gary chats with Erica about his journey from burnout to breakthrough by incorporating play and games into the work day. He illustrates how applied improvisation and games help teams and colleagues unlock creativity, confidence, and better communication. Gary shares the challenges of reimagining in-person games to an online environment once the pandemic hit, signs an employee may be on the verge of burnout, why playing a silly game as a team before a client call can make everything go more smoothly, and why sense of intimacy must be created if we want to form genuine connection.


On his former position: “The vibe was, ‘You sleep when you’re dead. Hey, you know what, we’re here to work, we’re here to work hard.’ It was interesting because it was, ‘work hard, play hard,’ however there was no playing at all. When you work a 12-hour day and then you go home, the last thing you want to do when you go home is do anything other than sleep.”

“As a leader you can start to understand, are people showing up to meetings and *not* bringing their whole selves? And I don’t think it’s intentional. When you’re running at that [overworked] level for so long, you start to deplete yourself. Are people being a little bit more cynical than before? Those are some of the early signs that people may be starting to burn themselves out.”

“That’s the beauty of play. Play is pleasurable and when you’re in true play you want to share with other people.”

“We started creating psychological safety just by playing these silly games. We started seeing the purpose of, ‘Oh, wow, this is actually helping us listen better. This is helping us connect better with each other.’ And of course, performance increased.”

“One of the cool things about [the 5 Things game] is that it starts to prime your brain to look for connections, to look for these blind spots. And then when we would go into meetings, we would be more open to suggestions from our clients. We would actually see [more] ways that we could help our clients.”

“When the pandemic first happened and everything stopped being in person and went virtual, it was challenging. How can we create this intimacy when we are miles apart, on camera, and people are stressed out. And so I had to reimagine everything. I had to essentially dissect all my activities and say, ‘Alright, what’s the purpose here. Can it work in a virtual environment?’ But in the spirit of ‘Yes, and,’ I would go into these meetings, and I would just be quite frank with them, and I’d say, ‘Look, I get it. You’ve probably been on Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting, and the last thing that you want is to do some silly games.’ And I would just call out the current environment. And by doing that, it creates this level playing field of like, ‘Alright, cool. You’re not trying to sugar coat this situation like nothing wrong is going on in the world.’”

“When you create a sense of intimacy, that’s where the oxytocin happens. That’s where we get the dopamine and the endorphins and then we can focus.”

“With the companies I’m working with, how they’re looking at their office is almost like a clubhouse. ‘We’re all together. This is going to be the time when we’re going to connect. This is the time when we’re going to do things that are more experiential so that when we disperse, we can be more productive. We will feel like we made those connections.’”


Gary’s website, Breakthrough Play