Who Are You?
The Multiple Layers of Self Identity
“We contain multitudes.”– Walt Whitman
When you ask someone “who are you?” they usually reply with their name and occupation. Our profession, especially in the US, plays a critical role in our identity. It takes further probing — asking ‘who are you’ over and over — to get past relationship status, music preferences or hobbies. And, finally, connect with our deeper self.
The first time I experienced this exercise was during a three-month leadership and personal development program at Stanford’s d.school facilitated by Bernie Roth.
Help people reconnect with the multiple layers of their identity by continually asking “who are you?”
This exercise is ideal to help people familiarize with others pretty quickly such as workshops with people from different organizations or team offsite where “knowing each other better” is key. It can also be applied to networking events.
People will realize that they are much more than their job, relationship status and hobbies– they will reconnect with the multiple layers of identity (both past and present).
Divide the team into pairs.
The exercise is pretty straightforward: one person asks “Who are You?” and the other responds whatever comes to mind.
The first person keeps asking “Who are you?” right after each answer. This goes on for two minutes, and then people rotate roles– the person who responded now gets to ask “who are you?”
Debrief the exercise.
What have you learned about yourself? What have you learned about your partner? How did the exercise feel? What have you discovered about our identities?
The exercise is simple, but most people struggle as time goes by. Initially, people share their usual labels but, as they dive deeper into their identity, it gets harder and harder.
The person that asks “Who are you?” cannot engage in a conversation. S/he cannot provide feedback or comment– though most people feel compelled to do so. The feeling of loneliness invites to self-reflection.
You will notice that some people change the tone while asking the question. That makes it more fun and interesting.
Advice people to be mindful of their body language– facial reactions can be perceived as judgmental.
The exercise is a balance between deep self-reflection and fun. Both parties learn a lot about each other while refreshing who they are.
- Reflect on the exercise
- Address the difficulty of getting into the deeper layers
- Notice that some people feel confident identifying with their job and other with their family or relationships
- Ask participant what they learned about themselves and others
- Invite them to reflect on the experience. How did they feel? What was comfortable? What was challenging? How did they react to what people were sharing? How did they feel about not being able to interrupt or provide feedback? How did it feel to continue having to address the same question?