Pretending to be someone I’m not

A few Saturdays ago I spent three hours helping my first grader with her math homework. It was a frustrating for both of us. The concepts weren’t making sense to her. I didn’t understand why she couldn’t focus. It probably didn’t help that I was trying work while she completed her homework (my attention was divided).

That night, I thought about my failings as a parent and how I wished the afternoon had gone better. I started to think through alternatives to help her learn and keep me from becoming impatient. How might I make learning fun for her and focus my attention on teaching her?

The idea I settled on was to pretend to be someone else – to role play.

The next day (Sunday) I told my daughter that I had hired a private tutor. “He has extensive mathematical training AND he is British. Mr. Shepard, the patient, British math tutor.”


I set up a flip chart and we started working away on concepts (doubles, making ten, adding by 8, and so on). I used my best British accent and was very patient. I tried to think “what would Mr. Shepard do?” (by the way, I just invented Mr. Shepard that day). Mr. Shepard thought of lots of fun examples and was complimentary

My daughter loved this time and it was a blast for me too. She learned the concepts and finished her homework quicker than the previous day. Mr. Shepard has not visited since, but I’m sure he will come again when the time is right.

This exercise got me thinking about the value of role playing – pretending to be someone else is a great way to gain empathy and take a stand. You may be wrong in how you are approaching the role, but there is no middle ground.

Imagine that you and a colleague are working on a presentation for your CFO. What if one of you pretends to be the CFO? Mannerisms and all – really get into her head. What questions would she have? What other information would she want to see on slide 4? What parts would she like, what would she not like?

This is an exercise in empathy – by role playing you are consciously stepping out of your shoes and into your CFO’s shoes. Also, you are taking a leap. You have seen your CFO in action, but thinking like she thinks takes inference. These leaps lead to insights – seeing the world from a different perspective.



But what if you are wrong? What if you completely misunderstand how your CFO thinks and you bomb the presentation? This is great!

Imagine the next time you are preparing for a presentation? You’ll remember how the last stand that you took needs to be adjusted. If you had not role played, if you had not taken a stand, what would you have really learned from the meeting about your CFO?

Empathy is a continual learning process. Attempt, fail, adjust, attempt again, fail again, adjust again, etc.

So the next time you need some inspiration, patience, or want to approach a problem the way and expert would, just play pretend and gain instant empathy!


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