Get Into Character

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Get Into Character

Here is a simple exercise used by actors to learn about the person they are playing. It works wonderfully for leaders who want to know others better.


by Rick Maurer

I conducted a theater exercise in which I asked someone to play the part of a business owner. He couldn’t play the part. He said that at that time in history, people of his race and background wouldn’t be allowed to run a company. Therefore, he could not get into the role. If this is the situation for you, recognize that your ability to influence will be severely diminished if you can only see a portion of who that other person is.

Here is an exercise similar to one that actors use to learn more about the character they are about to play.

  1. Do whatever you need to do to feel like that person. Walk around as he/she might walk. Sit like he/she might sit. Embody his/her voice. Use this person’s mannerisms. When you speak, use the first person. Do not say, “He would say.” Always use the pronoun I: “I feel. . .” or “I think. . . .”
  2. Once you feel like you have the mannerisms down, respond to the following questions. If possible, say your answers out loud. You must participate fully in this exercise, so don’ t write your responses. Writing will take you out of the scene.
  • Who are you?
    Give a descriptive answer. “I am vice-president of information technology. I am a forty-nine-year-old African-American woman.”
  • What pleases you?
    “I love my work. I like to see complex projects done well. Quality is most important to me. I’d rather do it right than worry about coming in exactly on time or within budget.”
  • What do you find rewarding?
    (Stick with this one for awhile as you play the other person.) “It feels great when people in other departments recognize our work. When they say, ‘You folks solved an impossible problem,’ I like people to recognize that I’m very good at what I do and see how dedicated I am to this work.”
  • What frightens you?
    (Stick with this one for awhile.) “Sometimes I think the company expects too much of me and our department. I’m afraid that we’ll take on so much that nothing will come out all right. We have all these plates spinning in the air, and they’ll all come crashing down. Given the rapid shifts in our business, I sometimes worry that I’ll lose my job. That’s not a big worry, since I know I can find a good job, but I don’t want to have to move to another city.”
  • What comes to mind when you think about . . . ?
    (The character is talking about you.) “I don’t know. He’s a bit of a pit bull. He gets something in his mouth and never lets go. I kind of dread running into him. He’ s always in sell mode. He doesn’t seem to have any sense that other people have their own things to do. Here’s the real thing. He makes me feel like an idiot. If I were only as smart as he is, I’d come to the same conclusions. Well, hello, I’ve got a good degree and lots of experience too. . . And on the other side, he’s good at what he does. He’s dedicated and usually pitches in to make sure things are done right. I do appreciate that about him, but it’s hard to remember those good points much of the time.”
  • Do you respect this person?
    “Yeah, I guess I do for the reasons I mentioned before. But respect doesn’t mean I want to go dancing with him or socialize with him. I guess I respect what he brings to the table.”
  • How would you describe your relationship with this person?
  • What does this person miss when he or she looks at you?
    “He misses my competence. And he never seems to see me as a person, but only as an obstacle. And you know, even when we do have good conversations, it is always limited to something that he’s interested in.”
  • What do you wish this person would see?
    “I wish he would see that I rebuilt this department. When we used to be called MIS, people around here hated us. I brought in talented people like him who could meet customers’ expectations and turned our reputation around. I wish he could see that I’m good for this company – and that I’m a good person to have running IT.”

Take some time to shake off the character you were playing and then write down your responses to the following questions.

  • What did you learn about the other person?
  • What did you learn about yourself?
  • What did you learn about your relationship?
  • Where are the major differences between you?
  • Are there places where you could change without giving up the integrity of your goals and hopes?

This exercise can be extremely powerful. Don’ t take it lightly. If you completed the exercise and it didn’t elicit an emotional response, you may have moved through it too quickly. I would encourage you to spend sufficient time to become the character. Give yourself time to respond to all the questions. Make all responses in the first person as if you really were that character.

If you had a difficult time becoming the other person, two things could be at play. First, you may not know the person well enough to do the exercise. Second, he or she may evoke some Level 3 issues that make it difficult for you to want to explore the world from his or her vantage point.

© 2009 Rick Maurer – Rick uses his Change without Migraines™ to advise organizations on how to lead change effectively. He is author of many books including Beyond the Wall of Resistance. Recently, he created the Change Management Open Source Project, a free resource for people interested in change in organizations.